- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2011

Mike Shanahan took the Washington Redskins‘ coaching job in January 2010 expecting to make the greatest improvement in his second season.

He planned to spend his first year evaluating the group of players he inherited from Jim Zorn’s 4-12 campaign, and the big step forward would occur after he put his stamp on the roster.

Well, the 53-man team that Shanahan settled on Saturday night has his fingerprints all over it. Thirty-five players joined the Redskins after he did, so his accountability this season is increased.

That’s the natural progression of any new coach, and the accountability simply comes with the job. Still, we heard from players and coaches last season how the Redskins didn’t have the proper pieces in place for their scheme, especially on defense. That one won’t hold as much water this season if the road gets bumpy.

A few other things stand out when dissecting the composition of the roster. Most notably, Shanahan’s desire to get younger is clear.

The Redskins had the oldest opening-day roster in the NFL in each of the past two seasons. Before Zorn’s ill-fated final 2009 campaign, the average age was 28.02 years. That’s down to 26.62, young enough to ensure the Redskins aren’t the oldest in the league.

It’s an auspicious sign that Washington is attempting to build a sustainable on-field product, both in the short term as it relates to injuries and long term.

Eight of the Redskins‘ 12 draft picks made it, which is a strong percentage. Nine might have if Jarvis Jenkins weren’t injured. If all 12 made it, you’d question the team’s depth. If only two or three made it, you’d question the quality of the selections.

The preference for youth is evident in several specific player decisions. Keeping rookie nose tackle Chris Neild over veteran Anthony Bryant was a bit unexpected, but it’s clear now that, for some reason, Bryant never provided what Redskins coaches wanted.

He anchored better than Ma’ake Kemoeatu at the point of attack last season, yet coaches kept starting Kemoeatu, who wasn’t fully healthy. Many elements are weighed as part of those decisions, though, including work ethic, study habits and other off-the-field factors.

Bryant appeared stronger and more explosive getting off the ball. Neild is a hard-working, high-motor player, and that’s essential for a 3-4 nose tackle. But he was pushed back by double teams and hasn’t proved to be much of a pass-rushing threat.

With only six defensive linemen on the roster, Neild will have a chance to validate the coaching staff’s decision to keep him. As the only backup nose tackle, he’s going to have to play right away.

Each of the seven receivers on the roster can make a convincing case to be there, but the Redskins will need to beef up the defensive line numbers at some point, and the receivers at the bottom of the depth chart are low-hanging fruit. (Consider Brandon Banks a return specialist because that’s what he is.)

Donte Stallworth still can separate from defenders on shorter routes and run past them on longer ones, but Anthony Armstrong can do that better. Stallworth is an eight-year veteran, so he could help mentor some of the young receivers, but that could be sacrificed if they have to add defensive line depth.

One veteran said during the preseason that fifth-round rookie Niles Paul had outplayed third-rounder Leonard Hankerson. Paul seemed like a practice squad candidate, but it’s not difficult to see why they kept him on the active roster. He does a lot on special teams and is a capable run blocker. His hands are better than Hankerson’s, which isn’t saying much. He’s definitely worth developing as a James Thrash type.

Seventh-round cornerback Brandyn Thompson made a strong push for a spot during preseason games. He has solid ball instincts and can turn and run with receivers. Seventh-round outside linebacker Markus White is an explosive outside rusher who needs to diversify his pass-rushing arsenal and learn coverage responsibilities. Both players showed their potential this summer.

Shanahan also went young at the bottom of the offensive line depth chart. Tackle Willie Smith should be proud of making the team as an undrafted free agent in a year with no offseason program.

Shanahan spoke last week about the need to project players’ ability more this season than in past years, and maybe this is one of those cases. Smith is lanky, which affects his knee bend and overall athleticism. He ran a 5.5-second 40-yard dash at the combine, which is a bit slower than Shanahan’s standard. But at 6-foot-5, he has a 34 1/2-inch reach. Coaches liked enough about him to target him as soon as undrafted free agents were eligible to be signed in July.

On the other hand, the Redskins let Artis Hicks go, completing his fall from the starting lineup at the end of last season. Hicks struggled with his pad level, and it carried over to this summer. They might have kept him because he’s a veteran who has played guard and tackle, but they moved on.

Apparently, being old with a static skill set is not good enough for Shanahan’s Redskins. That by itself is a step forward.

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