- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Quarterback Robert Griffin III will usher in the new era of Washington Redskins football Thursday morning when the team holds its first full-squad practice of training camp. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, with his athleticism, arm strength and charisma, provides reasons for optimism and hope following four straight last-place seasons.

Griffin’s evolution as the franchise quarterback will drive the Redskins’ narrative this season and in years to come. Coach Mike Shanahan named him the starter only 10 days after drafting him, thus settling any quarterback debate. But personnel issues at other positions remain unresolved.

Here’s a look at the top five personnel questions facing the Redskins this summer:

5. Who will win the starting free safety position?

Madieu Williams will try to hold off a group of challengers. Williams, 30, must prove his best days are not completely behind him. Coaches and teammates consistently praise his intelligence on the field and his professionalism, but as free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe proved in a disappointing 2011 campaign, that can’t completely compensate for a lack of physical prowess.

Tanard Jackson, 26, appears the most formidable challenger because he started 10 games last season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose head coach, Raheem Morris, is now Washington’s defensive backs coach. The Silver Spring, Md., native has the range and ball skills of a productive free safety. His biggest issues are availability coming off a rotator cuff injury and learning the Redskins’ scheme.

4. What will the offensive line look like, considering two first-stringers are working back to full health?

Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger’s speed is what makes him valuable, and we’ll have to see during camp how that comes back. He tore the ACL, MCL and medial and lateral meniscus in his right knee last Oct. 16. He participated in some individual drills in June, but let’s see if he can consistently maintain his pace when the pads are on and linemen are hitting.

On the other side, Jammal Brown’s mobility at right tackle will be scrutinized during camp after Shanahan issued a public challenge to him in January. Brown this summer proclaimed improved fluidity and range of motion after doing pilates and yoga during the offseason. Let’s see if that carries over to the field when pads are on and linemen are absorbing daily poundings.

3. What will become of tight end Chris Cooley?

Cooley, when healthy, is a productive receiver and blocker — perhaps Washington’s most complete tight end, ahead of Fred Davis. Cooley, who turned 30 this month, insisted in May that his surgically repaired left knee feels better than it has in years. The problem, at that time, was that he admittedly couldn’t run as fast as he used to.

Cooley’s speed will be a major factor in determining his place on this year’s team. Let’s see during camp if he runs well. If so, it’s fair to expect him to be a potent receiver, who is exceptional gaining yards after the catch. The Redskins already are exploring other tight end options, though. Niles Paul converted from wide receiver this offseason.

Cooley also is carrying a $6.23 million salary cap number this season, greater than all but two of his teammates.

2. How effective will Tim Hightower be coming off a torn ACL in his left knee?

Hightower is the most complete running back on the roster, and he’s positioned to be the starter if he’s fully fit. He is adept at diagnosing cutback lanes in the zone scheme, and he excelled last season at squaring his shoulder to the line of scrimmage and bursting upfield.

His health is so important because there are significant questions surrounding second-year backs Roy Helu Jr. and Evan Royster, the other two running backs competing for significant playing time.

Helu wore down last year after he became the starter in Week 12. Royster lacks the big-play ability of Hightower and Helu, but still he finds yards. Royster will have to carry a big load if Hightower isn’t fully healthy, and that’s not the Redskins’ best-case scenario because Helu and Royster are best suited to more tailored roles.

1. How will receivers’ injuries affect the unit’s ability to meet increased expectations?

Mike and Kyle Shanahan believe receivers Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan and Leonard Hankerson will join Griffin to transform their offense into a juggernaut capable of winning championships. There’s a potential major problem this season, though.

Neither Morgan nor Hankerson fully participated in the offseason program because of lower body injuries that required surgery last year. The injuries affect both receivers’ running, which could be a significant detriment to their effectiveness. Both expect to fully participate in training camp.

Hankerson tried to avoid surgery to repair the torn labrum in his right hip but had it in February. As we’ve learned from Jammal Brown, who had a similar hip surgery in 2009, it can have lingering negative effects involving mobility, flexibility and speed.

Morgan ran gingerly during OTAs and minicamp. He broke his right leg and tore ligaments last October. Surgery to repair the damage included eight screws and a plate.

Let’s monitor how well Hankerson, Morgan and Moss can run. The offensive improvement Washington expects in 2012 depends on it.

• Rich Campbell can be reached at rcampbell@washingtontimes.com.

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