- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2014

For every undrafted rookie on the Washington Redskins’ roster, every unproven player occupying the temporary metal lockers in the center of the locker room, there is also a player like Akeem Jordan.

Jordan started 10 games at inside linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs last season and has 44 starts to his name over a seven-year NFL career. At 29, he is neither a wily veteran nor a talented prospect. But he, like many players of all ages, knows his chances of surviving Saturday’s roster deadline will likely not depend upon his performance as a linebacker.

“When they look at it,” said Kedric Golston, “they’re going to say, ‘Who can help us on special teams?’”

Special teams has traditionally been a proving ground for younger players, in many cases rookies trying to bide their time until opportunities arise on offense or defense. But for veterans like Jordan, who is now playing for his third team in three years, it can also be the difference between a long career and sudden unemployment.

Jordan, Adam Hayward and Darryl Sharpton were each signed this offseason in part to help improve Washington’s special teams unit, which was the worst in the NFL last season according to a statistical formula created by Football Outsiders.

Barring injury, none of the three are expected to receive significant playing time on defense this year. First-year coach Jay Gruden said Tuesday the competitions for backup jobs at all positions, including linebacker, will ultimately come down to special teams performance.

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“We’ve stressed the importance of special teams since [special teams coordinator Ben] Kotwica got here,” Gruden said. “I’ve backed him and made it clear that if it’s close in a position battle, we’re keeping the better special teams player. That’s just a fact. … It was obviously a problem last year, and we’re trying to rectify that. And you don’t rectify that by keeping guys that are not very good on special teams.”

For many players, the transition to special teams can be a challenge. Rookies are recently removed from their days as dominant college players, when they were frequently in the spotlight. Some veterans might also feel they are overqualified for special teams, or not give it their full effort.

Fourth-year tight end Niles Paul said success on special teams starts with the right attitude. He still leans on words of advice he received from his wide receivers coach at Nebraska, Ted Gilmore, who now holds the same position with the Oakland Raiders: “Do whatever it takes.”

“Nobody’s too good to be out there playing special teams,” said Paul, who was a wide receiver in college. “When you’re out there, take pride in what you do. It’s a very valuable part of this team, and a very valuable part of the NFL. As you could see last year, a good or bad special teams can make or break a few games.”

Jordan and Hayward, who started 13 games in six seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, already share this attitude. Though they each played key roles on defense, they were also the special teams captains of their respective teams last year.

“When you go out there, it’s about winning. The mentality don’t change,” Jordan said. “You go in there every week playing like a starter, and [on] game day, you play the role they give you. That’s how it is.”

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“It’s football,” Hayward added. “You still got to hit somebody.”

The mentality is the same, but Hayward said being a special teams player does take a bit more work.

Kickoff and punt coverages operate in a series of schemes just like offense and defense. Memorizing and practicing those schemes takes additional time during practice, which occasionally pulls special teams players away from positional drills at their primary positions. There is also an added level of preparation for special teams players before games, extra film to watch and opposing schemes to study.

“There’s no difference from offense and defense,” Hayward said of special teams. “A lot goes into it. A lot of film, knowing who’s going to run to make these plays, what we got to do to stop him.”

Jordan and Hayward were each on the starting kick return unit for the Redskins on Saturday night in Baltimore, a positive indication of their chances to make the final roster. Three other bubble players — safety Trenton Robinson, wide receiver Ryan Grant and linebacker Will Compton — were also on the starting unit. Sharpton missed the game as he continues to nurse a high right ankle sprain.

The Redskins will close out their preseason in Tampa Bay on Thursday night, and Gruden must whittle his roster to 53 players from 75 by 4 p.m. on Saturday. As he works through that process, the first-year coach will often use special teams as the decisive criteria for offensive and defensive players, young or old. The players understand.

“We all want to be the starters and the superstars, but you have to do what’s best for the team at that moment,” Golston said. “If you’re not a starter, you have to understand that special teams is kind of your lifeline on the team.”

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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