- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Limited by a meager amount of salary cap room in March, Bruce Arians knew the Arizona Cardinals would have to make some tough decisions. He didn’t want to let go of wide receiver Andre Roberts, who had developed into a reliable threat during his four seasons in the desert, but he knew the Cardinals couldn’t keep him, either.

“You just can’t pay them all,” said Arizona’s coach. “I was so happy when he got the money and got a contract and got into a heck of a good situation for him.”

Roberts will return to Arizona this weekend with the Washington Redskins, who signed him to a four-year, $16 million contract in March that included $8 million guaranteed and a $4 million signing bonus.

At the time, Roberts expected to be the Redskins’ No. 2 wide receiver, playing opposite Pierre Garçon in the scheme hatched by new coach Jay Gruden. Three weeks later, however, the Redskins signed wide receiver DeSean Jackson, a three-time Pro Bowler who had been cut by Philadelphia days earlier.

The move affected Roberts, whose role suddenly became not too different from what it was during his final season in Arizona. The secondary option behind Larry Fitzgerald in 2012, Roberts fell behind Michael Floyd, now in his third year, and saw his receptions and receiving yards cut by nearly a third.

“I feel like I was getting better, and I still feel like I’m getting better, so I had to take a little step back and I changed my role,” Roberts said. “At the same time, I still produced and I still feel like I can get better — and I’m getting better as a professional. It was frustrating my last year not having the stats that I wanted, but we were winning at the time, so you couldn’t be mad at that.”

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Nor could Roberts be mad at the situation he found himself in with the Redskins. Rankled and left feeling moderately disrespected this spring, he soon realized that his feelings were irrelevant in the team’s plans and focused on using it as motivation to improve.

He joined quarterback Robert Griffin III and a host of other offensive players in Arizona for workouts in late March, then joined the team for the start of organized workouts two weeks later. The spark he provided on offense was soon noticeable: A versatile receiver and precise route-runner, Roberts could line up wide or in the slot and showed little hesitation snagging balls on crossing routes.

Through five games, Roberts is tied for fourth on the team with 15 catches for 164 yards, including a season-high five catches Monday in a loss to Seattle. He’s also tied for 14th in the NFC with 14 first-down receptions, emerging as a reliable threat on third down.

“Andre is a total professional,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins, who worked extensively with Roberts during training camp and the preseason. “He works very hard, he’s very intelligent, he understands his role, he understands the details of route running, he knows how to get open and he doesn’t have a big weakness. He has great hands, he’s got good speed, he can beat guys over the top, he can win versus zone coverage. He’s a guy you have a lot of confidence in because you feel like he’s very versatile as a receiver.”

Roberts also knew that with his adjusted responsibilities on offense, he’d have to embrace a role on special teams that he had not held since a rookie in 2010. He’d be the Redskins’ return specialist — a job that he was barely challenged for throughout training camp.

Victims of continually unfavorable field position, however, the Redskins haven’t given Roberts much of a chance to return either punts or kickoffs. He has attempted just 10 punt returns this season, fair-catching eight others, and has returned just six kickoffs for a total of 125 yards.

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“When they moved the kickoff line of scrimmage up, and they’re kicking it, we understand as kick returners that there are going to be more touchbacks,” Roberts said. “These NFL kickers have these big legs, so when you do get an opportunity to return one, you have to try to do something with it and get it past the 20.”

Though the Redskins will travel to Arizona on Friday, a day earlier than their typical schedule dictates, Roberts didn’t know what he’d do with the extra time. He’ll visit with his parents and sister, who will also make the trip, but doesn’t believe anything will be different aside from the usual nostalgia.

“I expect to have a great game, just like I expect every Sunday,” Roberts said. “Just going to be another game, but obviously going back to my former team so it’ll be a little bit more exciting than any other.”

• Zac Boyer can be reached at zboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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