ASHBURN — Centered in the back end of the Washington Redskins’ locker room is a throwback area. A batch of metal lockers is set off from the lockers of players already on the 53-man roster. The section of grey, narrow stalls was dubbed “The Metal Jungle” by players on last year’s practice squad. These compartments are where the fringe players of a team throw their high-numbered jerseys, living their athletic dream in high-school level accommodations.
Most wouldn’t be sitting on their small stools in front of these aged lockers were it not for the preseason. But, the value of four games that don’t count in the standings toward playoff spots and result in injuries is again in question midway through the NFL’s exhibition schedule. For veterans, the games can be a nuisance, but also a polishing mechanism. For the undrafted, the injured from last year, or those trying to reboot their careers, the preseason can be salvation.
“As someone who was undrafted, it’s everything to me,” Redskins safety Jeron Johnson said.
Johnson led Boise State in tackles for three consecutive seasons. He was a four-year starter. Not being drafted left him afloat. He was signed by the Seattle Seahawks after the 2011 lockout. In his first preseason game with Seattle, he made two tackles, one for a loss, and broke up two passes, the latter of which was a deflection in the end zone on fourth-and-3 with less than a minute to play.
After wanting to hear his phone ring on draft night, Johnson sat not wanting any action from his phone at the end of that preseason. Because of what he did in those four games, he made the Seahawks as a backup strong safety to starter Kam Chancellor. He spent four years in Seattle and won a Super Bowl before signing with the Redskins in the offseason.
This preseason has been hazardous for the Redskins. Aside from the usual quarterback lamentations, the Redskins lost two key players. Tight end Niles Paul, freshly elevated to a starting spot, broke his left ankle. He is out for the season. Inside linebacker and special teams whiz Adam Hayward, the leader of one the weakest units on the team, tore the ACL in his right knee and is out for the year.
The Redskins have no immediate solutions to replace either. A bevy of young tight ends and recent signees will try to fill the lack of depth at tight end, where Logan Paulsen also sustained a season-ending injury. The search is on for anyone who can rival Hayward’s abilities on special teams.
Dynamic Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson tore an ACL and is out for the year. The Carolina Panthers lost up-and-coming receiver Kelvin Benjamin to the same injury. Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Phil Loadholt tore an Achilles tendon.
After the game in which Nelson was hurt, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers grumbled, “It’s difficult to lose a guy like that in a meaningless game.”
That statement is easier to make when you have a $110 million contract with $54 million guaranteed.
“That’s football,” Redskins defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “I think everybody’s making a big deal because of high-profile players, but that’s football. That’s something you can’t avoid. It’s not about the players who have solidified themselves in the league. It’s about young guys, undrafted guys to get experience before the real season starts.”
Redskins left tackle Trent Williams, like Rodgers, is among the financially secure. He said Tuesday that his reliance on technique makes the preseason important.
“It’s a time for me to sharpen my skills and get game reps without the beat down of a whole game,” said Williams, who did not play last week. “It’s like a live scrimmage. You get a quarter, two quarters in. I think that prepares you for the regular season. That’s just me.”
Coach Jay Gruden was scrutinized last week when he kept quarterback Robert Griffin III on the field in the second quarter of the second preseason game, resulting in the series on which Griffin was injured. Hayward was injured with less than two minutes to play in the first half of the same game, a circumstance which received less air time on sports talk radio but is worthy of question just the same.
Gruden cited the team’s abysmal record from a season ago as reason enough to reinsert the starting offense, and said he would have kept it out there longer if Griffin were not hurt. Like most coaches, Gruden views the preseason as an invaluable tool for shaping the roster.
“I think getting people some quality reps against great opponents and finding out how they play in game situations without a coach in their ear helping them out at practice [is important],” Gruden said. “‘Hey, line up in the A gap,’ or, ‘Hey, do this.’ They don’t have the coaches on the sideline helping them. You get to see what they know, how they translate what they know onto the field, how fast they play, what kind of effort they play with and what kind of production they play with. It’s pretty evident when you put on the tape who’s ready and who’s not, and it’s important for us to make good, sound decisions with our 53-man roster moving forward and our practice squad guys. That’s the most value that we get.”
Gruden would prefer one change.
“I just wish the first cut wouldn’t have to be until after the fourth preseason game, obviously,” Gruden said. “We have a lot of guys out here who have been busting their tails since OTAs, and to have to tell 15 of them, with the fourth preseason game a great opportunity to show what they’ve got, whether we keep them or not — other teams can look at them, and that’s unfortunate, but that’d be the only thing that I would change.
“I think the games are necessary. I think you hate to see any injury whatsoever to any player on any team, but you also need the work, and you can’t get that out here blowing a whistle quick. You’ve got to see who can tackle, who can break tackles, who can protect the ball, who can react and read, and I don’t know how else to do that unless you’re playing.”
That is the validation to many for preseason games. An argument that college football does not have a preseason, so the NFL could do without it, fails.
Gruden will try to maximize his information as he reduces the residents of “The Metal Jungle.” They’ll all hope there phone does not ring next Tuesday for first cuts — or the week after. A thin, aging locker never looked like such a welcome home. The preseason allows them to take up residency, even while it snaps the ligaments of others.