- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2017

RICHMOND — There’s a good way and a bad way to watch preseason football.

The bad way is to care about who wins.

The Redskins open the preseason in Baltimore on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Kirk Cousins and the starting offense should play just a series or two, then hand things over to Colt McCoy and Nate Sudfeld. Let this serve as your watch guide, with things to look for and pointers on how to get the most information out of the game. If you’re in the market for a prediction, though, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Pay (some) attention to who starts

This mostly applies on defense. The Redskins starting offense is clear, but you won’t see it Thursday because of injuries. Kirk Cousins’ top three targets Jordan Reed (toe), Jamison Crowder (hamstring) and Josh Doctson (hamstring) are all out. Watch Terrelle Pryor (it’s fun) and check out how Rob Kelley looks when tacklers are actually trying to bring him down.

On defense it’s a different story. Phil Taylor is the player who has done the most to establish himself as the starting nose tackle, and he’s listed as a starter on the team’s unofficial depth chart, but it wouldn’t be shocking if the Redskins went with Joey Mbu or A.J. Francis over him.

On the one hand, it’s not too important who starts in a preseason game, but it is one way for coaches to reward or motivate players. Between Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain, for instance, McGee has looked the better of the two Redskins free agency acquisitions along the defensive line. If McGee gets the starter treatment, and plays few snaps, it’ll serve as further proof that the Redskins are satisfied with what they’ve seen from him. The longer they keep someone like McClain out there, the more the coaches are saying “Show me something.”

McGee and McClain are easy to lump together because of how and when they joined the team (plus the whole Mc thing) but the same kind of thinking applies to many players. Inside linebacker Zach Brown has had a great camp, but is listed behind Mason Foster on the depth chart. Will playing time indicate that that’s an accurate hierarchy?

Outside linebacker and second-round pick Ryan Anderson has flashed immense talent and passion throughout camp, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he takes 20 snaps or more Thursday because he’s also looked lost at times, like any work in progress.

Watch the heavy-hitters

Whenever a running back rips off an impressive carry during training camp, a little warning bell should go off as a reminder that no one is tackling. Starting running back Rob Kelley cut five percent of his body fat this offseason and has looked muscular and powerful. Fourth-round rookie Samaje Perine has also impressed during camp, routinely displaying the power and forward momentum that could eventually help him push Kelley for the starting job, and should help in the red zone right off the bat.

Still, all that comes with an asterisk until they do it against another team. Perine, in particular, has a ways to go in the passing game, but that’s not going to be fixed in one game. Look to see if the Redskins backs are breaking into the second level and having success running up the middle.

On defense, watch the linebackers and safeties. The Redskins had the worst defense against tight ends in the NFL last season by yards allowed and receptions, and better play from those positions would go a long way toward fixing that. Preston Smith (ankle) is out and the likes of Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy, Will Compton, D.J. Swearinger and Su’a Cravens aren’t likely to play much. But do the Redskins have any depth in linebackers Martrell Spaight, Lynden Trail or seventh-round pick Josh Harvey-Clemons?

Look for down-the-roster standouts

The obvious direction is to look at McCoy and Sudfeld. McCoy has had a good training camp while Sudfeld has been iffy. Without Reed, Crowder and Doctson, though, there will also be plenty of opportunities for wide receivers like Ryan Grant, Robert Davis, Brian Quick, Matt Hazel and Zach Pascal. Grant is probably safe, but the other four are fighting for their spots in September. All have made plays, but also mistakes, working with the second and third team defenses in training camp.

Also look at fifth-round tight end Jeremy Sprinkle. He’s enormous (6-foot-5, 252 pounds) and, while he’s an in-line, blocking tight end, he’s made more than a couple plays with his hands over the past 10 days, including a touchdown catch from Colt McCoy. With veteran Niles Paul also having a good camp, Sprinkle will need to do enough to convince the Redskins it’s worth keeping four tight ends.

On defense, you probably haven’t heard much about undrafted safety Fish Smithson, but it caught our eye that Smithson has stuck with the team while other bottom-of-the-roster players at that position, Earl Wolff IV and Josh Evans, were waived and swapped for Stefan McClure and Tim Scott. DeAngelo Hall and fourth-round pick Montae Nicholson won’t play, so Smithson should get ample reps.

If Smithson makes the team it will be because he can contribute on special teams. He was part of the first punt return unit used during the Redskins special teams practice last Wednesday. Smithson ran a 4.51 40-yard-dash at his Kansas pro day, which would have tied him for sixth among safeties at the combine.

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