Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Daryl Gardener is long gone. So is Dan Wilkinson. Brandon Noble, the man who was supposed to replace one of the Washington Redskins’ departing defensive tackles, is out for the season with a torn left knee. And in their place are a hodgepodge of journeymen and unheralded youngsters, none of whom could have imagined they would suddenly be under the spotlight.

Such is the position in which the Redskins find themselves on the defensive line, with so much up in the air and only 17 days to sort it out before the New York Jets come to town for the Sept.4 season opener at FedEx Field.

Said end Renaldo Wynn: “We’re pretty much back to square one.”

Washington returned to the practice field yesterday after a disheartening weekend in which Noble suffered three torn ligaments and a dislocated kneecap. That prematurely ended his season and left the Redskins scrambling to plug the gaping hole in their defensive line.

Club officials are mildly interested in a handful of potential replacements from around the league, but at the moment they appear willing to let their current crop of backups compete for both starting defensive tackle spots.

“That’s what we’re planning right now,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “We’ve got the guys here, they’re working hard and we’ll get the most out of them.”

That meant a starting tackle tandem yesterday of Jermaine Haley and Bernard Holsey, a couple of modest offseason pickups who have limited starting experience in their nine combined NFL seasons.

Haley, who was penciled in as Washington’s starting pass-rushing tackle (called a “three-technique”) since Wilkinson’s release on the second day of training camp, moved over to Noble’s nose tackle position. Holsey, signed the week before camp started, came off the bench to take the other spot.

“They’ve both done a good job,” Edwards said. “We brought Jermaine in here to play the nose, which is his natural position. So we’ll move him back there and we’ll move Bernard up. [Holsey] has done a good job of coming in and picking up things, and had a good game this weekend.”

The Redskins have been especially pleased with Haley’s performance during the preseason. The club hoped he would make some small impact when they signed him away from Miami as a restricted free agent (surrendering a seventh-round draft pick in the process), but the 30-year-old exceeded expectations.

“You always go to the park thinking that you’re going to play, in case somebody goes down,” said Haley, who started nine games in three seasons with the Dolphins, none last year. “You just have to be prepared and ready to step up.”

With no attractive alternatives at nose tackle on the available market, the Redskins appear content to hand the starting job to Haley, though he will continue to be pushed during practice by former Maryland standout Del Cowsette and second-year lineman Greg Scott.

Holsey’s place in the starting lineup isn’t nearly as secure.

James Cannida, a five-year veteran who signed last week, will be given a shot to move up to the first team, though he’s still in the process of learning Washington’s system. Bernard Jackson, a second-year lineman who impressed the staff during training camp, could ultimately figure into the mix, but he suffered a high ankle sprain on Saturday and is expected to be out for a month.

“We’re just trying to find somebody to fill that open spot,” said Wynn, who has some experience at tackle but is not likely to move from his starting left end position. “It’s a great opportunity for our young guys. Preseason games for them are going to be like real games and they’re going to be graded accordingly. So when they’re out there, they definitely have to make it happen.”

The Redskins will still look outside the organization for help, but the club appears increasingly less optimistic it can find a starting-caliber player at a reasonable price.

Washington remains interested in Denver’s Lional Dalton, who has been put on the trading block. But NFL sources said yesterday the club is not willing to give the Broncos anything more than a conditional draft pick for Dalton.

Under such a scenario, Washington would be required to offer up compensation for Dalton only if he makes the roster. The fact that the Redskins question whether the beefy tackle would make the team at all speaks volumes about their interest level in him.

It also would appear to be an encouraging sign for those tackles already on the Redskins’ roster who have been thrust into an open competition.

“I think we’ve got the guys in house,” Cowsette said. “We’ve got a lot of good players inside, a lot of guys who can make plays. I don’t think we need to go out and search for another defensive tackle, because we’ve got everything here.”

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