While much of the concern about the Redskins chances of contending has been focused on the development and performance of quarterback Robert Griffin III, the NFL is the ultimate team sport so one way or another RGIII is going to need help. Whether Griffin plays average, above average, good or great this season will be a big determining factor for the Redskins success or failure, but he can’t do it alone. The Redskins can feel pretty confident in the contributions of players like Alfred Morris, Brian Orakpo, Pierre Garcon, Trent Williams, Pierre Garcon and newly acquired DeSean Jackson, but outside of maybe two or three other players everyone is a question mark on this team. Here are the top 5 young players that really need to step it up this year for the Redskins to have a chance to contend:
-Though the Redskins drafted a pair of offensive linemen in the 3rd round, it’s possible that the only new starting offensive lineman this year for the Redskins is their free agent addition guard Shawn Lauvao. Lauvao has started a number of games for the Browns the past couple of years, but has generally been considered ineffective and wasn’t highly thought of by most analysts on the free agent market. The Redskins thought differently and made Lauvao one of the highest paid free agent interior linemen this offseason. It’s a big risk for the Redskins as there were numerous offensive linemen on the market with a better track record of success (and some of them cheaper), but what’s going to determine whether or not the Redskins made the right choice is Lauvao’s play going forward. If he can breakout and play up to the contract, the Redskins will be seen as having made a smart move. Lauvao’s breakout is desperately needed as the Redskins offensive line is currently Trent Williams and four question marks. The Redskins know that Williams is a top 5 (if not better) left tackle in this league, but the other four projected starters don’t give out a lot of confidence that they are up for the task. Last year RGIII like most young quarterbacks struggled to get rid of the ball early, and with a weak offensive line in front of him it led to a number of sacks and unnecessary QB hits. Griffin needs there to be more than one quality offensive lineman if he is going to be successful (and stay healthy) this season.
-Amerson had an up-and-down rookie year, at times flashing big play ability, or quality coverage skills, but many other times seeing him struggle mightily and giving up some of the biggest pass plays the Redskins defense allowed all season. Last year the Redskins were able to mainly match-up Amerson versus rookies, low end number 2’s and number 3 receivers. The Redskins also typically gave him some safety help so he wouldn’t be on an island too often. This year though the training wheels need to come off, as he’ll be counted upon to be the starter opposite DeAngelo Hall and he probably won’t get as much safety help this year. Now it will be a lot tougher to limit his match-ups versus quality receivers and he will likely face off with number 1’s from time to time when Hall is on the sideline. If the Redskins passing defense is going to improve, Amerson has to show consistency this season and can’t be responsible for so many big plays against him. You can excuse a rookie for some struggles, but now he needs to show he was worth the 2nd round pick they invested in him.
-Riley has started the past 2 1/2 years for the Redskins and his play has been between below average and average during that time. There are weeks or parts of particular games where he makes a number of big plays, but overall those were too few and far between. With London Fletcher’s retirement, Riley now becomes the top ILB in this defense and it appears he’ll be responsible for the play calls. While Fletcher’s level of play started failing him the past couple of seasons, his instincts and leadership were still off the charts. He did a nice job of putting players in the right position to make a play (it didn’t always happen due to the lack of talent). Riley is now going to have to take over that role, and he really hasn’t shown himself to ready to handle it. Riley’s problems on defense (either against the run or in coverage) don’t have anything to do with his athletic ability or speed, but rather his reaction time and instincts. He reads plays late and ends up being exploited. Now that could even be a bigger concern without Fletcher there to help him. Riley’s really going to have to step up to give the Redskins at least one decent inside linebacker this season.
-Jenkins and Baker are listed together, because they are both pretty much in the same boat. They are young guys who have flashed potential, but have shown little consistency to maintain a quality level of play over the course of the season. They figure to be battling it out for the 3rd starting defensive line job to go along with Barry Cofield and Jason Hatcher. Whoever loses that battle will still be highly counted on this year as they should become the top rotational lineman on the team. Unlike most positions the defensive line rotates quite a bit, and the Redskins may look to even rotate their players more than in the past this season. In addition to seeing a lot of rotation, it’s also a position that has a high injury rate, so it’s a safe bet that your top two back-up defensive linemen will end up seeing the field quite a bit. Both Baker and Jenkins need to step up their level of play when they are on the field, and now with the Redskins defense looking to be more aggressive and the addition of a quality lineman like Hatcher, there is no excuse for Jenkins and Baker to be inconsistent this year. They will have the green light to attack more often this season and they aren’t exactly going to garner major attention from the opposing offense. For them it’s not just about sacks or tackles for a loss, as their measure of success is if they can push the pocket against the pass or close the hole against the run. They might not always be as prominent on the stat sheet, but how much of an impact they make this season is going to be important for the success of this front 7.
-Unlike the other 5 players listed above, Thomas is not expected to be a starter or to see significant playing time this season at this point. Right now the starting safeties are projected to be Ryan Clark and Brandon Meriweather, and unlike say along the defensive line, safety is not a position that traditionally rotates. So barring the starters being out or ineffective, that third safety isn’t going to see more than a handful of plays each week. The Redskins though aren’t a typical situation, and both starters have some question marks that could open up serious playing time for Thomas. Clark has actually been pretty healthy and has seen his production remain at a good level, but he’s turning 35 this season and his play could fall off at any point now in his career. Though he hasn’t missed more than 2 games since 2007, as players get older the injuries seem to pile up more. Clark though isn’t the real concern, as Brandon Meriweather is the safety whose availability and effectiveness is very much in question. Over the last four seasons Meriweather has been benched by two different teams, missed basically an entire year due to a series of knee injuries culminating in a torn ACL, and was a major liability last season who was also suspended due to illegal hits. While Meriweather is still capable of making some splash plays, he gives up too many big plays and commits too many penalties to justify a starting role. Right now he’s ahead of Thomas, but if his play doesn’t improve from the past couple of years, he will likely find his way onto the bench once again and Thomas will have a real shot. The Redskins are desperate for improved safety play, so if Thomas can step up when that opportunity presents itself, it will go a long way to improving the Redskins defense.
-Reed is a little different than the 6 players listed above as he’s already proven that he has the talent to produce at a high level. Reed’s issue is that he needs to stay healthy so the Redskins can benefit from his skill set for 16 games. Reed doesn’t have the greatest injury history going back to college, but hopefully the concussion issues are behind him this season.