‘Skins Have Depth This time it’s for real

NFL

The Star Democrat - - FRONT PAGE - By JERRY BREWER WPNS Sports Colum­nist

OK, so you have heard this be­fore. Or some­thing sim­i­lar. It’s a rite of NFL train­ing camp for the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins to make pub­lic dec­la­ra­tions that they’re more tal­ented than in the past, that this proves they have done good work build­ing the ros­ter and that they will be able to with­stand mis­for­tune be­cause of their im­proved depth.

And then the sea­son starts, things go wrong, and holes ap­pear ev­ery­where, invit­ing wa­ter to sink the breath­less pre­sea­son op­ti­mism.

So let me grab a shield be­fore throw­ing this out one more time. Maybe I should whisper it, too: They’re prais­ing their depth again, and this time, it’s true.

Make them take a lie-de­tec­tor test. In­vite your most skep­ti­cal friend over to ask them the tough­est ques­tions pos­si­ble. I’m not will­ing to say Wash­ing­ton is the most tal­ented team in the league — or even in the top 10. But when I look at the team’s depth — mean­ing the bal­anced dis­tri­bu­tion of tal­ent across the depth chart, the num­ber of le­git­i­mate po­si­tion bat­tles, the break­down of play­ers ca­pa­ble of mak­ing a mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tion on the field — I don’t see a ros­ter any­more that be­longs in the bot­tom half of the NFL. This is an aboveav­er­age ros­ter. This team isn’t

over­flow­ing with tal­ent, but it isn’t three in­juries from be­ing in trou­ble. Con­sider it func­tional NFL depth.

It has taken three sen­si­ble, dis­ci­plined off­sea­sons to get to this point. Some of the credit be­longs to for­mer gen­eral man­ager Scot McCloughan, who en­hanced this ef­fort dur­ing his two-plus years on the job. But the fran­chise started mak­ing strides be­fore McCloughan ar­rived, and since he was fired, it has re­mained com­mit­ted to a process that in­volves rea­son­able draft­ing, un­der­rated free agent sign­ings and a heavy em­pha­sis on player devel­op­ment. The re­sult is a team that McCloughan would laud as be­ing full of “foot­ball play­ers” — good, hard-nosed ath­letes who love the game. The play­ers aren’t flashy, but they have abil­ity and play with an edge.

The team has got­ten away from what hin­dered it for

much of Daniel Sny­der’s 18 years as the owner. Dur­ing his time, Sny­der has made plenty of splashy, high-priced sign­ings, but it made the team a top-heavy mess. There was too much pres­sure on a few stars to mask weak­nesses, which hardly ever works in foot­ball. Wash­ing­ton was good enough to be in­trigu­ing un­til some­thing went wrong. Then it would crum­ble be­cause its prod­uct was too flimsy.

It’s funny be­cause, even though this team is built in a more sus­tain­able man­ner, star power might be the thing hold­ing it back. Wash­ing­ton could use a cou­ple more top-50 cal­iber stars. It has a lot of C-plus play­ers, but to be re­ally good, it could use a few more all-pro tal­ents. That’s an is­sue to solve in the fu­ture, and for­tu­nately, the ros­ter fea­tures some young play­ers (Jonathan Allen, for in­stance) who could de­velop into such forces. But it goes to show that, even when build­ing the so-called right way, there’s al­ways a need to sup­ple­ment your ap­proach

with other meth­ods. Still, Wash­ing­ton is much bet­ter off op­er­at­ing this way.

“We feel re­ally good about the depth that we have on this foot­ball team in gen­eral, and there will be some great bat­tles,” Coach Jay Gru­den said. “It’s our job to make sure we give ev­ery­body am­ple op­por­tu­nity to make the team and make plays. Special teams will be a big role also. Who per­forms best on that? If it’s close, the bet­ter special teams player will prob­a­bly win out.”

The ad­van­tages of depth are even greater than special teams and in­trasquad com­pe­ti­tion, how­ever. Foot­ball has be­come such a game of mul­ti­plic­ity and speed. Po­si­tion ro­ta­tions and sub­groups are more im­por­tant than ever, es­pe­cially on defense.

You could ar­gue that there aren’t 11 de­fen­sive starters any­more. Fac­tor in de­fen­sive line ro­ta­tions and per­son­nel ad­just­ments (nickel cor­ner, dime line­backer) on passing downs, and you re­ally need about 15 start­ing-cal­iber play­ers.

And then you can talk about qual­ity back­ups.

A year ago, Wash­ing­ton didn’t have good depth, but it was im­prov­ing in that area. The depth was de­cent enough that out­side line­backer Ryan Ker­ri­gan played the fewest snaps of his ca­reer. He played 786 snaps in 2016, which was 71.2 percent of the de­fen­sive plays. As a sec­ond-year player in 2012, he played 1065 snaps, 99.1 percent of the time. But even with the re­duced play­ing time last sea­son, Ker­ri­gan fin­ished with 11 sacks, the sec­ond­high­est to­tal of his ca­reer, and he was a more con­sis­tent fac­tor through­out the 16-game sched­ule.

Ker­ri­gan, who turns 29 in Au­gust, hasn’t missed a game dur­ing his six sea­sons. But as he ap­proaches his 30th birth­day and 100th NFL game, it’s vi­tal that Wash­ing­ton con­tin­ues to take mea­sures to ex­tend his ca­reer and put him in the best sit­u­a­tions to make dis­rup­tive plays. Last sea­son was a pos­i­tive step. Al­though Ker­ri­gan takes pride in be­ing avail­able

and play­ing as much as pos­si­ble, he rec­og­nized the ad­van­tage of be­ing in a ro­ta­tion last sea­son.

“I could,” he said. “I know, head­ing into the lat­ter part of Novem­ber and into De­cem­ber last year, my body felt a lot fresher than it nor­mally did at that time of year. I could def­i­nitely see the ben­e­fits of it. It was help­ing me out to stay a lot fresher down the long haul of the sea­son.”

Over the past two years, I have thought Wash­ing­ton was dis­turbingly thin in the front seven. The tal­ent on the de­fen­sive line was weak, and the line­backer op­tions were sus­pect. Look at the front-seven op­tions now, and it speaks to how far the team has come. It could have a few le­git­i­mate NFL starters on the bench, in­clud­ing rookie out­side line­backer Ryan An­der­son, who could be a foun­da­tional de­fen­sive player for the fran­chise.

Through­out the ros­ter, there are only a cou­ple of ar­eas of sig­nif­i­cant con­cern, at least in terms of depth, right now: cor­ner­back

(be­cause you can never have enough) and backup cen­ter. That doesn’t mean Wash­ing­ton has great tal­ent ev­ery­where. But it has mul­ti­ple op­tions in most ar­eas that are at least ser­vice­able.

“You look around the dif­fer­ent po­si­tion groups, the dif­fer­ent rooms, and you’re like, ‘There’s not re­ally many holes,’ “Ker­ri­gan said. “We’ve got a lot of depth, a lot of ca­pa­ble guys. I think it shows on the prac­tice field.”

Gru­den can look at de­fen­sive line coach Jim Tom­sula fid­dling with op­tions and hold­ing an open com­pe­ti­tion with his play­ers and joke, “Well, hope­fully, there’s a method for Coach Tom­sula’s mad­ness right now.”

Later, Gru­den added: “We have a lot of good pieces. We just have got to fig­ure out the right ones.”

In the past, Gru­den hoped he had good pieces and tried to con­vince you to be­lieve with him. Now he talks mat­ter-of-factly. Maybe next year, depth won’t even be worth cel­e­brat­ing. Maybe it can be­come that nor­mal.

JOHN MCDONNELL/WPNS

Rookie out­side line­backer Ryan An­der­son, work­ing on a drill dur­ing train­ing camp, could be a foun­da­tional player, Jerry Brewer writes, and yet he might not be a starter.

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