Youth is served
Redskins’ rookies making contributions ahead of schedule
In a Washington Redskins locker room given to spontaneous outbursts of song, occasional bust-out dance moves and assorted card games, the best members of this season’s rookie class stand out for not standing out.
Monday through Saturday, Brandon Scherff, Matt Jones and Jamison Crowder go about their work at Redskins Park with unassuming professionalism. But on Sundays, they’re drawing notice and surpassing the draft-day expectations of most NFL personnel evaluators, who didn’t project them quite as highly as RedskinsGeneralManager ScotMcCloughan did.
While four games are hardly enough to evaluate a rookie class, Scherff, Jones and Crowder, who were chosen in the first, third and fourth rounds of this spring’s NFL draft, respectively, haveshownthus far that the pro game “isn’t too big for them,” as Coach Jay Gruden puts it.
Scherff, a 6-foot-5, 319-pound left tackle from Iowa, started at the unfamiliar position of right guard on Day 1 and has stood tall on an offensive line that has paved the way for the NFL’s top-ranked rushing attack (139.5 yards per game) and has allowed just five sacks.
Jones, a6-2, 231-pound running back from Florida, has emerged as the muscle in a
three-man medley of backs that, rounded out by steady veteran Alfred Morris and speedster Chris Thompson, is carrying the Redskins’ offense.
And after relieving veteran Andre Roberts of punt return duties, the 5-8, 185-pound Crowder unseated Roberts as the Redskins’ starting slot receiver in Week 4. Then, in last Sunday’s victory over Philadelphia, Crowder hauled in 65 receiving yards to lead the team in the category — becoming the first Washington rookie to do that since tight end Jordan Reed did it in Week 8 of 2013. An all-pro in the making?
Those primary three aren’t the only rookies to make a mark, as outside linebacker Preston Smith, who spells incumbent Trent Murphy, registered his second sack of the season against the Eagles. And sixth round pick Kyshoen Jarrett has carved out a niche as a slot cornerback— a critical area of need entering Sunday’s game at Atlanta (4-0), given that the Redskins (2-2) will be missing both of their starting cornerbacks, Chris Culliver (knee) and De Angelo Hall (toe).
But to Dan Quinn, Atlanta’s defensive-minded, first-year head coach, Scherff is the one who jumped out most.
“You feel the toughness; you feel the quickness that he has off the ball,” Quinn told reporters of Scherff, whom he noted had been well-schooled at Iowa and wellpolished by Redskins offensive line coach Bill Callahan. “When you’re trying to identify, ‘Okay, here are some ways, whether it’s in pass protection, that he may have got beat,’ there’s just not many pictures of those there.”
Trent Williams, the Redskins’ Pro Bowl left tackle, said he saw a potential all-pro NFL guard the first moment he watched Scherff in action. Drafted by McCloughan as a prospective right tackle, Scherff was switched to guard during training camp.
Now, just four games into the season, Williams said Scherff reminds him of Dallas Cowboys guard Zack Martin, who likewise had been a tackle in college (Notre Dame).
Williams’s respect only grew after watching how Scherff carried himself at Redskins Park. Instead of acting as if he’d “made it,” as many top-10 picks do before they’ve even played an NFL game, Scherff blended into the woodwork, to the extent that a 320pound man can truly disappear. And in interviews with reporters, he offered a stock repertoire of brief replies that revealed little about himself and shifted the focus instead to his linemates.
“Off the field, he’s such a cool, humble guy that you’d never know he was a first-round pick,” Williams said.
Williams was impressed even more with Scherff ’s performance in Callahan’s offensive line meetings, which can be as grueling as his workouts.
“Sometimes he’s the only guy in the room who gets it right off the bat when Coach asks a question,” Williams said. “A lot of the guys, even myself, have to sit there and ponder for a minute: ‘Okay, letme see where we learned this at.’ He spits it out. He’s extremely tough on himself. He’s his worst critic. He’s extremely mature to be a firstyear player.”
Second-year player Morgan Moses, who stepped into Scherff ’s initial role at right tackle, put his best foot forward to make their pairing work.
“I told him when we first got together on the right side, ‘Look, I only got one start undermy belt. I don’t know everything. But what I’ve seen, I’ll communicate to you,’ ” said Moses, who said he considered Scherff “a hell of a talent” and “light years ahead” of where he was as a rookie in terms of his command of football.
Added Williams: “If he continues on this path, he could be Pro Bowl this year. You never know. We keep running the ball like we are, we keep protecting like we are, people are gonna notice the job he is doing.” A do-it-all running back
Jones’s physical gifts were obvious the moment he suited up in training camp, as he instantly became the offense’s biggest, most imposing skill player and a back who relished delivering hits as much as he prided himself on absorbing them. It was Jones’s hit on a Houston Texans rookie defensive, in fact, that triggered the all-out brawl that ended a training-camp scrimmage.
Nonetheless, Gruden cut back on Jones’s carries after he fumbled twice in a game this season. But the coach insisted this past week that the rookie wasn’t in his doghouse.
“He has never lost my trust,” Gruden said of Jones, who is second on the team to Morris with 43 carries for 200 yards and two touchdowns.
The key, according to Gruden, is that Jones continues to work on the ball-security drills that running backs coach Randy Jordan drills into his players.
As long as he shows strides, Gruden said, Jones should get a dozen or so carries each game to the established Morris’s 17 to 18. A hard worker, a hard runner
Though Crowder compiled an impressive résumé as Duke’s leading receiver and featured returner, many NFL scouts viewed his size, 5-8, as a liability.
In the eyes of McCloughan, as well as Redskins receivers coach Ike Hilliard, Crowder’s performance on film attested to a player with an enormous heart and the athleticism of a bigger man.
What jumped out at Hilliard, a former seventh-overall draft pick who played 12 NFL seasons, was Crowder’s quickness off the line and elusiveness in traffic.
“He’s one of those kids: You can put him in a phone booth and you probably wouldn’t get a hand on him,” Hilliard said.
That’s what Redskins fans saw in the third quarter of last Sunday’s game against Philadelphia. With the score knotted at 13 and the Redskins facing a third and 13, Kirk Cousins lofted a throw to Crowder as three defenders closed in. The rookie locked on to the ball and leapt, flashing the vertical jumphe was famous for in helping Monroe (N.C.) High to the state 1A basketball championship in 2010.
“I could feel the three guys around me,” Crowder recalled this past week. “I knewI was gonna get hit. But in the heat of the moment, I knewI just had to make a play.”
So he kept it simple.“Catch the ball,” he told himself. Brace for the hit “asmuchas possible.” “Hold on to the ball.”
The rookie impressed immediately in offseason workouts, making one head-turning play each day, Hilliard said. In meetings, he was quiet and attentive, taking notes as if preparing for an exam.
“He comes to work and he attacks everything every day like a pro,” Hilliard said. “He has an even-keeled demeanor, kind of ahead of his time in how he approaches it, which is refreshing. He comes to work, doesn’t say a lot. He just comes in and works. He’s only going to be more of a factor in our offense as we go forward.”
Trent Williams thinks right guard Brandon Scherff, top, “could be Pro Bowl this year.” Matt Jones, middle, has helped spark the run game, and Jamison Crowder, bottom, is quick and elusive.