At the Redskins’ rookie camp, everyone faces a learning curve.
Assistants in new roles still getting acclimated during rookie minicamp
Jim Tomsula’s eyes never leave his player. Arms in perpetual motion, the Washington Redskins’ defensive line coach demonstrates the precise hand placement and punch he wants from each of his four charges as they attack the tackling sled at Redskins Park. “Explode!” Tomsula barks. “Eyes up!” he adds. “Punch and post!”
It’s Day 2 of rookie minicamp. And as Tomsula instructs firstround draft pick Jonathan Allen, the 6-3, 286-pound defensive lineman from Alabama, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky observes their interaction.
The scene captured one small step in the offseason overhaul of the Redskins’ defense — a process that began with January’s firing of defensive coordinator Joe Barry and much of his staff; continued in free agency with the acquisition of veteran linemen Terrell McClain and Stacy McGee and safety D.J. Swearinger; and took a significant step in the recent draft, in which the team invested its top three picks on Allen, Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson and UCLA cornerback Fabian Moreau.
Following back-to-back seasons in which the Redskins’ defense finished 28th in the NFL, the infusion of talent was overdue.
But it falls to a largely overhauled defensive coaching staff — led by Manusky, the former NFL linebacker whom Coach Jay Gruden elevated from outside linebackers coach to defensive coordinator — to translate the promise of these rookies and recently signed free agents into improved performance.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Gruden conceded Saturday. “Any time you have a new defensive staff, I don’t care how experienced you are, it’s your job to get the team to jell. The secondary, linebackers, defensive line — they’ve got to play together as one, and that’s a challenge.”
In terms of talent, Gruden said Saturday he felt the Redskins did a good job addressing their defensive needs after letting linemen Chris Baker and Ricky Jean Francois depart via free agency, as well as adding sorely needed depth.
“I feel like the talent is there for them to work with,” Gruden said of Manusky and his staff.
Allen, recipient of the 2016 Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards as the nation’s top defensive player, was a dutiful student Saturday, listening attentively to Tomsula’s corrections and watching closely as the coach tutored college free agents Brandon Banks and Ondre Pipkins and tryout player B.J. Singleton.
“It’s fast, but I love it,” Allen said after completing his second day of on-field work as a Redskin.
As for Tomsula, the former San Francisco 49ers head coach known for his hands-on, exuberant coaching style, Allen said: “He’s everything you could think of. I don’t think one word could properly describe him . . . . He has done this before; I haven’t. So I’m just trying to take every little nugget I can from him and put it into my game.”
Gruden said he liked the strength and work ethic he was seeing in Anderson but added that the rookie linebacker had arrived a bit heavy, at 260-plus pounds. The coach voiced confidence that Anderson would soon regain “football shape” working with the Redskins’ strength and conditioning staff.
“The type of guy he is, he’ll work his tail off and get in shape,” Gruden said of Anderson, whose NFL draft profile lists him at 253 pounds. “All of these guys, they have been off really since the [NFL Scouting] Combine, so they are all a little bit behind.
Looking on was Moreau, the cornerback recovering from a torn pectoral muscle. Gruden offered no timetable for his participation but said the rookie would benefit from “mental reps” as an observer.
From Manusky’s vantage point, there wasn’t a defensive player on the field he didn’t consider a contender for a starting job — whether that was Allen and Anderson, the Alabama draft-day stars, or the long shots among the 40 or so players invited for tryouts.
“I was a free agent doing the same thing,” Manusky said in an interview after practice. He earned his spot on the Redskins’ 1988 roster as an undrafted free agent from Colgate and went on to a 12-year NFL career that included stops in Minnesota and Kansas City. “When I came into the league, I was expected to play. And that’s what I expect of every player once they get into the room. They’re expected to be starters.”
It’s now Manusky’s job to give them the technique, the skills and smarts to get there. To that end, Manusky said he felt great about his staff. He shares a history with Tomsula, having served with him on the 49ers’ coaching staff. And he worked last season alongside inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti and Chad Grimm, who was elevated this offseason from defensive quality control to outside linebackers.
“The way I look at it, they’re not coaches; they’re teachers,” Manusky said of the Redskins’ defensive staff. “That’s what I’m looking for, more than anything.”
Asked what sort of gains he thought were possible for the Redskins defense next season, Manusky declined to offer specifics, explaining that he wasn’t fixated on goals as much as he was process.
“Everybody in the NFL wants to go to the Super Bowl. That’s everybody’s goal,” Manusky said. “But it’s the system and the process that’s going to get you there. That’s what we’re working on.”