May 21, 2012; Ashburn, VA, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) stretches during organized team activities at Redskins Park. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE

Handicapping Washington Redskins offseason position battles, Part One

Washington Redskins wide receiver Terrence Austin is among the offensive players fighting for a roster spot this offseason. Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE

With the Washington Redskins’ most recent minicamp wrapped up, it’s time to take a look at how the team’s roster is shaping up. Nothing is yet certain, obviously, but there’s been enough news out of Ashburn to begin reading the tea leaves and make some early guesses on who will be suiting up for the B&G in the 2012 season. Lets start with the offense:

Quarterback — No mysteries here. We all know, mercifully, that rookie quarterback/franchise savior Robert Griffin III will be the starter and Rex Grossman his veteran backup. Fellow rookie Kirk Cousins will fill the role of third-string, developmental quarterback.

Running back — So long as Tim Hightower is healthy, he is assured of a roster spot. Coach Mike Shanahan loves the physicality with which Hightower runs and will find his pass blocking, easily the best among Washington’s backs, invaluable in keeping Griffin healthy on long third downs. Coming off impressive rookie seasons, second-year runners Roy Helu and Evan Royster are also virtually guaranteed roster spots. It remains to be seen what role, if any, Shanahan envisions for sixth-round pick Alfred Morris, a short, compact runner described in scouting reports as a capable pass protector and good fit for the zone blocking scheme. It’s uncommon for teams to carry more than three tailbacks, so Morris is an obvious candidate for the Redskins’ practice squad. But he could also serve as a fourth runner and backup to returning fullback Darrel Young, who for the first time will not have to battle Mike Sellers  for the starting spot in camp. The Redskins have second-year back Tristan Davis and undrafted rookies Antwon Bailey and Lennon Creer under contract, so one of them figures to make the practice squad if Morris makes the 53-man roster.

Wide receiver — This figures to be the most intriguing position battle once the team reports for training camp. Free agent signees Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan are assured roster spots, as is second-year pro Leonard Hankerson. Given the praise that has been heaped upon veteran Santana Moss, who has reportedly slimmed down and looks as quick as ever, it’s a safe bet he’ll be on the team too, likely as the regular slot receiver. Garcon will be one of the two starting receivers while Hankerson and Morgan figure to duke it out for the second spot, though both figure to see plenty of playing time. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has said Moss, Morgan or Hankerson could all play in the slot, but Moss is the best fit there (slot receivers are typically smaller and quicker than starting split ends or flankers, capable of getting in and out of breaks and making quick-hitting plays, New England’s Wes Welker being the prime example). Expect whoever is not starting opposite Garcon to be listed as the fourth receiver. I think coaches want Hankerson, who is still recovering from offseason hip surgery, to win the starting job opposite Garcon in camp, and I expect he will. But the real battle in the wide receiver corps will be for the fifth and perhaps sixth spots on the roster. Last year Mike Shanahan technically carried seven receivers, but in reality it was only six since Brandon Banks was used exclusively as a return man. But Banks has been told he will have to make this year’s team as a receiver, a signal that Shanahan no longer plans on wasting a roster spot on a returner who cannot otherwise contribute. Since Banks is unlikely to prove more capable as a receiver than Anthony Armstrong, Terrence Ross or Aldrick Robinson, fans who fell in love with his breathtaking returns a couple seasons ago should not be surprised if Banks ends up playing elsewhere come September. The competition for the fifth receiver spot thinned somewhat when Niles Paul shifted to tight end, but it still figures to be a spirited fight between Armstrong, Austin and Robinson. Armstrong did little last year to back up his breakout campaign two season ago, but his proven ability to make plays downfield will probably be all that’s needed to secure a roster spot. Austin has flashed potential in the preseason but improved little in his two professional campaigns. Robinson, meanwhile, disappointed as a rookie last preseason, dropping several punts, but coaches saw enough raw talent in the speedster to retain him on the practice squad. Robinson has reportedly impressed so far this offseason, and it’s evident that Shanahan, who has drafted three players from Southern Methodist University in the last two drafts, respects the opinions of SMU coach June Jones. I expect Shanahan to ultimately carry six receivers: Garcon, Hankerson, Moss, Morgan, Armstrong and Robinson, leaving Banks and Austin the odd men out. Undrafted rookies Darius Hanks, Brian Hernandez, Sam Kirkland and Lance Lewis could all be practice squad candidates.

Tight end — Chris Cooley’s ongoing battle with nagging injuries and Paul’s aforementioned shift from wide receiver makes the tight end position an interesting offseason story line. In terms of who will make the team, returning starter Fred Davis, Cooley, Logan Paulsen and Paul are all virtual locks to make the team. How they will be used is where the intrigue lies. Davis, if he’s truly left his drug days behind him, proved to be a dynamic option before his season-ending suspension. If healthy, Cooley can be a steady, reliable option for Griffin. Paulsen is the team’s best blocking tight end, can make plays in the passing game sporadically and filled in admirably last year following Davis’s suspension. Paul didn’t catch many passes as a rookie wide receiver, but he has already drawn comparisons to Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, who made a similar transition from wide receiver when he played for Mike Shanahan in Denver, so don’t be surprised if you see a lot more of Paul in the passing game in 2012.

Offensive line — From the sound of things, Trent Williams and Jammal Brown, who has reportedly shown off newfound flexibility after taking up yoga in the offseason, are entrenched as the starters, as is left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, even though he has yet to fully recover from ACL surgery. So the positions along the offensive that that would seem to be up for grabs are center and right guard, but even then it’s unlikely that rookies Josh LiRibeus — who had some problems snapping the ball in minicamp — and Adam Gettis or second-year linemen Maurice Hurt and Eric Cook show enough to displace either center Will Montgomery or right guard Chris Chester by Week One. Still, LeRibeus figures to be the first interior lineman off the bench, even at center, where Cook struggled at times last year. Gettis has good potential in the zone blocking scheme, but he needs to get a bit stronger before he can handle NFL linemen for an entire game, and Hurt didn’t play well enough in place of Lichensteiger last year to show he was an upgrade over Chester. So this will be an unheralded group by the time the season starts, but one with better depth than in recent years. Tyler Polumbus and especially Willie Smith flashed some ability while filling in for Brown last season, but not to the point that you’d feel comfortable letting them block for Griffin full time. But I’d keep an eye on Smith, an former undrafted free agent who looked really good at times last season and could be a boon to the Skins in a year or two if he can develop into a solid starter. Those are the kind of finds teams need to occasionally make in order to maintain success year after year.

We’ll break down the team’s position battles on defense and special teams in the coming days.

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