Monday, July 26, 2010

Redskins position preview: Offensive line

Confidence Level: 4.5 out of 10

This is the fourth installment in my series of position previews leading up to training camp.

We’ll start with my hopeless prediction of who I think will make the final roster:

Offensive Linemen (9)
Tackles: Trent Williams, Jammal Brown, Stephon Heyer, Selvish Capers
Interior Linemen: Derrick Dockery, Casey Rabach, Artis Hicks, Chad Rinehart, Kory Lichtensteiger
Cuts: Edwin Williams, Will Montgomery, William Robinson, Clint Oldenburg, Eric Cook

The situation at tackle is infinitely better than last year, although there are some causes for worry. I am as excited as anyone to have a high draft pick like Trent Williams taking over the left tackle position. He is undeniably athletic and talented, and a good fit for Shanahan’s system. But as Hogs Haven pointed out, he is facing a murderer’s row of pass rushers this year. Even if Williams can stand up to these guys physically, he’s going to see some moves that he hasn’t imagined in his worst nightmares. Trent Williams will get beat at times, no matter how good he is. Fortunately, we have some running backs who take their pass protection very seriously, which is nice because they will be called upon to save Donovan McNabb from time to time.

Jammal Brown in undoubtedly a massive upgrade over Stephon Heyer and a significant one over Artis Hicks, But it appears he may be overrated despite his two Pro Bowl appearances, and he is also switching sides of the line (he played LT for the Saints) and is coming off a season entirely lost to injury. I’m glad to have him, but I am expecting competence rather than excellence. And of course the injury issue is unavoidable.

Brown’s addition is still a big help, however. One reason is that it puts us one injury farther away from a nightmare scenario. Now that we have decent options at LT or RT, if one tackle or the other goes Artis Hicks is the only guy who needs to be protected by the scheme. There are ways to compensate for having one weak tackle - with a little tight end help, some chips from the running backs, and judicious use of a moving quarterback. But as we saw last year, if you have two bad tackles your offense is simply doomed. So if Hicks had been a starter, the Redskins could have gotten by. But one injury to Trent Williams and Hicks would have been paired with Stephon Heyer, and that probably would mean the end of the Redskins offense.

Heyer, I’m afraid, proved last year that he does not have a future in the NFL, at least not as a starter. There is not a question of further “development” – he simply lacks the requisite physical strength and ability to stand up to NFL-caliber talent. My defining image of Heyer comes from the first quarter of the Eagles game at FedEx last year, when Eagles DT Broderick Bunkley literally tossed him across the field and used him as a wrecking ball against the right side of the Redskins offensive line. Now granted Bunkley is a very strong and very capable DT. Sometimes you will lose matchups against Bunkley – it happens. But for the left tackle to be thrown into the backs of the RG and RT, causing the entire line to shatter and resulting in an interception for a touchdown, is just not acceptable. Unfortunately this is just the worst example of numerous instances in which Heyer was proved to not be a physical match for his opposition.

There has been speculation that Heyer may not even make the roster this year. That wouldn’t shock me, but for now I have him making it. The fact that Hicks was (initially) plugged right into the RT spot showed just how little faith the new coaches have in Heyer. That’s why I’m assuming that if a starting tackle goes down Plan A is to slide Hicks outside and then find a replacement for him at guard. Selvish Capers is considered a very raw prospect with high upside (he’s a converted tight end, after all) so it’s hard to see him being viable immediately. That’s why I assume Heyer would be kept on to have one more tackle option who can play either position and at least has some on-field experience. But if Capers proves to be surprisingly game-ready, Heyer’s employment status could certainly be in doubt. William Robinson is also around at tackle, of course, but he actually got some game action last year and it was a traumatic experience that I prefer not to talk about.

The interior line should be mediocre, but solidly mediocre.

Dockery is more of a mauler and not ideal for the Shanahan scheme, but plays capably enough that LG will not be a problem. Not special, but not a problem. He has also proven durable, which of course is comforting in itself.

Rabach is a problem at center, but one that should be minimized by this offense. Even more-so than other centers, he just cannot physically handle NFL defensive tackles. Early in ’09, when the run game was completely in the toilet, Rabach spent much of his time being carried straight into the backfield and cutting off the running back before he could even make it to the line of scrimmage. But as the year went on the Redskins started calling more and more zone runs (because our guys could actually block those plays a little) and Rabach’s weakness became less and less prominent. When Rabach can make it off the line, he turns into a linebacker-seeking missile and is very effective at making solid blocks at the second level, which of course is exactly what Shanahan will ask him to do. So we should get effective center play this year, but it is important to be grooming a successor as we should not want Rabach to be the starter in 2011.

Right guard is an interesting situation. Although I seem to be lonely in this opinion, I was fairly happy with what I saw from Chad Rinehart last year. He played poorly early on, but when he got back into the starting lineup he proved, like Rabach, to be quite adept at the second level. I’m certainly not saying he’s going to be a perennial Pro Bowler or anything like that, but I figured he was a solid bet to win the starting RG job and to fill it more or less adequately. But much to my shock, the job was almost immediately handed over to Mike Williams (we’re talking football in this paragraph, I will address the unfortunate nature of Williams’ departure at the bottom of this post). Everyone agrees that Williams was beyond awful as a tackle last year, but my non-expert observations had him as a poor guard as well, especially in a system that prizes quickness and mobility. So when he got penciled in at RG I figured I must have overrated Rinehart or underrated Williams, though I can’t imagine what Shanahan saw that led him to the conclusion that Williams would be a viable starter. And when Jammal Brown arrived and knocked Hicks out of the RT spot, he walked right over to RG and made himself at home. It may technically be a competition, but it certainly appears to be Hicks’ job to lose.

I also feel reasonably comfortable with the depth on the interior line – and remember if Hicks is the primary backup for both tackles it makes it even more likely that this interior depth will need to be used. I can’t accept that my opinion of Rinehart was completely misguided, so I’m assuming he makes the team as a backup guard at least. Then Kory Lichtensteiger provides the versatility to fill in at center or either guard spot as needed. I have not seen Lichtensteiger play, but signing him was one of the first things Shanahan did after taking over so I’m inclined to think he can be pretty useful.

[On a side note, I’m glad a guy named Lichtensteiger is an interior lineman. He couldn’t play anything but interior line. Even offensive tackle would be far too glamorous for a guy named Lichtensteiger, and you for damn sure aren’t going to find a Lichtensteiger at wide receiver. Fullback could work, I suppose. LichtensteigerLichtensteigerLichtensteiger. He needs to get a starting job just so I can say his name more often.]

There are other options of course: Edwin Williams and Will Montgomery will both have a shot, and have an advantage because they can also snap the football if needed but of course Lichtensteiger (Lichtensteiger!) has center covered. We had the misfortune of seeing both these guys get some on-field action last year, and the results were uninspiring to say the least. Depressing, even. Now granted offensive line has one of the steeper learning curves at the NFL level, so it’s possible that they have more ability than has been displayed to this point. And I have given Rinehart credit for being much improved after a poor start. But until they get back on the field, I can only base my judgment on what I have seen to date. Draft pick Eric Cook is also a center, but he appears to be a bit of a long shot. It would be great if both he and Lichtensteiger are viable long-term replacements for Rabach, but it seems safer to assume he will be practice squad material or gone altogether.

[Another side note: If Mike Williams hadn’t developed his heart problem, and with well-placed injuries elsewhere, the Redskins could have ended up with the following offensive line: LT Trent Williams, LG William Montgomery, C Edwin Williams, RG Mike Williams, RT William Robinson. Safe to say that would have made the game reviews rather confusing. At least one of them would have had to go by “Bill,” and another by “Wilberforce.”]

I will close on Mike Williams. I have said a lot of nasty things about Mike Williams on this blog, but they were all related to on-field performance. While I was pessimistic about what the results would be, I was honestly rooting for him to make me looks stupid by excelling as the Redskins starting right guard this year. By all accounts, he is both a nice guy and wholly admirable. I have tremendous respect for the dedication and work ethic that were required for him to make it back into the NFL, and “blood clots near the heart” are certainly not the way anyone would have wanted his comeback to end.

Next up: Running backs

Previous position previews: Defensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs

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