With training camp set to begin next month, Redskins.com previews the current state of the Redskins' roster, continuing today with the team's specialists.
The Washington Redskins will enter Richmond with the same group of specialists from last year, hoping to build on consistency and improving from last year.* *
ROSTER SUBTRACTION(S):- N/A
CURRENT STATE OF THE UNIT:
The Redskins will return the three core members of their specialist unit for their third consecutive year together in kicker Dustin Hopkins, punter Tress Way and longsnapper Nick Sundberg.
Last season, the unit had another strong year, the only big blemish coming from a missed field goal that the Redskins would have won in overtime at Wembley Stadium in London against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Otherwise, Hopkins had a productive year, especially considering the Redskins used him nearly twice as much as 2015 due to their persistent struggles in the red zone. He connected on 34-of-42 field goals, hitting a long of 53 yards, while making 36-of-39 extra points.
Hopkins connected on 12 consecutive field goals to start the year, which included a five-field goal performance against the Giants in Week 3, earning him NFC Special Teams Player of the Week. Throughout the team's three games in September, Hopkins was also a perfect 5-of-5 on extra points, landing him NFC Special Teams Player of the Month.
His strong leg continued to make an impact on kickoffs, too, averaging 62.9 yards per kickoff and forcing 65 touchbacks and only 25 returns, the same amount he let up in 2015 on 12 fewer kicks.
Despite the team's red zone struggles, Way was barely used in 2016 due to the prolific nature of the team's offense, which rarely needed Way's services in the middle of the field. Way punted just 49 times last season, down from 70 the year before, for an average of 38.9 yards and placing 15 of them inside the 20-yard line while allowing zero touchdowns.
Rounding out the group, Nick Sundberg returns to longsnapper after signing a multi-year contract extension this past offseason. He only missed one game last year – the Redskins brought in a backup against the Packers – and his consistency was rewarded with a new deal.
On the returning end, wide receiver Jamison Crowder looks like he will continue to take punts, as he did throughout offseason practices. Last season he made 27 returns and averaged 12.1 yards per return, which included his first touchdown, an 85-yard sprint to the end zone in Baltimore.
For kickoffs, Chris Thompson remains a sure option along with Will Blackmon, who filled in for Crowder once last year on the punt team. Thompson took 17 kickoffs back for 360 yards (a 21.2-yard average). Blackmon had some explosive runs when the ball came to his side of the end zone, taking four kicks back for 109 yards, including a 45-yard scamper.
WHAT TO WATCH:
If the Redskins have their way, both Hopkins and Way won't be needed too often for punts and field goals, believing that the offense will continue to put up strong numbers even with the departures of some big name wide receivers.
Hopkins and Way, like last year, won't have any competition at training camp, a sign of trust from the organization and belief in their skill level.
The overall success of the unit will be led again by special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica, who continually gets the best out of his group. It won't be too hard to find him on the field in Richmond, just listen for his raised voice.
"He has just brought accountability," Sundberg said in the offseason. "His military background, I know guys talk about that a lot, but it's really brought quite a bit to the meeting room. Not just the meeting room but the practice field. His practice temp is better than anything I have ever been a part of. That's what you want from a special teams coach, you want practice to be harder than games and it is. When we go out on the practice field on Wednesdays for punt periods I get a better rush on Wednesdays than I do on Sundays. It's tougher on Wednesday than it is on Sunday and that is what I want from my coach and he absolutely brings that."
Sundberg was thrilled to stay with the Redskins with his new contract, mostly because it was a much easier process.
"I think it was a lot tougher four years ago when I did my second deal," he said. "Because I was coming off of a broken arm that year and wasn't really sure what they thought. That one took like a month, this one took two days."
The three specialists are usually inseparable when it comes to practice, an indication of the unity they have on and off the field.
"We do play a lot of ping-pong," Sundberg said. "We've created quite a bit of competition in the locker room, as you've seen and it's not just us three. Reed, Trent, Jamison, and all sorts of guys playing ping pong and trying to climb up the leaderboard. We have a leaderboard on the door to the equipment room…it's definitely been good for us."
REDSKINS IN RICHMOND: