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Writers Roundtable: Top Position Battles

Welcome to Redskins.com's Writers Roundtable, in which Brian Tinsman, Andrew Walker and Derrick King discuss and debate a Redskins question each week.

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Question: With Redskins training camp opening today, which position battles are you most excited to watch?

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Brian: Much of the team's offseason emphasis was devoted to improving on offense, but the keys to success in the NFL are the same as ever: control the clock and don't give up the big play. 

Despite a stellar front-seven last year, the Redskins' secondary was porous at times, highlighted by injuries and inconsistent play at the safety position. With little help over the top, the cornerbacks gambled more often and got exposed on big plays.

Over the offseason, the Redskins parted ways with LaRon Landry and Oshiomogho Atogwe, leaving the competition open for training camp.  Incumbents DeJon Gomes and Reed Doughty will be challenged by newcomers Brandon Meriweather, Madieu Williams, Tanard Jackson and Jordan Bernstine.

At cornerback, Redskins fans forget that the defense added a Griffin of their own this offseason--Cedric Griffin, to be precise. 

Griffin brings size (6-0, 203 pounds) and seven years' experience to Washington, allowing coaches to be creative with the cornerback packages.  He will challenge starters DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson for playing time, as he competes with reserves Kevin Barnes, Richard Crawford, David Jones and Brandyn Thompson for playing time.

All told, 15 defensive backs will take the field in training camp, a full one-sixth of the 90-man roster.  Redskins coaches will dig through quantity in search of quality, and will hopefully be forced to make difficult decisions on the final roster.

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Derrick:That's all well and good, and competition is more about talent than numbers.  With the amount of talent the Redskins have at tight end this year, the thought of arranging the depth chart will keep head coach Mike Shanahan up at night.

The Redskins field some familiar names in Fred Davis, Chris Cooley, Niles Paul, Logan Paulsen, Richard Quinn and Beau Reliford.  Health-permitting, the team could have an abundance of production this season at tight end, led by projected starter Davis.

Davis started 12 games and had a breakout season in 2011, setting career highs in receptions (59) and receiving yards (796), before a four-game suspension ended his best season as a professional.  He'll need similar on-field production in 2012 to help ensure success for quarterback Robert Griffin III.

After a disappointing 2011, Cooley reported to OTA's last month looking trim and healthy at 237 pounds, the lightest of his career.  Cooley appears determined to prove that he can remain healthy and still contribute to the offense at a high level.

The most intriguing candidate in the group is Paul, a converted, physical wide receiver.  The second-year player showed tremendous grit in blocking last season, and his speed makes him a weapon anywhere on the field.

Paulsen, Quinn and Reliford are all big, physical pass blockers with serviceable hands and undeniable upsides.  All three young players have the potential to contribute this season on offense and/or special teams and will vie for the fourth tight end position. 

Paulsen may have the edge in this battle, thanks to familiarity in the system.

Paulsen is entering his third season with the Redskins and played well last season while appearing in all 16 games with six starts.  Quinn, on the other hand, appeared in just one game with the team last year and Reliford is an unproven rookie who joined the team in May as a college free agent.

This battle should be fun to watch.

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Andrew:Sure, the team has everybody and their mommas trying out for secondary positions. And, yes, the tight end position has a special place in head coach Mike Shanahan's offense.

But if you're looking for the most important battle brewing, look no further than the Redskins' running backs. Shanahan said it himself: one critical element to aid Griffin III's development will be a productive running game.

Think about it: if the Redskins' running backs are effective, the defense's secondary will cheat up to the line of scrimmage, allowing Griffin III to sling the ball downfield.

An open competition at running back gives Tim Hightower, Roy Helu Jr., Evan Royster and Alfred Morris a real chance to become the starting running back in Washington.

Hightower is looked at as the guy who does pretty much everything well: runs with power, pass blocking and catching the ball out of the backfield.  Helu Jr. filled in admirably after the Redskins lost Hightower last season, evolving into a playmaker and receiver out of the backfield. 

Royster, also a rookie in 2011, showed his playmaking abilities after Helu Jr. got banged up down the stretch. Despite starting just two games, he rushed for 328 yards and a team-best 5.9 yards per carry.

The wildcard, to me, is Morris. The sixth-round selection (173rd overall) out of Florida Atlantic seems like an ideal Shanahan back: a late bloomer with the potential to develop into a star down the road.

That's what I got guys. Your rebuttals?

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Brian:Running backs and tight ends are good complementary components, but defense still wins championships.

Consider this: the top-four NFL defenses last year each made the playoffs.  Of those, all four were in the top-10 in passing defense.

The worst defensive playoff team last year was actually the New York Giants, who finished 27th in total defense during the regular season.  The difference in the playoffs?  They were the third-ranked defense, and fourth against the pass.

If the Redskins expect to make the playoffs, they need to find the right combination in the secondary.  There are a lot of new faces for coaches to consider this year, and a lot of veteran options will have to play for their jobs.

In the running back group, there is six years of combined NFL experience.  At the tight end position, there is 17 years of combined NFL experience.  In the secondary, there is a combined 55 years of experience, spread out among 15 players.

The Redskins already have one of the top front-seven's in the NFC, and I would expect them to improve in Year Two.  The secondary was spotty at times last year, and opposing offenses took advantage.  Think about the turning points in both games against Dallas last year: third and a mile, late in the game, and the defense couldn't find a way to get off the field.

After a fierce training camp battle, that should no longer be a problem.

It's a pass-happy league now (sorry, Andrew), and the competition in the secondary should be the most intriguing to watch.

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Derrick:That was eloquently stated, Brian, but you conveniently forgot a few important stats from last season.

For example, the New England Patriots finished 13-3 in the regular season and went to the Super Bowl last year with the 31st ranked overall defense in the league, as well as the next-to-last defense against the pass.  They did that by simply outscoring other teams, slinging the ball to Gronkowski and Hernandez.

Gronkowski finished sixth in the league with 90 receptions in 2011, and set NFL tight end single-season records for most receiving yards (1,327) and receiving touchdowns (17).  Even with a hobbled Gronkowski and a mediocre defensive effort, the Patriots fell just short of winning it all last season.

Hernandez caught 79 passes from Tom Brady for 910 yards last year, and reached the end-zone seven times in only his rookie season. 

You don't think Brady, a sure future Hall of Famer, appreciates his tight ends?

I hear what you're saying, but I'm still not convinced that the competitions at secondary and running back will be as intense as the battle amongst the tight ends.

There's an old saying: "A tight end is a rookie quarterback's best friend."  This adage will be undoubtedly put to test during training camp and preseason, especially in coach Shanahan's West Coast style offense.

Shanahan's offensive system features heavy doses of play-action rollouts, bootlegs and sliding pockets, where Griffin III will need to read and make throws on the move.  Anytime Griffin III moves outside the pocket, he'll want a tight end to drag over the middle of the field.

One similar player to Griffin III is Cam Newton, who put up record rookie numbers with Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen in Carolina. Despite lacking the athleticism of the Redskins trio, they combined for 82 catches, 995 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011.

So when you assemble a competitive and talented group of six athletes with a lot to prove and even more to lose (a roster spot or space on the depth chart), you yield the best competition of the 2012 training camp and preseason.

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Andrew:Brian: while defense may be one facet of championship teams, a multi-dimensional running game has been proven to be another.

One of the most important aspects of the Giants' Super Bowl run in 2011 was their improved rushing attach in the postseason.

The Giants' 89.2 yards-per-game and 3.5 yards-per-carry average during the regular season ranked 32nd – dead last – in the NFL during the regular season. In the playoffs, however, the Giants averaged 116.5 yards per game, ranking sixth among playoff teams.

They're not the only team of late to see how solid rushing in the postseason, despite what might have occurred in the regular season, is to winning championships.

The 2006 world-champion Indianapolis Colts, for example, ranked 18th in the league in rushing during the regular season with 110.1 yards per game before turning on the jets in the postseason, averaging 151 yards on the ground during the playoffs – and giving quarterback Peyton Manning more freedom to throw down the field.

Having a quality running game late in the season is paramount, and the Redskins have three backs with 100-yard performances to their names.  Staying healthy and doing it in January and February is all that really matters.

The Redskins running back that wins the training camp battle is unlikely to carry the load for 16 games, but they will get the first crack at the starting lineup.  Depth is key to this unit, and you can expect the battle to last all season long.

Gentlemen, this is definitely a good discussion worth having as training camp begins. All three positions – the defensive backs, the tight ends and the running backs – are critical to coach Mike Shanahan getting the Redskins back to the playoffs.

So let the healthy competition begin.

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