It goes without saying that the third week in August is probably too early to get a real sense for what a team is going to look like when the lights really turn on and the games start to count. A lot of coaches, while ostensibly trying to win a game, are experimenting with different personnel combinations, lineups, and plays, creating situations to put on film so they can evaluate the 90 players on their August roster (a process that becomes a bit more interesting now that there’s no preliminary cut to 75). In that process, though, coaches – and by extension, fans – can often see trends that either raise, lower, on confirm their confidence in certain players and units. With the supposed ‘dress rehearsal’ tilt against the Cincinnati Bengals looming in a matter of days, the general feel of the roster is beginning to take shape.
Stock Up: Redskins Defense
Stats are a funny thing. If you haven’t seen the games, you might be tempted to look at the 20+ points scored by each of the Redskins’ preseason opponent and ask yourself whether the defense has really improved that much. As someone who has watched both games, however – throw the stats out. The difference is obvious, particularly up front. Not only is the top end talent obviously better, but this team is deeper at most, if not all, front 7 positions than it has been in a long time. I’m not saying this D is the ’85 Bears, but I am pretty confident that, as a unit, we won’t see the same level of embarrassment that plagued the 2015 and 2016 incarnations. They need to do a bit better job of not beating themselves and could use a bit more help, but it’s taken those penalties and (in last Saturday’s case) Aaron Rodgers being Aaron Rodgers for opponents to score on our first team. That’s a good sign.
Stock Down: Redskins Offense
There are caveats here – such as Jordan Reed’s absence and, if you listen to Kirk Cousins and Terrelle Pryor, the shallow playcall pool – but what Gruden has shown has been poorly executed, to say the least. The run game has been especially putrid, with guys getting blown off the ball and constantly outleveraged. Robert Kelley isn’t good enough to make something out of a run where there are defenders in the backfield before he’s got the ball. Few running backs are. The pass offense (not helped by the poor run game keeping them constantly behind the chains) has been very out of sync. The growing pains of having new receiving personnel after losing Garcon and Jackson to free agency, perhaps should have been expected, but nonetheless have been painfully obvious.
Stock Up: Phil Taylor, NT
Finally, we may have found a legitimate nose tackle.
Usually reclamation projects with injury histories haven’t worked in our favor – something I was very quick to point out when breaking down the nose tackle candidates in the lead-up to training camp. Chances are, though, if you’ve seen either of the first two preseason games, you’ve seen Phil Taylor make a standout play. He’s even been spotted putting a bit of pressure on QBs in the pass game. His health remains a concern, and I might in fact consider limiting his snap percentage so he stays fresher over the course of a game and the season (Joey Mbu hasn’t looked bad, by the way). But overall, this position is in an obviously better place than this time a year ago when we had Kedric Golston and Ziggy Hood penciled in as our two nose tackles.
Roster/role projection: Starting NT
Stock Up: Chris Carter, OLB/ILB
If there’s been a single guy that has jumped off the tape in the 2nd half of preseason, it’s been Chris Carter. A career journeyman that has switched teams and positions more than a few times, his arrival this offseason was not met with much fanfare. But fast forward to August and he’s been near or on top of the quarterback a lot in two games. He posting 1.5 sacks in the Packers tilt on Saturday, including a play where he was held, drew a flag, and still worked around the illegal block to bring down the quarterback – sans helmet. Of course, he’s waaaaay down on the depth chart – moreso if and when Junior Galette returns healthy. But he’s a lunch pail vet, and his special teams play and experience at inside linebacker also don’t hurt. Having five outside linebackers on the final 53 wasn’t out of the question coming into camp, assuming the Skins didn’t cut one of their three recent 2nd-round picks outright. With Trent Murphy out for the year with an ACL injury, there may be a crack in the door for Carter to make the 53. But if there wasn’t, Carter might have a very real shot of breaking the door down with his play.
Stock Up: Matt Ioannidis/Anthony Lanier, DL
Matt Ioannidis has popped off the tape to eagle-eyed observers over the last couple of preseason games. Last year’s fifth round pick started on the practice squad but was pressed into service early (and probably too early) because of the defensive line’s overall lack of depth. After an offseason to adjust to the NFL game and mold his body, though, he appears ready to contribute in a larger role. He was even spotted on the first team defense’s nickel down line in Game 2, which could well be an indication of his rising stock with the coaching staff.
Anthony Lanier has mostly been relegated to playing against 2nd and 3rd team offenses here in the early goings – and, perhaps to even a greater degree than expected – he’s looked at times like a man among boys. Other than perhaps Jonathan Allen, Lanier has the highest ceiling on the team as an interior pass rusher – particularly now his weight’s up into the mid-280s. He brings a dimension of length that has proved to be a real headache for opposing numbers this preseason. With his continued upward trend in only his second year out of Alabama A&M, it’s difficult to envision the team aborting his development.
Stock Up: Fabian Moreau, CB
Similarly to the situation with Jonathan Allen, the Redskins should perhaps consider themselves very lucky. The 3rd-round pick out of UCLA may have been taken sooner if not for a torn pectoral suffered at his March Pro Day. With a 4.35 40-yard dash as well as a host of other eye-opening test numbers, he brings a level of athleticism to a CB group that, in all brutal honesty, lacked it. His speed has shown up on the tape, too, being the first gunner downfield on Game 2’s first punt return (blowing up the Packers’ return man after a muff to give Niles Paul a clean shot at the fumble recovery), as well as being stride-for-stride with nearly everyone he’s been tasked to cover deep. The upside is definitely there, and incumbents like Fuller and Breeland would be best served to stay on their P’s and Q’s. Aside from the usual growing pains that come with being a rookie CB in the NFL, Moreau is no project player, and could be knocking on the door to receive significant playing time sooner rather than later.
Stock Down: Kirk Cousins, QB
Caveats about the overall offense notwithstanding, it’s difficult not to be a little concerned about Kirk if you’ve watched him. He’s looked more than a bit off, missing reads and throwing very inaccurately. The Redskins’ first team offense has mustered one touchdown, and that against the Packers’ backups in this past game. I’ve long felt like Kirk wasn’t getting enough reps in the preseason, and the early preseason struggles combined with last year’s slow start after a mostly idle August may be indicators that Kirk needs a healthy diet of reps to round into form. The Redskins’ first team offense went the entire first half in Game 2. I’d expect at least that much action for Kirk and the 1s in Game 3, if not more. It goes without saying that he has to play well for this team to have a chance at the postseason. Also, frankly, if he could get the ball to his plethora of weapons, it would make games much more exciting to watch.
Stock Down: Stacy McGee/Terrell McClain, DL
Given the situation with our defensive line coming out of last season, it’s only in hindsight that one can say that the signings of McGee and McClain might not have been entirely necessary. If someone had access to a working crystal ball in March and could have told Bruce Allen, Doug Williams, and the rest of the Skins braintrust that our second-year projects would take significant jumps and, more crucially, that top prospect Jonathan Allen would freefall all the way to our pick at #17, maybe one of these guys doesn’t get a contract. Maybe neither of them do. But because Nostradamus does not work in Ashburn, they did. McClain has been invisible. And McGee, while he's made a play or two for those paying attention, has mostly been visible in a way you don’t want to be visible. One could easily make the argument that the two touchdowns our first team defense has allowed were strictly because of his penalties. Although people like Washington Post’s Mike Jones have suggested one or both could be cut, that’s extremely hard to envision at this point. It’s the knee-jerk reaction, but it might not better the team in the long term. Experience still counts for something, for one. (We’re already likely to have one rookie and two, perhaps three second-year players featuring heavily into our rotation.) Second, with the dead money they carry, it may be worth the team’s while not to give up on them after one camp.
Stock Down: Maurice Harris, WR
Simply put, he hasn’t been available. Which wouldn’t be that much of an issue if not for the fact that guys like Brian Quick and Robert Davis have been, and have made a few plays here and there. As a fringe guy, Harris can’t afford to miss much more time. If he does, he could wind up losing a position battle by default.
All of the above said, it’s still early. Two preseason games isn’t quite enough to anoint anyone or do any panicking. Never forget the 2008 Detroit Lions, who went undefeated in preseason only to fail to win a single regular season game. We’re missing a few guys that figure to be key contributors once the games count (although Jordan Reed was just activated off PUP and may get some run on Sunday with the first-team offense.) Or the 2007 Patriots, who split the preseason tilts at 2-2 and then proceeded to tear a swath of scorched earth through the entire league, coming one game (one score, really) short of history. Realistically, this team probably sits in the middle, with a bit of wiggle room either way. But, again, we’ll only really know what we’re looking at once September hits and teams – the Redskins included – get out of the mode of minimizing needless casualties.