Training Camp Preview: “Size” and “Upside” Key Words for New-Look Receiving Corps

As the 2017 version of the Washington Redskins’ wide receiver unit started to crystallize around late spring, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself a bit as I wondered what our resident slot receiver extraordinaire Jamison Crowder might be thinking as he entered the position meeting room.  Jamison Crowder is about 5’9” if the guy writing up that particular profile is feeling generous, so it’s fairly likely he’s never been the tallest man in a huddle.  Nowadays, though, a difference that may not have been so pronounced with his position-mates a year ago, becomes fairly glaring if you put him next to the rest of the guys likely to make this season’s 53-man roster.

Before we go into the particulars, I would be remiss not to address the elephant in the room; our corps lost a massive chunk of production to free agency.  Both of Crowder’s co-starters on the outside departed for large paychecks.  Pierre Garcon, who will be 31 by season’s start, went to the West Coast to join former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and the retooling San Francisco 49ers.  Despite much of his team being in flux, including the quarterback position (where Kyle, Garcon and the rest of the offense may or may not be waiting for a certain signal-caller to hit the open market next year), Garcon finds himself in an enviable position.  The 49ers are long on cap room and short on offensive talent, which means Garcon will see most of that 5-year, $47.5 million contract.  As the 49ers work on bringing in young talent to build the offense, he’ll be the elder stateman in Kyle Shanahan’s receiver room, with knowledge of the scheme that dates back to joining the Shanahan-led Redskins offense in 2012.  

The other significant departure was that of DeSean Jackson.  Jackson, an infamous speedster whom one could easily argue has been the most dangerous deep threat in football over most of his nine-year NFL career, signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  There, he will team with a rising star at the position in Mike Evans and the rookie phenom tight end OJ Howard to serve as the core of third-year QB Jameis Winston’s arsenal.

While mourning these losses is understandable, I think it’s important to be objective about what we lost.  Garcon brought an edge and a physicality that coaches would like to have from all of their players.  53 guys with Garcon’s attitude and some degree of talent could win a large number of games for you.  That said, Garcon was a bit above average at every major element of being a wideout – not good enough at any one thing that he was wholly irreplaceable.  He wasn’t slow, but he wasn’t fast.  

As for Jackson, he did have a couple of elite traits in his blazing speed and uncanny ability to adjust his run path to a deep pass (no doubt helped by his history in baseball, where he was considered a draftable prospect by MLB as a high school outfielder).  Although with those traits came some issues.  He was small, and played like a small guy.  In return for the gamebreaking deep speed that would often create room for teammates to operate, you often had to live with him making decisions to preserve his body on the field of play and not embracing contact.  He was so subpar at blocking in the run game, even as receivers go, that Gruden often elected to take him off the field entirely during run plays.  This creates a massive tactical issue because it doesn’t take even the most untrained eye long to notice such a pattern.  Lastly, durability was a problem, as could have been expected because of his small frame.  He missed some games due to injury, and was often less than effective in others because of nagging physical ailments.

Finally, the combination of the average-height Garcon and the smallish Jackson and Crowder created very small throwing windows in the red zone and was likely at least a reason that the Redskins too often settled for field goals there last year.

That brings us to the replacement plan for the outside targets, which showed a clear strategy going back almost a year and a half now.

Drafted 22nd overall in 2016 out of TCU, arguably over prospects who would have filled more immediate needs, Josh Doctson was always meant to be the heir apparent to either Garcon or Jackson at the very least.  Most of the fans that panned the pick failed to understand that, while it wasn’t a defensive player, it essentially gave us the freedom to hold about $9 million against the cap this past March, which probably turned into desperately needed defensive pickups like Zach Brown and D.J. Swearinger.  The fact that Doctson only played spot duty in two games last year due to lingering Achilles inflammation did not alter that plan in the slightest.  It just made everyone involved a bit more nervous because of the lack of NFL game action coming into this season.  Also, it’s hard to imagine fans weren’t reminded a bit of the general misfortune this franchise has had taking receivers in the top half of the draft.  Leonard Hankerson, the disastrous 2008 Draft involving Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly… and if you want to go back a bit further, Rod Gardner and Michael Westbrook.  All indications are, though, that the pain that hampered Doctson’s training is now a thing of the past.  Which means, as hard as it perhaps is, we should stop thinking about the injury and start thinking about the sort of prospect we drafted in 2016 to begin with.  Here’s what we do know about Doctson.

Josh Doctson is 6’2”, 206 pounds as of last listing.  Many people thought he was the most well-rounded, if not the best overall, receiver in last year’s draft.  Aside from needing a bit more strength and coaching in NFL technique, he checks all the boxes that you would want in a well-above-average starting WR in this league.  He’s competitive and confident, but not showy.  Strong hands, long arms, and a combine-best 41-inch vertical show up on his TCU film in his ability to win contested 50/50 balls at the high point.  6’2” isn’t overwhelmingly tall on paper, but his long arms and leaping ability will still give him (and his quarterback) access to throws many NFL corners won’t be able to defend.

And then you have Terrelle Pryor.  The former Brown has a strong case to have his picture in the dictionary over the words “athletic freak.”  Entering the league as a dual-threat quarterback in 2011, his Pro Day performance saw him run a 4.38 in the 40-yard-dash, which is nothing to sneeze at for an athlete of any size, let alone a guy who is 6’4” and at the time weighed in at 240 pounds.  Without equivocation, Pryor is one of, if not the most impressive height-weight-speed specimen the Redskins have ever had at wide receiver.  Having only picked up the position full-time a couple of years ago, he’s still a touch green when it comes to the nuances.  But his growth has been meteoric, and his natural talent combined with his ever-evolving technical skill in the form of a 77-catch, 1007-yard 2016 campaign.  The fact that this took place on the Cleveland Browns, who have long been a byword for football futility, particularly at the quarterback position, makes it even more impressive.  Pryor’s also an extremely hard worker, often seen absorbing workouts and techniques from elites at his position and adapting them into his own training regimen.  28 and only entering his second full year at WR, Pryor hasn’t even scratched the surface of his ability yet – a potentially terrifying prospect for anyone tasked to cover him.  Josh Norman, who got one of his more difficult matchups from Pryor last year, can probably attest to that.

Also, don’t put it past Jay Gruden to put Pryor’s background as a mobile QB to use in the offense.  Pryor’s a true triple threat as a weapon, and to see him log TDs in all three categories (passing, rushing, receiving) would not be out of the question.

Jamison Crowder, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, will man the slot again this year after an impressive first two seasons out from his record-breaking collegiate career at Duke.  He’s diminutive, a fact thrown into sharper relief by the height of his newfound partners in the aerial attack, but this is offset by his ability to create separation with route-running savvy and downright filthy footwork.  Lions CB Darius Slay became one of his more infamous victims on a slant route last season, and one can only imagine Crowder (who has also quietly become one of the best punt returners in the league) will be looking to add more pairs of ankles to his trophy case this year.

Admittedly after this point, there’s a bit of a dropoff, but there’s also some intrigue.  On every sports team you love, there’s probably one player that coaches seem to like – and you as a fan just can’t figure out why that’s the case.  On the Skins, Ryan Grant probably fits that description as well as anyone.  Grant’s done little to nothing of import since being drafted in the fifth round by the Skins out of Tulane in 2014.  Yet, if you talk to Jay Gruden, it almost sounds like he’s expecting the second coming of Jerry Rice to emerge any moment now.  However, three years in at this point, it’s much more likely that Grant is what he is, and that what he is, isn’t really anything special.  Because he’s got experience with the offense and the coaches like him, he’s likely to make the roster.  Although I’m not sure if he should.  Once you get down to this part of the depth chart, where players will typically be limited to spot duty if they play at all, I personally prefer those spots be occupied by guys with higher upside.  Ryan Grant is a lame duck anyway – he’s in a walk year, and even if he manages to have a half-decent season, you’re not likely to re-sign him based on the small sample size.  Even if you do, he’ll cost a couple million dollars a season against a mid-round draft pick who could likely give you the same or better for $500,000 or so.  Also, I’d hate to see a high-upside project player cut because the coaches are fixated on a guy with 39 receptions over three years.

Like Maurice Harris, for instance.  Harris is green, but he’s also long, with strong hands.  More importantly than that, though, he just seems to ‘get it’ as far as playing receiver.  It seemed like the few times Kirk found him last year all in big spots.  And honestly, since there’s been a concerted effort to bring more height to the outside, his 6’3” frame probably profiles there much better than does the 6’0” Ryan Grant.  He didn’t seem to be on many radars coming out of California last year, which caused him to go undrafted, but the beauty of scouting for wide receivers is most college teams have and use a lot of them – so, naturally, someone can fall through the scouting cracks only to prove to be a very productive pro.

Which brings us to Robert Davis out of Georgia State.  Having athletic ability off the charts doesn’t necessarily guarantee a receiver will transition to the pros seamlessly, but as Terrelle Pryor has demonstrated in his move from QB, it certainly aids with the transition.  That’s likely what the Redskins had in mine when they took Davis in round six this past spring.  Many small school prospects quite literally don’t measure up in the pro game.  For Davis, this is not the case.  He goes 6’3”, about 220, and posted a 4.44 in the 40-yard dash along with several other very eye-opening numbers for a guy his size.  He may well have enough raw physical ability to win a few matchups on that alone until his technical development in the pro game catches up.

Dark horses like Old Dominion’s Zach Pascal and reclamation project Brian Quick round out the ranks, and it’s hard to say that anyone beyond Pryor, Doctson, and Crowder is a stone cold lock for this roster.  When the dust settles in September, don’t be entirely surprised if the depth chart is filled at the bottom by an unfamiliar name or two.