Making the Leap Candidates

Anthony Lanier: Anthony Lanier arrived in Ashburn last season as an unheralded & relatively unknown rookie out of A&M. Despite garning some buzz throughout the summer of 2016, Lanier was viewed as a long shot to crack the Redskins' opening day roster.  However, the undrafted free agent impressed enough through training camp and preseason to snatch a roster spot from Matt Ioannidis, who the team spent a 5th round pick on.

Lanier stuck on the roster for all 16 games, but only appeared in a handful of games. Though his statistics won't reflect, Lanier showed enough promise as an interior pass rusher in the nickel package to give hope that he could eventually be a solid contributor.  Throughout this offseason, Redskins staff have offered rave reviews of Lanier's progress. New defensive line coach praised Lanier's work in the weigh room, claiming he's gone from a svelte 271 pound frame in February, to a burly 291-pounder squating 600 lbs this summer. If Lanier can build on his momentum from over the past 18 months and have another impressive camp (under Tomsula's tutelage), he can not only become the player the Redskins staff hopes he can become, but challenge for a starting spot down the line.

Spencer Long: Spencer Long has spent the better part of the past three seasons bouncing back and forth between filling in at guard for Chris Chester/Shawn Lauvao and filling in at center for Kory Lichtensteiger. He has never performed well enough in any of his three training camps to earn a starting spot outright. However, Long has accumulated 25 career starts over that span with increasingly position results.

In 2017, Spencer Long is done bouncing around. He enters training camp firmly entrenched at center and as the undisputed starter.  Long's game is still developing, but was showed marked improvement in his game in 2016, ranking as the NFL's 9th best pass blocking center last season. With 1.5 seasons-worth of starting experience already under his belt and entering the season and entering his fourth season knowing exactly where he stands in the offensive linemen pecking order, Spencer Long could join Trent Williams, Brandon Scherff and Morgan Moses as another elite member of the Hogs 2.0.  

S'ua Cravens: The 2016 2nd rounder spent last season showing his play-making ability as a situational linebacker. Cravens' penchant to knife through blockers to create havoc near the line of scrimmage, as well as check receivers on intermediate routes, we on display all year long as a hybrid linebacker. Cravens hinted that he would be moved to safety in a late-December tweet. The team later confirmed the validity of that tweet later that week, filling a huge need in the secondary and preserving Cravens' health and durability concerns at the same time.

Covering wide receivers in space and taking proper angles will be a concern in the switch, but I believe that Cravens has enough raw play-maker in him to make the switch work in the back end. In fact, being able to see the whole field from the strong safety position and come downhill should enhance what Cravens already does exceptionally well in run support. New defensive coordinator Greg Manusky would be wise to tailor the defense in such a fashion to accentuate Cravens' style of play, rather than trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. If they can do that, expect a smooth transition to safety and a big season for Cravens.  

EDGE Rusher Preston Smith: Draft pundits couldn't stop gushing over the Redskins stealing Mississippi State's Preston Smith early in the second round of the 2015 draft. And the young edge rusher made the good on his potential in year one, tallying eight sacks and showing flashes of dominance towards the end of the season. Hopes were high that Smith would step up in year two and snatch the full time outside linebacker spot across from Ryan Kerrigan

However, 2016 was a season of not necessarily regression, but inconsistency for Smith. Even after Junior Galette tore his Achilles tendon for the second straight year, clearing a path to a starting job, Smith failed to claim it losing out to Trent Murphy. Going into 2017, Smith is one of many edge rushers expected to compete for playing time. Assuming Kerrigan is still the undisputed starter, Smith will compete with incumbent starter Trent Murphy, Junior Galette & 2nd round draft pick Ryan Anderson, a man drafted to take his job, on the other side.  Smith is arguably the most physically gifted among the competitors.  He drew comparisons to Aldon Smith in his style of play in season's past. Relegating Smith to a pass rush only role with a loaded OLB room could play into Smith's strengths. If he can reign in the same ability he displayed in 2015 in a role that limited to accentuate his strengths, Smith could recapture the magic he lost in 2016,