Summer's here, and that means football season is right around the corner for the Washington Redskins. With training camp on the horizon, here's a look at the Redskins offensive line prospects this year.
Will this finally be the year that Jon Jansen earns a Pro Bowl nod? All he did last year was return from a season ending Achilles tendon injury in 2004 to start eighteen straight games at right tackle for the Redskins. A feat made more spectacular when you consider that with the left-handed Mark Brunell at quarterback all year, Jansen was the blind-side tackle. Even more spectacular still, was that he played most of the season with a broken thumb; some of the season with two broken thumbs. The right thumb required a little off-season surgery, but the Redskins longest tenured player has said that he's had a good off-season and is fired up about starting 2006.
With a year under his belt at blind-side, expect the Redskins leader to improve on an already stellar performance last year and have his best season as a Redskin. Apparently he's only going to get invited to Honolulu when people outside of Washington start realizing what an integral part of the Washington Redskins Jon Jansen is.
When Randy Thomas went down last season, it was the worst of ironies. Thomas had rode a solid wave of continued improvement through the whole season, and had reached the point of domination. No Redskin lineman has pulled with such voracity since the days of the original Hogs. The Redskins were running over teams, especially late in games, and much of it was on the heels of a pulling Thomas. He was blowing up defenders, and paving highways for Clinton Portis until he broke his ankle (fibula) against the Cowboys. It was a devastating blow to the Redskins offense.
But Thomas is also ready to go; though he may see his action limited this preseason to ensure that his ankle has had plenty of time to heal. He has to be licking his chops thinking about the possibility of making even more tackles and blocks downfield now, with his new offensive co-ordinator Al Saunders and a wide receiver corps more capable of stretching the defense. The right side of the line is as good as any in the league with Thomas and Jansen, and this may be the year that they dominate.
Casey Rabach returns for his second season in the burgundy and gold. Though 2005 wasn't spectacular for the center from Wisconsin, he didn't make many mistakes either. Rabach's had to do a little bit of off-season convalescence himself, but not from a football injury. He had a freak injury in March doing some yard work, when his ATV turned over on him. Rabach suffered a deep cut that ultimately required a skin graft to close, and he spent several weeks in a cast and on crutches. The injury wasn't serious enough to cause concern for the start of the regular season, but he will likely see only light duty for most of training camp and he did not participate in the team's mini camp in June.
He's young, he's hungry, and he's under the tutelage of Joe Bugel; expect a full recovery, and another meat and potatoes season from Casey.
Derrick Dockery will start at left guard again this year and will try to continue to grow into his enormous potential. The massive Dockery has struggled at times during his first few seasons, but he has also shown that he can dominate. He's also been extremely durable as he played in all eighteen of the Redskins games last year. Dockery may benefit most from the added space that Saunders and the new receiving corps will hopefully create at the line of scrimmage. Dockery does very well with what he sees, but can struggle slightly when the defense crowds the line with extra bodies.
Armed with a contract extension, this is Dockery's year to prove that he can be consistent. With so much talent around him on the line, and Buges coaching him up, Derrick will just try to continue to improve his skills. With 45 straight starts under his belt, he's as solid as 'The Rock'.
Chris Samuels has been working with a nutritionist this off-season; ironic considering how svelte he already is for a 300+ pounder. Samuels changed his eating habits to try and improve his explosiveness. The big left tackle had a solid season last year; in fact, he earned his third Pro Bowl nod in starting all 16 regular season games. Both he and Jansen did an excellent job 'switching roles' last season. While the Redskins didn't run a completely left-handed offense for the left-handed Brunell, Samuels was forced to play an entirely different role at left tackle last year, and he did so well.
So the starting five are solid, but what about the depth? The Redskins learned the hard way last year that they did not have enough depth on the line. Ray Brown did well when he came in for the injured Thomas, but when Brown went down, it was a mess. Jim Molinaro is back for his third season in Washington and it may be his make, or break season. He is the only backup lineman in camp that was with the Redskins in 2005; as such, he needs to show he's ready to contribute now. Full of talent, full of promise, Molinaro has been spelling for both tackle positions and can carry more of a load than just backup. Look for Molinaro to get even more playing time in 2006, perhaps even in a 'swing' role.
The only other offensive lineman in camp with any NFL playing experience is Mike Pucillo. The Redskins brought in the guard / center from the Cleveland Browns, where he started six games last year. Pucillo is versatile and will allow the Redskins to back up the entire interior line effectively with one man.
Tyson Walter was also brought in to compete for a backup spot. The fourth year lineman spent time with Houston last year but did not see any playing time. He spent his previous three seasons in the Dallas Cowboys system. Walter shares Pucillo's versatility in that he has actually played every offensive line position since his college days at Ohio State.
Ikechuku Ndukwe and Jon Alston are both holdovers from last year. Ndukwe signed with the Redskins in 2005 and was promoted to backup status late in the year after Thomas and Brown went down. He's a true guard and will definitely be given an opportunity to win a roster slot. Alston was with the Skins for the entire preseason in 2005, and showed tremendous improvement over that time.
One of the most interesting (and unknown) camp prospects on the line might be Jonta Woodward. He was lured away from the Canadian Football league for a tryout with the Redskins, and joins his Hamilton Tiger Cat teammate Jesse Lumsden at Redskin Park. With Dockery being the only player on the roster that is actually bigger than Woodward, he certainly possesses the raw physical tools to make it in the NFL. He can play either tackle position, and will likely battle all preseason for a place on a 9-man offensive line roster. He has good feet, and a mean streak a mile long, so all that remains to be seen is how he handles the improved defenders that he'll face each week.
Rookies Jasper Harvey and Kili Lefotu will also vie for spots. Lefotu was drafted in the 7th round out of Arizona and played both left tackle and right guard there last year. Harvey was an undrafted free agent but really impressed the coaching staff at mini-camp. Both players are a long shot to make the roster but may be looking to the practice squad this year to catch on.
So will the Redskins be able to find depth in its group of incumbents? Will the offensive line gel into the cohesive unit that will drive this team late in games? Will Joe Bugel's influence continue to make this unit get better and better? The answers are only a few short weeks away.