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Rookie Class: Learning On the Job

A full six months have passed since last April's NFL Draft, and the Redskins' 2004 class has made positive contributions this season. The four players in that group--safety Sean Taylor, H-back Chris Cooley and offensive linemen Mark Wilson and Jim Molinaro--enter tonight's game against the Baltimore Ravens playing a variety of roles as each continues to adapt to the NFL.

Despite having only four selections in this year's draft, the fewest of any team, head coach Joe Gibbs said afterwards that he was pleased with the team's picks. "I think overall we maximized our opportunities in the draft," Gibbs said in April.

Early in the season, the draft class has done much to reinforce Gibbs' sentiment.

Taylor, in particular, has started to come on in recent weeks. The fifth-overall pick and prize of the Redskins' draft class, Taylor wowed coaches and fans with his stellar play in the preseason. The speedy University of Miami product demonstrated his superstar potential in five pre-season games with 10 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one touchdown.

After starting the final three pre-season games, Taylor saw his first regular-season action as a reserve. He played approximately 25 snaps in his NFL debut against Tampa Bay.

Taylor took his reserve role in stride following the team's strong defensive showing early in the 2004 campaign.

"Every player would like to play when they want to play and how they want to play, but the system's not set up like that," Taylor said.

Two weeks later, Taylor earned his first NFL start on Week 3 versus Dallas. He was solid, but wasn't making the game-changing plays that had been his trademark in the preseason.

That changed in the Week 6 game against Chicago. In the Redskins' 13-10 win over the Bears, Taylor recorded his first NFL sack and first NFL interception. The latter helped seal the win in the game's final seconds.

The former Miami Hurricane possesses a combination of size and speed rarely seen at the safety position. It allows him to cover all areas of the field and dole out punishment to opposing ballcarriers. He has 24 tackles on the season so far.

"He has grown playing safety," Gibbs said last week. "He is getting more comfortable and is making a lot of plays. He covers a lot of ground back there. Also on blitzing, he has shown he can be very effective when he goes after people. He covers ground in a hurry and he made some big plays. He is a dynamic player and he's going to be somebody to reckon with in the secondary."

The other draft pick that the Redskins are relying upon heavily is Cooley. The H-back drafted in the third round (81st overall) out of Utah State has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2004 campaign. He quickly grasped Gibbs's offense during training camp and the preseason and cracked the starting lineup for the start of the regular season.

"Chris was a really good fit for us," Gibbs said after the draft. "He's an exceptionally bright young man, and we know he'll come in and be ready to compete."

To draft Cooley, the Redskins swapped fifth-round picks in 2004 with the New Orleans Saints in addition to giving the Saints their second-round pick in 2005. The early returns on the trade have been positive for Washington.

Cooley enjoyed a breakout game against the Giants in Week 2. He caught three passes for 14 yards, including his first career NFL touchdown in the first quarter.

On their first drive of the game, the Redskins marched to the Giants' one-yard line. On 3rd-and-goal from the 2-yard line, quarterback Mark Brunell faked a handoff to the right before rolling out to his left. Cooley slipped off the line into the endzone, and Brunell connected with the wide-open H-back for the score.

The native of Logan, Utah, also made a big play on special teams in the fourth quarter of the Week 2 loss. On the kickoff following Clinton Portis's touchdown reception that reduced the Redskins' deficit to 20-14, Cooley forced Giants kick returner Willie Ponder to fumble. Redskins safety Todd Franz recovered, giving Washington a chance for a go-ahead drive late in the game.

Cooley scored his second NFL touchdown in Week 5 against Baltimore. On the play, Brunell scrambled to his left and just before he was pushed out of bounds, he rifled a pass to Cooley in the end zone for a 7-yard score.

At 6-3 and 265 pounds, Cooley has shown impressive athletic ability during his brief NFL career. For the season, he has eight catches for 64 yards.

"It felt so great to know that I'm going to be the type of player on this team that [the coaches] can trust to give the ball and make plays," Cooley said.

In a less visible role are offensive linemen Wilson and Molinaro. Wilson was drafted out of California in the fifth round (151st overall) and Molinaro was taken in the sixth round (180th overall) out of Notre Dame. Both players continue to benefit from the tutelage of assistant head coach-offense Joe Bugel.

"We have some young, big tackles that we want to give to Joe Bugel and let him go to work," Gibbs said following the draft. "They're tackles and guards--hopefully they can move inside, but in particular we want them to be able to play tackle. And we have two real good candidates there."

Wilson received a significant amount of playing time in the preseason, but he has been inactive for all of the Redskins' regular-season games except for the Week 6 game against Chicago.

In his senior season with the Golden Bears, the 6-6, 295-pounder from McArthur, Calif., was named to the All-Pac 10 first team at left tackle. His 48 consecutive starts for Cal broke longtime NFL lineman Todd Steussie's school record of 46.

Molinaro has seen action as a reserve and special teams player in the first six games of the regular season. After right tackle Jon Jansen suffered a season-ending Achilles' tendon injury in the preseason, Molinaro was thrust into a role of providing depth along the offensive line.

The 6-6, 309-pounder from Bethlehem, Pa., started every game for the Fighting Irish during his senior season. He was named team captain for a handful of games as Notre Dame averaged over 336 yards per contest.

Just six games into the regular season, the four members of the draft class are continuing to mature and adjust to playing at the NFL level. Their contributions for the remainder of the season will help determine the success of the Redskins this year and beyond.

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