The Redskins are about to play their first preseason game of 2018. Here's three things we've learned from training camp before the team goes under the lights.
1. There's not a bad thing to say about Alex Smith, who says a lot of good things to his receivers.
It's only natural to be optimistic in training camp, to say positive things about a new player on the team and to believe that a change in leadership style will have a significant impact. That's been the case for the Redskins over the last two weeks of training camp, but there's reason to think these feeling will transcend Richmond, Va.
Players and coaches alike have attested to Smith's professionalism and friendliness extending throughout the organization, and it's clear that someone with 14 years of NFL experience garners a certain level of inherent trust and respect from his peers.
"If you ask anybody here anybody can have a conversation with Alex," wide receiver Josh Doctson said. "He's just a good locker-room guy and a good person so it's easy to gravitate around him."
What's been more intriguing is the way he's connected with his receivers, who have made sure to express their gratitude for the way he's developed within the offense and in their relationships. The notable quality is Smith's desire to work through pass plays after each throw, to briefly discuss the reasoning behind a route, a throw, anticipation right after it happened.
"I can feel him making me better after the plays, we talk about what I saw, what he saw," Doctson said. "I look at how he talks to other receivers about plays, and so we're all just trying to be a sponge with Alex. We've got something special going."
Even for a wide receiver new to the team this year – Paul Richardson Jr., who was introduced to the organization alongside Smith – the communication progress they've made together has been impactful very quickly.
"He sees things that we don't see and we communicate a lot," Richardson said. "We kind of have ideas of things that we want to work with him with and once we get that communication down, the next day we go out and we execute it. That lets us know we are on the same page and the chemistry is there."
The communication also comes in the huddle, as wide receiver Jamison Crowder has noted. Smith provides a constant source of encouragement and frequent, short reminders before heading to the line of scrimmage.
"He'll come in the huddle and say some encouraging words like 'let's be sharp.' Just small stuff like that," Crowder said. "Each player knows how far that can go. Before I line up, we're all on the same accord. Let's go out here and look sharp and make sure I'm on my details. Little small stuff like that is what he brings to the table."
2. Some of the position battles are getting intense.
Before training camp began, head coach Jay Gruden mentioned that he doesn't believe the Redskins had any glaring weaknesses on the roster. "I think our depth has been addressed, so now it's just a matter of just going out and playing together," he said.
Two weeks later that seems to still be the case. The Redskins haven't suffered any catastrophic injuries (knock on wood) and the competition within certain position groups will only get tighter with the start of the preseason. That's primarily the case within the running backs group and the inside linebackers group.
Both of those positions have two players that are near-locks to make the roster. Let's start with the running backs, where after Chris Thompson and Derrius Guice things get a little murky. Rob Kelley entered last year as the starter, but injuries in multiple areas over the course of the season have put his spot in jeopardy. Samaje Perine took the brunt of the load in his absence last season, but the fourth-round pick still has competition from late-season additions Byron Marshall and Kapri Bibbs. Undrafted Martez Carter is also competing for snaps, rounding out a large group.
Gruden has mentioned that he'd like to have a third-down back on the roster behind Chris Thompson, which is to say he'd like someone with similar skillsets in catching passes and pass protection. That would seem to give Marshall and Bibbs an advantage. It's also possible the team keeps five running backs on the team, putting one of them into a fullback kind of role, Gruden said.
"We have so many multi-talented guys that just step up when their number is called and can do everything," Bibbs said. "I think we have the best room in this league. I think every single one of our guys on our team should be on an NFL roster this year, and I love to say that. I love the fact that if one of our guys leaves out of this room I know I'm going to see him again. I know I'm going to be able to walk across the field and shake his hand because I see the talent, I see the way everybody runs on this team. If they're not in the league, then something is a problem."
At inside linebacker, Zach Brown and Mason Foster project to be the starters, but behind them has been a revolving door. It's hard to get a great gauge on the rotation philosophy, but Zach Vigil seems to have taken a majority of the reps as the Mike linebacker with the second-team unit, and often filled in for Foster and Brown when they sat out a practice.
Linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons was one of the first to take over when Brown missed the very start of camp practices and has primarily played during nickel and dime packages so that the coaches can take advantage of his length as a defender in coverage. With Martrell Spaight and rookie Shaun Dion Hamilton, still getting strength back from a torn ACL last year, the Redskins will have to make a decision about how many inside linebacker they want to keep -- something special teams play could likely indicate.
3. Players returning from injuries are looking better each day.
The biggest reason for the Redskins' finish in the standings last season came primarily because of the amount of injuries the team sustained. Thus, the biggest concern entering camp was tethered to how players who sustained those injuries would look and play. So far, everything appears just fine.
The primary figures looking for full recoveries were left tackle Trent Williams, right tackle Morgan Moses, running back Chris Thompson and tight end Jordan Reed. Each of them had various surgeries dating back to the end of last season and their recoveries put them in good shape to start camp. While it's unlikely any of them will take any snaps on Thursday, they've made considerable progress as the regular season approaches.
Trent Williams, who had knee surgery in December, has played occasionally during team drills at left tackle, starting for a few snaps here and there. That's been the case for right tackle Morgan Moses, who went under the knife to address some ankle injuries he battled throughout all of last season. He's played a little more than Williams has, but Gruden has made sure to be careful with both of them.
Running back Chris Thompson has been more involved in the offense, participating in padded drills last week and looking like his usual quick self. He's been catching passes out of the backfield, and defenders have been careful to treat him like a quarterback, making sure they don't tackle him or bump him too hard. Thompson said he's still conscious of making cuts on his right leg, which he broke last November, and might not be fully recovered until halfway through the year. That won't stop him from starting Week 1, he just might not be his complete self.
Then there's tight end Jordan Reed, who had the sesamoid bones removed from his toes this offseason, which had caused pain throughout his lower half last year. He said he's felt much better this camp and his play seems to be showing that. Reed has been slowly incorporated into team drills and has looked crisp and explosive during individual and 7-on-7 drills.
All crucial components of the offense, their progressions up through the first regular season game will continue to be monitored as the team determines its depth throughout the preseason.