|The Skins expect Haynesworth to consume space and free up others to make plays.|
13 at N.Y. Giants
20 st. Louis
27 at Detroit
4 TAMPA BAY
11 at Carolina
18 KANSAS CITY
26 PHILADELPHIA (M)
8 at Atlanta
22 at Dallas
29 at Philadelphia
6 NEW ORLEANS
13 at Oakland
21 N.Y. GIANTS (M)
3 at San Diego
Devin Thomas, Wide receiver: Change is coming for a receiving corps that tied for 28th in the NFL in receptions of 20 or more yards. Namely, the Redskins want one of their two second-round receivers from 2008, Thomas or Malcolm Kelly, to step into the flanker role, which would allow 5' 10" Antwaan Randle El to slide into the slot position, where he could be a matchup nightmare. Of the two, Thomas has made the bigger strides toward emerging from the doghouse in which both players found themselves as rookies.
The trouble began last August when the pair failed the team's physical-conditioning test. Each missed time with a hamstring injury in camp, and Kelly suffered a knee injury and has since had two surgeries. The healthier Thomas suited up for 16 games (to Kelly's five) and began to click around midseason, when he had three-catch games against the tough secondaries of Pittsburgh, Dallas and Baltimore.
The experience gave Thomas a better understanding of the Skins' West Coast attack, and Zorn says that as his route-running has sharpened, he has been more able to put his physical assets -- notably long arms and sprinter's speed -- to use. "Devin is clearly able to concentrate a little more on beating his defender rather than on remembering what his route is," Zorn says. The job is Thomas's for the taking.
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
An already stout defense got a whole lot better in the off-season -- but is that where the help was needed most?
Phillip Daniels is eyeballing a swarm of buzzing wannabe general managers behind the ropes at Redskins camp in Ashburn, Va., shouting out suggestions for moves the team might make, when the 6' 5", 305-pound defensive end takes the opportunity to do a little personnel assessment himself. "If I'm an outsider, I'd look at what this team did [in the off-season] and call it an A-plus job," he says with a grin. "You just watch."
A curious evaluation, perhaps, given that the team invested, on paper, $174 million in its No. 4-ranked defense yet shelled out peanuts on an offense that ranked 28th in scoring and 29th in red-zone efficiency. Case in point: In search of a new right tackle, the Skins signed free agent Mike Williams (cost: the league minimum $620,000), who last played an NFL down in '05.
Still, Daniels's enthusiasm appears justified. He points to the re-signing of ball-hawking cornerback DeAngelo Hall and the drafting of Texas defensive playmaker Brian Orakpo with the No. 13 pick in April. And then Daniels's typically quiet eyes absolutely bug out as he gets to the newcomer who's expected to make the biggest difference: Albert Haynesworth.
Signed on Day One of free agency for seven years at $100 million, including $41 million in guaranteed money, the former Titans tackle comes off a career year in which he had 8 1/2 sacks and 51 tackles -- fantastic numbers for an interior lineman. More important, Haynesworth made the other players on the Tennessee defense better: The Titans had 44 sacks and tied a franchise record with 23 forced fumbles last year. His addition should be a boon to a Skins defense that had only 24 sacks and 18 takeaways, both tied for 28th in the league. "Your defense can be good," Daniels says, "but you can't be at the top until you get those turnovers. Then you make your whole team better; you feed your offense. One way or another, Albert's the guy who'll make that happen."
Quarterback Jason Campbell takes the assessment one step further, suggesting that Haynesworth has already improved the offense: "Going against Albert and those guys every day of camp has made us so much better."
Haynesworth's impact was immediately evident in camp, especially in third-down situations during 11-on-11 drills, in which Daniels (fully recovered from a left ACL injury that cost him all of '08) lined up inside next to Haynesworth with Orakpo (who'll typically line up at outside 'backer) and veteran Andre Carter (10 1/2 sacks two years ago) at the ends. On plays in which Haynesworth faced single blockers or even double teams, he burst into the backfield to disrupt pass plays or divert rushing attempts. When he drew extra attention from his right, Orakpo feasted on the free space. And when help came from the left, Daniels and Carter wreaked havoc. That pretty much sums up defensive line coach John Palermo's game plan. "We don't know how teams will work protections yet," he says, "but we'll line those four guys up, and something's going to happen."
The move is not without risks. Haynesworth, 28, has missed chunks of time to injury and suspension, and he's being asked to stunt far more than he did in Tennessee. If he struggles, it won't be the first time a prized defensive free agent has come to Washington, cashed in and then failed to live up to his billing. (See: Dana Stubblefield, Mark Carrier, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Jessie Armstead, Jeremiah Trotter, Adam Archuleta, Jason Taylor. . . .) But Haynesworth isn't letting the pressure get to him. "Am I going to bring 20 sacks?" he asks. "Hell, no. Most of what I do is help other people. I get double- and triple-teamed to open it up for other guys. That's when you start getting sacks, big plays, turnovers from other players."
Who, exactly? "Well, myself, for one," Daniels says, laughing. "[Albert] gets the money; I'll take the sacks. In the end it all works out for everyone."
-- Adam Duerson