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Need to Know: Five under-the-radar players to watch during Redskins training camp

Need to Know: Five under-the-radar players to watch during Redskins training camp

Here is what you need to know on this Wednesday, July 29, one day before the Washington Redskins start training camp.

Nickel coverage

Of course I’ll be watching all of the big names during training camp; there will not be a lack of scrutiny of Robert Griffin III, Brandon Scherff, Preston Smith and the other top draft picks and new players. But here are five who are under the radar on whom I will be keeping a close eye:

WR Andre Roberts—He dropped 11 percent of the passes thrown in his direction last year. No other NFL player who was targeted 55 times or more had a drop rate of as much as 10 percent. I will be interested to see if he spends more time playing catch with the quarterbacks and snagging balls shot out by the JUGS machine. And, of course, how many passes he drops during drills.

LB Perry Riley—He just turned 27 but some are starting to write him off already. Earlier in his career it looked like he might play at a level that would earn him an occasional trip to the Pro Bowl. But he hasn’t taken the next step and he still struggles in coverage. I don’t think that a mediocre or even a bad camp will cost him his starting job but he needs to act like it will.

TE Niles Paul—He showed last year that he can catch the ball. This offseason he put on some weight to try to improve his blocking ability. That is always going to be a challenge for a converted wide receiver but he wants to be as good at blocking as he can be. I’ll keep an eye on him during team drills as well as individual blocking drills to see how he’s doing.

G Shawn Lauvao—The Redskins are going to switch to a run blocking scheme that emphasizes power and that should help Lauvao, who played in such a system in Cleveland. But Jay Gruden has said that the team will mix in zone runs so it will be worth watching to see if he has improved on the stretch plays. His pass blocking needs improvement as well; it will be interesting to watch him go one-on-one against, say, Terrance Knighton.

CB David Amerson—He has all of the physical talent he needs to succeed but he needs to get better prepared mentally. I am hearing that he is taking the game more seriously so we will see if that translates onto the practice field.

Today's schedule

—Jay Gruden news conference from the Bon Secours training center in Richmond, approx. 3:45

Timeline

—Redskins long snapper Nick Sundberg was born on this date in 1987.

—It’s been 213 days since the Redskins played a game. It will be 46 days until they play the Dolphins at FedEx Field.

Days until: Redskins training camp starts 1; Preseason opener @ Browns 15; final cuts 38

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How big a need do the Redskins have at running back?

How big a need do the Redskins have at running back?

Do the Redskins have a draft need at running back? It depends on who you ask.

Jay Gruden seems to be very happy with incumbent running back Rob Kelley. Here is what he had to say last month about the second-year back, signed as an undrafted free agent out of Tulane, last month:

“Oh, man, I love Rob Kelley,” Gruden said. “I thought he played great. You throw a rookie free agent into the fire like that and see him play and compete. Not one time did I feel like it was too big for him. Not once. That’s a hell of a thing to say for a kid out of Tulane who only had a couple of carries his senior year. He came right in, he competes on every play.”

Kelley played in 15 games last year and rushed for 704 yards and scored six touchdowns. He started the last nine games and if you project his numbers in this games out over a 16-game season you get about 1,050 yards and 11 touchdowns. That’s not Ezekiel Elliott or Le’Veon Bell production but it’s good for a team that is going to rely mostly on the pass.

Gruden also praised third-down back Chris Thompson and backup Mack Brown. In a telling sign, he acknowledged that 2015 third-round pick Matt Jones is still on the roster but he didn’t have much good to say about him.

Why, then, do you see so many draft analysts listing running back as one of the team’s most urgent needs? Mark Maske, who is the Post’s national NFL writer but also a former Redskins beat reporter, has them taking Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey in his mock draft. “There certainly are issues on defense for the Redskins,” writes Maske. But there also is a need at running back.”

Lance Zierlein of NFL.com said that the Redskins “obviously” need a running back as his rationale for mocking Florida State’s Dalvin Cook to Washington at No. 17.

So, what is it? Is Kelley adequate for the Redskins’ needs considering they call pass plays on over 60 percent of their offensive snaps? Would they run more often if they had a back like McCaffrey or Cook? And if they did run more would the offense improve?

I think that running back is like several positions with the Redskins. If they have to get through the 2016 season with what they have they will be OK. But if there is an upgrade on the board when they are on the clock they won’t hesitate to make the pick if he’s the best player available.

We will see what happens if, say, McCaffrey is still on the board when the Redskins pick at No. 17 and top defensive targets like Rueben Foster and Haason Reddick are off the board. That will be the true test to see how committed Gruden and the rest of the organization are to Kelley, Thompson, and company. 

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When talent is there, Bruce Allen has looked past red flags in 1st round of NFL Draft

When talent is there, Bruce Allen has looked past red flags in 1st round of NFL Draft

A four-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champ, Aqib Talib has a long and checkered past, which includes multiple arrests and failed PED and drug tests. The problems aren't new either, the talented cornerback was first arrested as a high school student. In college at Kansas, Talib was suspended multiple times and had multiple positive tests for marijuana use. 

Why does this matter for Redskins fans on the eve of the NFL Draft?

Despite all the trouble, Bruce Allen drafted Talib 20th overall in 2008 when the current Redskins general manager was in the same role for Tampa. While Talib's legal troubles and suspensions continued in the NFL, he also proved to be a highly capable cornerback in the pro game. 

The lesson for those trying to determine the Redskins draft board: Allen might be willing to look past red flags if a player presents good value. Talib did in 2008, and there could be opportunities for Washington in 2017.

Reuben Foster jumps to mind, as the talented Alabama linebacker will enter the league in the substance abuse program. While Foster's issues pale in comparison to other allegations about some draft prospects, players like Joe Mixon, Gareon Conley and Caleb Brantley will also present unique circumstances for NFL teams to evaluate. 

GMs are thrust into the unenviable task of determining a player's character, often in short periods of time. As 'Skins director of college scouting Scott Campbell explained, the team grades every player for their football skills first, and only later adds in character information. From Campbell's comments:

When you start to evaluate guys in the beginning, you don’t factor in the character. You don’t grade character, you grade talent. So you don’t throw away somebody early that may have some redeeming quality, or there’s a side to the story you don’t know about. You grade football players as football players first on talent, and then when it comes closer to the draft, you start weeding all that, getting more information, deciding, ‘OK, this guy’s not our kind of guy, this guy’s not a Redskin, this guy could be drafted, but good luck to him.

Thursday night the Redskins will be forced to make a determination on the right player for the team. That decision could include judging a player's character, and that could mean balancing legal or substance abuse troubles with talent and ability.

Talib is only one pick in Allen's long personnel career, but it's one worth noting. 

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