LANDOVER, Md.—Schools opened this week in many localities, but let’s be honest: precious little learning is taking place just yet. It’s similar to the NFL preseason, where few important questions are answered.
The first half of Washington’s 15–13 victory over the visiting New York Jets on Thursday night confirmed many of Jay Gruden’s positive suspicions about his team. Several of his key players looked sharp in limited action.
Washington’s last two first-round picks, former Alabama defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, were active and productive. So was former Virginia Tech run-stuffer Tim Settle. Ryan Kerrigan pressured Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold on his second professional dropback, forcing an incompletion.
On offense, Alex Smith was accurate on his lone series on offense before retreating to the safety of the sideline. And Colt McCoy proved that Gruden has one of the NFL’s most valuable commodities: a competent backup quarterback.
Rookie receiver Cameron Sims, a former teammate of Allen and Payne at Alabama, bobbled one on-target pass from McCoy that turned into an interception. But he later made a couple of impressive grabs (including a leaping touchdown catch that was negated by a penalty) and showed that, at 6-foot-5, he may become the red zone threat that Josh Doctson is not.
Little of that qualified as breaking news, though. Washington has two real areas of concern: its running game and its cornerbacks. And neither seems resolved midway through the exhibition season.
Different circumstances brought Gruden’s team to this dilemma.
Washington thought it had drafted its ball-carrier of the future when the dynamic Derrius Guice slipped into the second round in the spring. Those plans were tabled, though, when Guice tore the ACL in his left knee after a 34-yard, penalty-negated run in last week’s preseason opener against New England.
Combine Guice’s absence with the caution Washington is showing as third-down back Chris Thompson recovers from a broken leg, and there’s a big dropoff.
Second-year pro Samaje Perine broke off a 30-yard run on his first carry Thursday night. But like Guice last week, he immediately limped off with an ankle injury. Another backup, Byron Marshall, also left with a lower-leg injury.
Things got so bad that rumor has it Clinton Portis volunteered to give up his gig as a sideline reporter and suit up again.
Rookie Martez Carter showed some agility on a 33-yard second-half dash against the Jets’ backups. But aside from Perine’s 30-yard ramble, Washington managed just 19 yards on 12 carries in the first half, the only time when legitimate NFL defenders were on the field.
Granted, All-Pro tackle Trent Williams didn’t play, but if that average doesn’t improve when he does suit up, Smith may face a lot of pass pressure.
When Washington’s opponents decide to pass this season, they’ll be doing so against some inexperienced corners. After trading slot corner Kendall Fuller and a draft pick to Kansas City to acquire Smith and declining to make an offer to free agent Bashaud Breeland, Washington signed veteran Orlando Scandrick to fill the void.
But Scandrick, whom Dallas didn’t shed tears over losing, didn’t impress anyone during camp in Richmond, either, and Washington cut him loose this week. That leaves former Pro Bowler Josh Norman and a lot of relatively anonymous young corners: Quinton Dunbar, Fabian Moreau and three rookies: Danny Johnson and former Hokies Adonis Alexander and Greg Stroman.
Dunbar, the nominal starter opposite Norman, was challenged often by Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold Thursday night. Dunbar caught caught up in a crossing pattern and also gave up a slant pattern to former William & Mary receiver Tre McBride.
Otherwise, Washington’s corners acquitted themselves fairly well—granted, against a rookie quarterback and one of the NFL’s worst offenses from a year ago. We’ll give them an incomplete grade. As with the academic year, the real tests will come soon enough.