training camp: five players to watch

(photo by Brian Murphy)

[Editor’s note: After enduring the slowest part of the sports calendar, we’re ramping up for the 2009 Washington Redskins training camp with all kinds of goodies. Yesterday, we tackled five key positions heading into the season. Today, we’re digging deeper and looking at some of the names and faces who’ll play a part in the upcoming season.]

Imagine, if you will, that the 2009 Washington Redskins season is a movie. Instead of focusing on the entire organization or even the 53-man roster, our movie is going to spotlight five players who could very well become central characters when its all said and done.

For the purpose of this exercise we’re not concentrating on marquee names like Jason Campbell, Clinton Portis or Chris Cooley. Simply put, their stories have already been told. Instead, we’re simply presenting five characters who you may not know much about now that could become more prominent players as the season unfolds.

Brian Orakpo“The New Guy”

Orakpo made a name for himself as one of the top pass rushers in the country while playing defensive end at the University of Texas. At 6-3 and 263 lbs., the Longhorn was a first-team All-American and easily one of the most decorated players in the country.

After an impressive four-year career, Orakpo earned the 2008 Associated Press Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. He also took home the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (given to the country’s best defensive player), the Ted Hendricks Award (top defensive end) and the Lombardi Award (best lineman or linebacker). Some folks thought Orakpo was so good that he even warranted Heisman considerations. Like we said, dude cleaned house.

Well, after he graduated, Orakpo was ready for his next challenge – namely the NFL. And while ‘Skins fans were hoping and praying he’d fall to them, realistically most people didn’t think he’d ultimately end up here. But once USC quarterback Mark Sanchez was off the board, the Redskins’ front office settled for Orakpo. And what a consolation prize he could be.

Orakpo, known to be a “workout warrior” while at Texas, bench pressed 225 lbs. a staggering 31 times, tops among all defensive ends (and roughly 30 more reps than Fred Smoot). He also posted a ridiculous 39.5 inch vertical and a 10 foot, 10 inch broad jump.

That being said, we’re more impressed with his on-the-field production – such as his 11.5 sacks his senior year – than anything he did at the Combine.

Draft experts considered Orakpo to be a defensive end in a 4-3 defense or an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. So naturally, in Washington he’s being asked to be an outside linebacker in a 4-3. Since coming to town Orakpo has said all the right things. He’ll play wherever the coaching staff feels he’s best suited to help the team win. He’s athletic enough to make the transition from pass rusher to a linebacker who must drop back in coverage. Playing in Washington is a “dream come true.”

While a guy like Chris Wilson, who is also attempting to switch from defensive end to linebacker, is probably not going to make it, Orakpo shouldn’t have such problems. Once he adjusts to the difference in speed between the college and pro games, chances are he’ll have little problem finding ways to make an impact. Plus, he still gets to put his hand on the ground and get after the quarterback on third downs.

The ‘Skins had the fourth best defense in football last year, but lacked true playmakers. Adding Orakpo, along with guys like Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall, should go a long way towards creating more sacks and turnovers. This, my friend, is a good thing.

Devin Thomas“The Question Mark”

From this year’s top draft pick to last year’s.

The success/failure rate of receivers taken in the first or second round of the NFL Draft is typically 50/50, at best. So when a team bucks conventional wisdom and grabs a trio of pass catchers with their top three picks … well, it’s safe to say people are going to take notice.

As you know by now, that’s the story of the 2008 Redskins’ draft class, which featured Thomas, Malcolm Kelly and tight end Fred Davis. Clearly Vinny Cerrato and friends were admitting their team had a deficiency and took steps to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, a year has passed and it’s still unclear what the ‘Skins have at receiver.

Santana Moss is the real deal. Antwaan Randle El is a serviceable third option. What this offense needs is someone – ANYONE – to step up and lock down the second wide out spot.

After trading away their first-round pick to Atlanta, the Redskins used their top selection in 2008 on Thomas, a speedy receiver out of Michigan State. While the team was able to land Thomas in the second round (34th overall), they’re also on record saying they would have drafted him with the 21st overall pick had they not been able to trade away the pick.

That doesn’t make fans happy, not after Thomas finished year one with just 15 catches for 120 yards. If Thomas is going to shed the bust label that some critics have rushed to apply to him, he’s going to have to not only work himself into regular playing time, but also contribute. Fifteen catches for 120 yards is fine – for the first month of the season. To his credit, Thomas knows what he’s up against and seems to relish the chance to prove his detractors wrong. He’s spent much of the offseason running routes with Jason Campbell in hopes of getting a head start on his sophomore season.

“Big” Mike Williams“The Feel-Good Story”

Williams was the fourth overall pick in the 2002 draft. He was a highly-touted lineman out of the University of Texas who was drafted to stabilize the Buffalo Bills’ offense. After four uneven years, Williams was released and rumors of questionable work ethics came into play, which is understandable when talking about someone who was listed at more than 370 lbs. at the time of his release.

Fast forward a couple years and things went from bad to worse.

At well over 450 lbs., the guy basically ate himself out of the NFL. Not to mention he was living on Derrick Dockery’s couch at some point. When the Redskins signed him this past offseason, we jokingly said it was to help get him out of Dockery’s house. All jokes aside, he’s been nothing short of a model citizen since the team gave him a second chance more than two years after the league turned its back on him.

The NFL player who most resembled “Sherman Klump” has since shed more than 100 lbs. and is legitimately competing for a starting role on the offensive line. Regardless of how this plays out, his story is destined to be remade into a Disney classic in the mold of “The Rookie” and other equally heartwarming tales.

Williams was once a former first rounder who couldn’t live up to the expectations. Now he’s simply a low-risk, high-reward project for the ‘Skins coaches and training staff. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes around the guy says he’s impossible not to root for. If you’re tired of the constant tragedy and disappointment that often fills the sports pages, then feel free to rally around Williams as he continues his comeback. Even if he doesn’t claim the starting right tackle position, he’s still managed to bring a much-needed feel-good story to Redskins Park this offseason.

Hunter Smith “The Stabilizer”

Who knew that after the team wasted a draft pick on a rookie punter they’d finally see the light of day and bring in a veteran who can be counted on?

Hunter the Punter.

Trust us when we say you’ll learn to love him. A year ago, there wasn’t much to get excited about when it came to the Redskins’ special teams. Sure, Rock Cartwright is reliable on kick returns and Santana Moss was lights out in spot duty on punt returns, but that’s where the good times ended.

Mock Pro Bowl votes aside, Ryan Plackemeier was awful. Kicker Shaun Suisham wasn’t much better. And if we have to watch one more Randle El punt return (one step to the left, one step to the right, fall forward for a two-yard return), we might go postal.

But thankfully, adding Hunter Smith to the mix suddenly helps us feel a whole lot better about Danny Smith’s side of the house. He’s a steady veteran who, if nothing else, is good at remaining irrelevant. Let’s face it, if you notice your punter, it’s probably not for a good reason. Here’s hoping this is the last time we put thought to a Redskins punter for a long, long time.

Kareem Moore“The Break-Through Candidate”

A year ago it was Chris “The Predator” Horton who, as a rookie safety, exploded onto the scene. This year, we humbly offer the name of a fellow safety from the same draft class as our best guess to be the breakout player of 2009.

We’re not saying that Moore is going to go from unknown to Ed Reed status over night (although that would be awesome). We’re simply suggesting that between now and the 2009 season finale this guy is someone who very well may work himself into regular playing time on defense and special teams.

During limited playing time, Moore was someone who carved a nice niche for himself as a hard hitting free safety. And although he found it tough to crack the defensive lineup, he’s someone who clearly stood out to us whenever he entered a game on special teams. During a game in Dallas against those damned Cowboys last season, Moore registered six special teams tackles. That’s always a way to get the locals to love you.

But our favorite Moore moment of 2008 came in Cincinnati. While many of his teammates seemed to be going through the motions as the season spiraled out of control, Moore was the guy who nearly decapitated Chad Johnson with a bone-crushing hit. Others might have been content to show up and collect a paycheck. Not Moore.

That’s good enough for us.


  1. HapHaszard
    July 29, 2009 at 8:14 am

    Thanks Murf good stuff, great to see you back and writing again.

  2. Person of interest
    July 29, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Correction: Mike Williams was never living on Derrick Dockery’s couch! He was there visiting with his best friend helping with his God daughter and the Dockery’s soon to be born baby. Don’t exaggerate his story. Not only that, he did not “eat” his way out of the NFL. You are piecing together a story based on different things you’ve heard. His chances are great and I couldnt be more excited for him!

  3. Person of interest
    July 29, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Great story otherwise!

  4. TheThurgodMarshl
    July 29, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Anyone who says ANY wide receiver is a “bust” after one year is a complete mongoloid and should be shot on site forthwith accordingly; as they are a waste of human flesh and matter, and are breathing our air without paying a tax to do so. scumbags.

  5. TheThurgodMarshl
    July 29, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    When speaking of our lack luster punt return, and especially when referring to Antwaan Randle El’s performance, not one soul seems to bring up that the 2008 punt return coverage was the absolute worse i’ve seen from the redskins, ever. i’m aware that in 2006 and 2007, it wasnt much better, but our return avg. is not ONLY ARE’s fault. We need better blocking, to make punt returns offensive, there is a reason the coaches have him there.

  6. b murf
    July 29, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Dear TheThurgodMarshl,

    Your arguement in defense of Randle El’s punt returning abilities would be sound, if not for the fact that seemingly every time Santana Moss returned a punt in 2008 magic happened.

  7. ThurgodMarshl
    July 30, 2009 at 9:02 am

    It is ignorant to believe that our coverage was any better with santana. santana is just better, coverage still sucked. And sucked really bad. I’ll agree moss’ numbers were FAR better than ARE’s, but i would not classify them as “magic.”

    6 returns for 124 yds, 20.7 avg., for 1 td. (and that AVG is inflated due to an 80 yd return, if you take that away you have…)
    5 returns for 44 yds, 8.8 avg, for 0 tds (good, but not “MAGIC” and these numbers are only 3yrd avg. better than ARE)

    So, if you want to lay blame, put it on Danny Smith. He’s the guy whom puts ARE out there, with piss poor coverage. Im just glad there werent more fumbles. I mean give ARE more than .005ms to move before being touched and i know we’d all be singing a different tune. It amazes me that people refuse to look at the root of the problem. Its NOT the returner. its the piss poor coverage against the opposing teams gunners.
    and furthermore would you want to risk santanas health for 3yd avg + over ARE? if you say yes, then maybe you dont understand the risks as a punt returner.

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