Can John Beck duplicate the performance he put on vs. the Colts and take control of the starting QB job? Photo by Keith Allison from Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Tonight's preseason game between the Skins and Ravens gives a first real look at what the team might be in the regular season. For the first time, the Skins coaching staff prepared the team by taking it through something close to a regular season work week. For the first time this preseason, the Skins have prepared a cohesive game plan on both sides of the ball.
It's still preseason, of course, which means that there are no definitive answers. But, this game will offer clues and insight about which players will make the final roster. Here are key positional battles I'll be watching tonight:
Quarterback -- Mike Shanahan is providing few clues by praising both John Beck and Rex Grossman. Both QBs have played well in preseason appearances. Reportedly, both have looked good in practice at times, and both have looked bad. Appearing on Sportstalk 980, ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski told Kevin Sheehan that opinions seemed evenly divided between Beck and Grossman. Jaworski thinks that Grossman is likely to get the job -- at least for the opener against the Giants. Tonight, the QBs have a chance to compete against an elite defense. The one that looks best will have taken a significant step toward claiming the job. My Prediction: Beck will outperform Grossman and win the QB competition.
Running Back -- Tim Hightower is entrenched as the starting RB. Roy Helu seems to be ahead of Evan Royster in the rookie battle. The wildcard is the health of Ryan Torain. If Torain can get healthy, he could conceivably move ahead of the rookies -- and possibly even Hightower. My Prediction: Concerns about his health will lead to Torain being placed on IR or being released.
Mike Sellers vs. Keiland Williams -- Sellers making a return to fullback in practice was a bad sign for Williams. Sellers' ability to play FB, TE, H-back, and every special teams unit will make him tough for Williams to beat out. Williams will need to do something spectacular tonight to make the coaches reconsider. My Prediction: Sellers make the team, Williams doesn't.
Wide Receiver -- The top three are set, but it's a wide-open competition for the last 2-3 spots. Rookie Leonard Hankerson figures to take one remaining slot, which means Donte Stallworth, Terrence Austin and Niles Paul are competing for one or two roster spots. Each guy has made some plays in preseason, but no one has separated themselves from the pack. Austin seems to have a slight edge because he can contribute in the return game -- an important factor considering how fragile Brandon Banks appears to be. My Prediction: Austin and Stallworth make the team -- at least for game one. Paul goes to the practice squad, but gets promoted to the roster mid-season. Banks ends up on IR to let his knee heal.
It's interesting that the interesting positional battles are on the offense. Defense appears to be fairly set in terms of both starters and reserves. Position competition seems to be mostly at the deep reserve level -- 8th or 9th linebacker or defensive back, 7th or 8th defensive lineman. The offensive line also seems stable -- there's some competition after the top 7, but the starters and top reserves are settled.
Here are a few areas I'll be watching closely tonight:
Trent Williams -- The line was solid in the first preseason game, but had problems against the Colts. Williams had a terrible game, getting overpowered by Dwight Freeney and getting easily beaten on an inside rush. Williams needs to show that his Colts performance was an aberration.
Hightower's Ball Control -- Hightower looks great carrying the football, and he hasn't fumbled in preseason. This is a good sign considering the fumble issues throughout his career. He could be among the league rushing leaders, but he must continue to hang on to the ball.
Leonard Hankerson -- He's big, he's fast, he's agile. He's also had problems dropping well-thrown passes during the preseason. Rookie jitters or not, Hankerson must eliminate the drops to realize his potential.
Red Zone Package -- The Skins have moved the ball efficiently this preseason only to stall inside the opponent 20. While it's true the Skins haven't game planned their red zone offense, it's also true that opponents haven't game planned their red zone defenses. This is an area that must improve if the Skins hope to compete for the playoffs this season.