Injuries create opportunities for trio of young Redskins tight end hopefuls
The Washington Post News Service
August 15, 2015 (c) 2015, The Washington Post.
RICHMOND, Va. — The NFL season is four weeks off, but that hasn't kept season-ending injuries from decimating the Washington Redskins tight end corps.
With starter Niles Paul and key backup Logan Paulsen scheduled for surgery to repair a shattered ankle and torn toe ligament, respectively, that leaves one frequently injured NFL veteran tight end on the roster, Jordan Reed, and three unproven youngsters.
That untested trio consists of:
— One small-college wide receiver whom the Redskins signed as a tight end, Louisiana-Monroe's Je'Ron Hamm.
— One 6-foot-6, 250-pound rookie with obvious upside as a blocker, BYU's Devin Mahina.
— And one 24-year-old hybrid blocker and receiver who spent last season on the team's practice squad, Central Arkansas' Chase Dixon.
From this complement of young players, Redskins tight end coach Wes Phillips must groom a game-ready tight end, and possibly two, with the Sept. 13 season opener against Miami less than a month away.
"Experience is what these guys don't have right now," said Phillips, adding that Hamm, Mahina and Dixon have already come far in training camp. "For them to get this experience in the preseason is big. . . . Between them, somebody has got to show, 'I can be trusted with my assignments,' and be able to execute the plays we ask them to do."
Phillips addressed the challenge of replacing Paul and Paulsen after Saturday's roughly two-hour practice, the team's first since Thursday's 20-17 preseason victory at Cleveland. Team officials declared it "Fan Appreciation Day," and a reported crowd of 7,130 turned out to cheer and critique the quarterbacks, tweet cellphone photos and clamor for autographs.
Several Redskins didn't take part in practice. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson continues to nurse an ailing shoulder, and left tackle Trent Williams looked on with a sore knee. Also out was Reed, who hasn't practiced since straining a hamstring last week.
When healthy, the 6-2, 237-pound Reed has proven a nightmare matchup for defenses. Linebackers struggle to match his speed, and his size makes it difficult for cornerbacks and safeties to cover him.
But Reed has missed 12 games the past two years because of injury, which makes it nearly impossible for coaches to plan around him.
Asked Saturday whether he felt pressure to hasten the timetable for his return, given the loss of Paul and Paulsen and the inexperience of the young backups, Reed said "Not really."
"I don't try to put pressure on myself," Reed said. "Coach Wes is going to do a great job with those young guys, and I'm going to help those guys as much as I can, and we're going to make it work. . . . Whenever I'm ready, I'm going to be out there."
Speaking to reporters after practice, Gruden announced that Paulsen would undergo surgery Monday. As for Paul, the coach called his loss "a major blow" to the team.
"It's not [Paul] as a player, it's him as a person and the energy that he brings to every practice," Gruden said. "He runs every route full speed whether he's getting [the ball] or not. He blocks his tail off. He's in the weight room. He's the first one out [to practice]. He's in the meetings, and he's never been late."
Gruden confirmed that team officials plan to work out a few potential signees at the position, but it seems clear that he's girding his offensive staff to go forward with the tight ends on hand.
"We have got three players in-house that are capable right now," Gruden said, "and we have got to get them better."
The rookie Hamm (6-3, 236) appears to have the inside track, working primarily with the first-team offense Saturday.
"We like what he can do in the pass game," Phillips said of Hamm, noting his speed and explosiveness. "He has come along as a blocker, so for him to progress the way he has done, we're pleased with him."
At 26, Mahina is the most mature among the tight ends despite his rookie status. A Mormon of Tongan descent, as well as an Eagle Scout, Mahina spent two years between high school and college doing mission work in Madagascar.
Phillips described Mahina as a quick study, in addition to being a "strong-handed, big-bodied kid."
Dixon is the hybrid and got the most playing time of the trio (43 snaps) against Cleveland.
Gruden didn't rule out using offensive lineman Tom Compton as a blocking tight end, on occasion. Though a guard, Compton took a few snaps at that role last season. At 6-5 and 308 pounds, he lacks gazelle-like speed but could give new meaning to "max protection" blocking schemes.
Throughout this offseason, Gruden has accentuated the positive. On Saturday, faced with something akin to a tight end crisis, Gruden stuck with that determined, upbeat posture. Even though Reed has yet to play a 16-game regular season since he was drafted, Gruden voiced hope that Reed's offseason work in the weight room would make him a sturdier player.
"Just because a guy has a couple injuries early in his career doesn't mean they are going to happen all the time," Gruden said.
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Washington Post staff writer Mike Jones contributed to this report.