October 22, 2014

Will 2014 bring renewed competition from the Washington Redskins?

The Washington Redskins organization — and its legion of passionate fans — hopes that the 2014 season, which starts today against the Houston Texans, brings a renewed sense of competition for the division title, which boasts no real front-runner, and the postseason. There are still a lot of questions no one knows the answers to, but we’ll start to see those questions answered today.

The biggest question in everyone’s minds is whether or not new head coach Jay Gruden can revitalize Robert Griffin III’s career, returning him to the promise and production he exhibited by taking the team to the playoffs after the 2012 season, only to see it end with him — and the team’s playoff chances — crumpled on the ground after his left knee imploded on the soft FedEx Field turf against the Seattle Seahawks.

What followed was a nightmare of epic proportions. That offseason was chock-full of controversy; between Griffin, former head coach Mike Shanahan, team doctors, and the team’s public relations machine. To complicate matters, Adidas decided to turn Griffin’s rehab into an offseason-long commercial, thus rushing him to be ready for the 2013 opener.

He was not ready, and it showed. All season long.

Griffin was half the player he was before injury, unable to run away from linebackers and jumpy in the pocket. And who wouldn’t be, playing behind a vastly overmatched offensive line. All the while, the head coach and his son (the offense coordinator) tried in vain to save their jobs.

They were unsuccessful.

Griffin was eventually shut down before the end of the season, mired in more bad blood and negative public relations.

The offseason brought plenty of changes — to the coaching staff and to the roster. The team added personnel to the receiving corps, defensive backfield and special teams, all areas of need. But there wasn’t much reconstruction of the offensive line, the cornerstone of all good offenses.

It’ll be hard for Griffin to prove anything if he’s flat on his back.

The secondary was probably the next weakest part of last season’s roster, full of players that were past their prime, not ready yet, or too-often suspended. They infused that area with several players, but we’ve already seen injury and another suspension already weaken one of the weakest spots on the team.

It’s rough when the biggest addition to a unit over the offseason could be a cut-down day waiver-wire claim.

But here we are, opening day, where anything can happen.

There are a lot of questions yet to be answered. Hopefully fans will be able to enjoy the process, rather than dwell on results.


District Sports Page will be covering the Washington Redskins this season with a renewed vigor of our own. We’ve added several new staff members dedicated to covering the team. You can find the bios of all of our writers on our staff page. They are all devout fans of the Burgundy and Gold and will report, analyze and opine in a comprehensive manner.

And if you missed it, we had a multi-part series of position previews to get ready for the new season.

We hope that you will add us to your reading list for information, news, analysis and opinion this season.

Washington Redskins 2014 Season Preview Part VIII: Outside Linebackers

All this week leading up to the Washington Redskins 2014 season opener against the Houston Texans on Sept. 7, District Sports Page is taking an in-depth look at the players that will make up the 53-man roster to start the season in a position-by-position breakdown.

In Part I, Neal Dalal took a look at the Quarterback position.
In Part II, Eric Hobeck examined the situation at running back.
In Part III, Joe Mercer previewed the wide receiver corps.
In Part IV, Joe Ziegengeist evaluated the offensive line.
In Part V, Joe Mercer reviewed Jordan Reed and the tight ends.
In Part VI, Neil previewed the defensive line.
In Part VII, Joe Miller previewed the inside linebackers.

Here is our preview of the outside linebackers.


Ryan Kerrigan sacks Eli Manning in 2011. (photo by Brian Murphy)

Ryan Kerrigan sacks Eli Manning in 2011. (photo by Brian Murphy)

In this day and age, NFL teams must employ an elite pass rush.  The reasons are numerous, but the most important one is that it is becoming more and more difficult for a secondary to defend in this league.  Rules designed to protect receivers and running backs, the essential cash cows of the NFL, are limiting defensive backfields from being physical with receivers and throwing off their timing with the quarterback.  This is where the pass rush comes in, and Jim Haslett’ 3-4 attacking defense could be just what the doctor ordered.

The Washington Redskins defensive theme this offseason was to un-cuff and unleash the pass rush.  This will mostly begin and end with Washington’s Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo.  The sixth year Texas product is playing under the franchise tag this season and will be looking to put up impressive numbers to secure a huge contract that he thinks he deserves.  Last year, Orakpo amassed 10 sacks and combined for 60 tackles, and even added an interception return for a touchdown to his resume.

However, these numbers do not put him into the upper echelon of elite pass rushers in the game and Orakpo needs to improve upon his sack total in 2014 if he wants Jay Gruden and Bruce Allen to invest in a new contract for him.  He has expressed sincere interest to remain a Redskin for life and did not seem to perturbed when the franchise tag was placed on him.  The feeling should be mutual between Orakpo and the front office if he posts another Pro Bowl-type season.

On the other side, outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan will be focusing on one thing: being a consistent really, really good pass rusher.  Kerrigan has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his brief career, but he is now a veteran in the league and will also be looking to improve upon his 8.5 sacks a year ago.  Kerrigan does a great job of instinctively knowing what the quarterback is going to do; you will see him get his hands in the air to either tip, spike, or intercept a pass that a quarterback usually tries to throw a quick screen with.  Kerrigan can make him pay and has often done so.

Many Redskins fans scratched their heads when the team traded back in the second round and then selected a player who occupied what was once perceived a position of strength.  However, through mini camps, OTA’s, and training camp and the preseason, fans began to see just what Bruce Allen saw in young Trent Murphy out of Stanford.  He is an opposing presence at 6’6″ and looks explosive, two traits you love to have at a pass rushing position.

The All-American led all of college football with 15 sacks in 2013 and was first team All-Pac 12 two years in a row (’12 and ’13).  Though he is listed as a backup on the depth chart, Murphy will almost certainly get mixed in for different blitz packages throughout the regular season.

The final outside linebacker for Jim Haslett’s defense is third year LB Gabe Miller of Oregon State.  Miller unseated 2012 NFC East division title hero Rob Jackson for the final OLB spot after an impressive performance in the final two preseason games.  Also, and probably most importantly for this coaching staff, he seemed to impress special teams coach Ben Kotwica enough to warrant a roster spot.  Miller doesn’t figure to see much defensive playing time but he is a solid option if Orakpo or Kerrigan go down.

Washington Redskins 2014 Season Preview Part VII: Inside Linebackers

All this week leading up to the Washington Redskins 2014 season opener against the Houston Texans on Sept. 7, District Sports Page is taking an in-depth look at the players that will make up the 53-man roster to start the season in a position-by-position breakdown.

In Part I, Neal Dalal took a look at the Quarterback position.
In Part II, Eric Hobeck examined the situation at running back.
In Part III, Joe Mercer previewed the wide receiver corps.
In Part IV, Joe Ziegengeist evaluated the offensive line.
In Part V, Joe Mercer reviewed Jordan Reed and the tight ends.
In Part VI, Neil previewed the defensive line.

Here is our preview of the inside linebackers.


Perry Riley comes up with the ball in 2011. (photo by Brian Murphy)

Perry Riley comes up with the ball in 2011. (photo by Brian Murphy)

Washington Redskins Inside Linebackers

SUBTRACTIONS: London Fletcher (retired), Nick Barnett (free agency), Bryan Kehl (free agency), Josh Hull (released)

ADDITIONS: Adam Hayward (free agency), Akeem Jordan (free agency), Darryl Sharpton** (free agency, placed on IR)

STARTERS: Perry Riley (“Jack” Linebacker), Keenan Robinson (“Mike” Linebacker)

BACKUPS: Will Compton, Adam Hayward, Akeem Jordan

Replacing London Fletcher is the biggest storyline for the inside linebackers in 2014 (Photo by Brian Murphy)

Replacing London Fletcher is the biggest storyline for the inside linebackers in 2014 (Photo by Brian Murphy)

Perry Riley: The team’s “jack” linebacker returns after signing a three-year/$13 million contract in the offseason. Riley had an up-and-down year in the final season of his rookie contract in 2013, leading to debate as to whether or not the team would even bring back the 2010 fourth-rounder.

But with many holes, including inside linebacker due to Fletcher’s retirement, the team decided to re-sign Riley just before the start of free agency. He had a strong year in 2012 and looked to be on the rise. But although he led the team in tackles for the first time in his career last season, he seemed to regress a bit as he often struggled in coverage and, like many others, had too many missed tackles.

Riley is still young, only 26, so there’s certainly still time for him to improve and he’ll look to rebound in 2014 with improved tackling and coverage.

Keenan Robinson: When Fletcher announced his plans to retire towards the end of last season, it was immediately clear the Redskins would have a huge hole to fill in the offseason. While the 16-year veteran struggled last year, he was still the heart and soul of the defense and was truly a coach on the field with his knowledge and leadership. With the offseason acquisitions of Hayward, Jordan, and Sharpton, it was not clear initially who would fill the void on the starting defense.

As it turned out, the team decided to go with an in-house option, giving Robinson the first team reps in OTA’s and mini-camp. The third-year player has minimal experience, missing significant time due to pectoral injuries in each of his first two seasons, but when Washington drafted him in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, it appeared the team had a long, athletic linebacker that could perhaps take Fletcher’s place eventually.

While injuries may have stunted his development, it appears Robinson is up for the task in year three as he’s looked very good in training camp and preseason with the first-team defense. He will take over Fletcher’s “mike” role and will be responsible for making the calls in the defensive huddle. If he can stay healthy, he could be in line for a major breakout year.

Adam Hayward: After their extremely poor performance last season, improving the special teams units was a huge priority for Bruce Allen and Jay Gruden this offseason. The team went about this by bringing in hard-nosed players who have excelled on special teams in the past.

Enter Hayward who was drafted in the sixth round of the 2007 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and served as the special teams captain for them each of the past three seasons. The Redskins announced the signing of the eight-year veteran to a three-year deal on only the second day of free agency, indicating bringing him in to improve the special teams was a top priority. While he can fill in at inside linebacker, and has done so in the past with the Bucs, his primary duty will be to lead the revamped special teams unit.

Will Compton:  An undrafted rookie last season, Compton spent the majority of the year on the practice squad until getting promoted to the active roster in late December after Barnett was placed on IR. The Redskins did well to develop him and it appears he’s ready to contribute in his second season. Throughout training camp and the preseason, Compton consistently got reps with the second-team defense and can play either linebacker spot.

While he’s not a tremendous athlete, the 25-year-old linebacker appears to make sound tackles and knows the defense. Barring injury to one of the starters, he figures to primarily contribute on special teams in 2014.

Akeem Jordan: A free agent who played for the Kansas City Chiefs last year, Washington brought in Jordan on a one-year deal to provide depth at inside linebacker and further bolster the revamped special teams.

The 28-year-old had spent the first six seasons of his career under Andy Reid (first with the Philadelphia Eagles then Chiefs) before signing with Washington. Jordan is more of just a two-down linebacker because of deficiencies in coverage but he still figures to be a contributor on special teams.

Darryl Sharpton: A 26-year-old free agent coming from the Houston Texans, Sharpton was another one-year signing to provide depth and help on special teams. Unfortunately, the hard-hitting linebacker suffered a serious high-ankle sprain in the preseason and was placed on IR.


Joe Miller is Staff Writer for District Sports Page covering the Redskins. A southern Maryland native, Joe is an alumnus of the University of Maryland with a degree in communication. He’s been a passionate follower of D.C. sports and especially the Redskins his entire life, even watching a Redskins’ Super Bowl victory from his dad’s arms as a baby in 1992. When not watching sports, Joe works at the Bowie Baysox, a minor league baseball team in Prince George’s County, MD and also contributes content for Son of Washington. You can follow Joe on Twitter @JoeCoolMiller.

Washington Redskins 2014 Season Preview Part V: Tight Ends

All this week leading up to the Washington Redskins 2014 season opener against the Houston Texans on Sept. 7, District Sports Page is taking an in-depth look at the players that will make up the 53-man roster to start the season in a position-by-position breakdown.

In Part I, Neal Dalal took a look at the Quarterback position.
In Part II, Eric Hobeck examined the situation at running back.
In Part III, Joe Mercer previewed the wide receiver corps.
In Part IV, Joe Ziegengeist evaluated the offensive line.

Here now is Part V, a review of the tight ends.


Jordan Reed at training camp in 2013 (photo by Brian Murphy)

Jordan Reed at training camp in 2013 (photo by Brian Murphy)

The National Football League is an ever-evolving animal.

This has not been more evident than over the past few seasons thanks to the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Vernon Davis, and Jimmy Graham, all of whom have redefined what a tight end in the NFL is and should be.

Sure, athletic tight ends are nothing new, with Kellen Winslow Sr., John Mackey, and Ozzie Newsome paving the way for Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzales, and Shannon Sharpe, but a new breed of tight end are changing the way the position is played.

And defended.

Riding the wake created by Gonzales, Gates, and others that include Dallas Clark and Jason Witten, the tight end position has become amongst the most important on the field, and hardest for a defense to contain.

In 2011, one-third of players finishing in the top 15 in receptions were tight ends. Witten hauled in 110 catches in 2012, while Graham posted 86 receptions and a mindboggling 16 touchdowns in 2013.

Drafted in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft, it didn’t take long for Jordan Reed to prove he belongs, posting 45 receptions for 499 yards and three TDs in an injury-shortened rookie campaign.

Reed, who suffered a sprained thumb late in preseason but is expected to play when Washington opens the season in Houston on Sunday, set a franchise record by a rookie TE with a nine-catch, 134-yard, one-TD game against the Bears on his way to being named to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team.

Reed’s size and speed make him almost uncoverable — too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers — and if that’s not scary enough for opposing defensive coordinators, the addition of speed demons DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts will spread the field, creating pockets for the talented Reed to run free.

Although he won’t put up the same monster numbers as Graham in New Orleans, it is hard to imagine Reed catching anything less than 70, with six to 10 TDs. As long as he stays healthy, he will lead the team in touchdown receptions.

Considered more of a blocker than a pass-catching threat, Logan Paulsen filled in for the injured Reed in 2013, finishing with a career-high in receptions (28) and TDs (3).

Although not gifted with speed, Paulsen has become proficient in using his 6’5” 260 lbs frame to create mismatches on smaller defenders. He has sound hands and can make the tough catch.

Saying that receiver-turned-tight end Niles Paul has been a failed experiment would be putting it lightly.

A standout on special teams, the swift-footed Paul managed a career-high eight catches for 152 yards in 2012, but managed only four behind Reed and Paulsen in 2013.

The Redskins drafted Ted Bolser out of Indiana in the seventh-round of the 2014 Draft.

The preseason was anything but nice to the big-bodied Hoosier, who finished as his school’s all-time leader in catches, yards, and touchdowns by a tight end, but he was signed to the practice squad.

With Reed deserving of being mentioned as among the league’s top-five tight ends, it goes without saying that the Skins will have to deal with a dramatic drop off in talent if he were to go down with injury in 2014.


Joe Mercer is a Contributor to District Sports Page. A communications specialist with a municipal government north of the border, Joe is an aspiring author with close to 20 years experience in the newspaper business, including covering the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts for a small daily newspaper in Barrie, Ontario. A Redskins fanatic since the early 80s, Joe has often made the 12-hour journey from his hometown north of Toronto to Washington for both training camp and regular season games. You can follow Joe on Twitter @stylesmcfresh.

Washington Redskins 2014 Season Preview Part IV: Offensive Line

All this week leading up to the Washington Redskins 2014 season opener against the Houston Texans on Sept. 7, District Sports Page is taking an in-depth look at the players that will make up the 53-man roster to start the season in a position-by-position breakdown.

In Part I, Neal Dalal took a look at the Quarterback position.
In Part II, Eric Hobeck examined the situation at running back.
In Part III, Joe Mercer previewed the wide receiver corps.

Here now is Part IV, a look at the men responsible for protecting Robert Griffin III, the offensive line. [Read more...]

Washington Redskins 2014 Season Preview Part III: Wide Receivers

All this week leading up to the Washington Redskins 2014 season opener against the Houston Texans on Sept. 7, District Sports Page is taking an in-depth look at the players that will make up the 53-man roster to start the season in a position-by-position breakdown.

Monday, Neal Dalal took a look at the Quarterback position.
Tuesday, Eric Hobeck examined the situation at running back.

This is the preview of the wide receiver corps.


[Read more...]

Washington Redskins Season Preview Part II: Running Backs

All this week leading up to the Washington Redskins 2014 season opener against the Houston Texans on Sept. 7, District Sports Page is taking an in-depth look at the players that will make up the 53-man roster to start the season in a position-by-position breakdown.

Monday, Neal Dalal took a look at the Quarterback position.

Tuesday, we examine the situation at running back. Who will be the third down back, who didn’t make the team and just how deep are the Redskins in the backfield.


[Read more...]

Washington Redskins 2014 Season Preview Part I: Quarterbacks

All this week leading up to the Washington Redskins 2014 season opener against the Houston Texans on Sept. 7, District Sports Page is taking an in-depth look at the players that will make up the 53-man roster to start the season in a position-by-position breakdown.

Monday we look at the competition at quarterback. More realistically, we asked the question: Is there a competition at quarterback?


In the recent history of the Washington Redskins, the biggest question that is most often repeated year after year is “Who should play quarterback in order to give the Redskins the best chance to succeed?”

Under the helm of Mike Shanahan, he brought in Donovan McNabb to replace a developing Jason Campbell. Then he benched McNabb during the end of a game against the Detroit Lions to have Rex Grossman attempt a game-winning drive. Next, we had the Grossman and John Beck fiasco that ended in a wasted season, enticing the Redskins decided to move up in the next draft to grab Robert Griffin III.

Surprisingly, Washington drafted another quarterback, Kirk Cousins,three rounds later and questions automatically began to fly about whether there would be a battle for the starting signal caller. In 2012, all of those questions were put to rest as Griffin led his team to the division title and a home playoff game for the first time since 1999.

Unfortunately for both the Redskins and Griffin, 2012 ended with its offensive leader going into the offseason broken and physically incapable of getting ready for the next season. Questions again arose about whether Griffin would be able to start the season against Philadelphia and if Cousins should fill in until the week five bye after having an impressive pre-season showcase.

After dropping five straight games after a 3-5 start, Griffin was benched for “safety precautions”. Cousins had a trial run of three games but did not win any of the encounters, though he showed potential as a leader. With the incredibly disappointing 3-13 record, both head coach Mike and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan were given the boot and replaced by former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

Beginning the 2014 training camp there seemed to be no controversy as Gruden immediately named Griffin as the starter. Everyone felt that with a full offseason and playing without a hindering knee brace, the former Heisman winner could return to form and lead this team once again.

However, after a mediocre and lackluster preseason from the first string offense, there were some doubters if Griffin was the best option for the team. Griffin went 13 for 20 for 141 yards, two interceptions, was sacked four times, and multiple questionable decisions. The controversy was fueled by former Redskins great Joe Theismann when he made the following comment:

“Let’s stop beating around the bush. Kirk Cousins has played much better at the quarterback position than Robert Griffin III has. Now, Robert is learning to work out of a pocket. He doesn’t look as smooth or as comfortable throwing the football. I mean, your eyes will tell you everything you need to know.

It’s going to be a decision that Jay Gruden will to have to make. Right now, Robert Griffin III is his quarterback. Now, if there was a quarterback competition, it wouldn’t be a competition. Kirk Cousins would be the man I believe he would have to go to, because of the efficiency with which he has run [the offense]. Now Kirk, like I said, is basically a drop-back quarterback. I see Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, I see Kirk Cousins that way”.

Although Cousins has looked impressive during the course of the first three preseason games, he did so against backup defenders, many of whom will not be employed in the coming month. It was crystal clear that Cousins had a much cleaner pocket with more time to throw when compared to Griffin running for his life against the Ravens. Furthermore, Cousins already had his chance to compete for the starting job when he played against starting caliber defenses at the end of last year, where he faired okay, but not to the extent where he would unseat Griffin.

To add another twist to the already confusing puzzle, the St. Louis Rams lost their franchise quarterback Sam Bradford, again to that same dreaded torn ACL injury. With Cousins being a young and capable backup with some game experience, rumors began to swirl linking the two teams because of their history in trading picks for the Redskins’s right to select Griffin. However, at this time Rams’s coach Jeff Fisher claims he is sticking with his veteran backup, former Maryland standout Shaun Hill.

For now, there will not major developments or changes at the quarterback position for the Redskins. Griffin will start and continue to do so until he physically cannot or he loses the support of his teammates. Some fans may be quick to blame Griffin for last year’s disappointment simply because he did not save a team that had an atrocious defense and special teams.

Cousins will continue to be the guy who is one play away from getting into the game. Cousins will have to bide his time while Griffin gets every opportunity to fulfill the promise that everyone saw in 2012. Perhaps Cousins’ best opportunity might be with another franchise, but for now, he’s the backup unless Griffin proves once and for all he’s unfit for the job.

Colt McCoy will be retained as the third string signal caller because of Griffin’s injury history and is more than capable in that role, as he could be many teams’ primary backup.

The organization, coaching staff, players and all Redskins fans hope Griffin shakes off the rust, quiets the doubters, and takes his team to new heights.


Neil Dalal is a Staff Writer for District Sports Page covering the Redskins. Neil grew up in Silver Spring, MD and attends the University of Maryland studying Journalism. Neil has loved everything related to the Redskins, Wizards,  Capitals, and Terrapins since he was eight years old. Neil, however, favors the Orioles as he started watching baseball before the Expos moved to DC. You can follow Neil on Twitter @NeilDalal96.

Nats second opening day comes with added enthusiasm

The Washington Nationals play the Atlanta Braves in the first of a three-game series Friday at 1:10 pm. Sounds clinical when it’s put in those terms. That could describe any series opening game at any point in the season.

But this series opener is also the home opener on the schedule — the first of 81 games in the regular season for the Nats to play with a homefield advantage. It’s also the first time for many in attendance — yours truly included — to see the Nats for the first time in person this calendar year. Unless you were fortunate enough to make a pilgrimage to Viera for Spring Training, or shuffled up to New York to see the Mets series, you’re in the same boat.

This game would have been special — for fans, the players, the organization, the city — regardless of circumstances. But it comes on the heels of a three-game sweep of the division rival Mets. Most opening days come with as much uncertainty as excitement. But Friday’s home opener comes with added enthusiasm. We’ve already seen a lot of what the Nats could be this season in just three games

We’ve already seen Stephen Strasburg recover from a shaky start to strike out 10 in six innings. We’ve seen Gio Gonzalez dominate an undermanned Mets team — and smack a home run to boot.

Ryan Zimmerman’s second inning blast Thursday reminds us of just how important a player he is for the team, just as his throwing error Wednesday reminds us that his defense isn’t what it used to be, and may never be again.

Tanner Roark showed more of the promise in Thursday’s emergency start that he gave a glimpse of at the end of last season. Denard Span, Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa all had a promising opening series after last season’s disappointments. And Jayson Werth kept on hitting.

What we haven’t seen yet is Bryce Harper bust out with any noise yet. Manager Matt Williams indicated in his pregame press conference that Harper’s swing was a “tick off” so far. Asked to elaborate, Williams declined, saying he was not at liberty to talk about it. Cause for concern? Maybe, but worry? Not yet.

The Nats have won coming from behind late. They’ve dominated a game. And they’ve grinded a win out for a late-blooming prospect. We’ve seen a lot so far in just three games, and that makes the home opener that much more exciting for the home fans. This is a season of big possibilities. It’ll take six months to play out.

But we’ve already seen a lot.

Happy Opening Day everyone.

Washington Nationals 2014 Season Preview: Five biggest issues to watch

Here we go again.

The Washington Nationals, despite not qualifying for the playoffs last season and spending the first three-quarters of the season in the bottom-three in the N.L. generating base runners, are preseason favorites in the N.L. East and a popular pick again for the World Series.

The Nats are a talented team with a nice blend of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance. With big paydays ahead for Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann (with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper not too far behind), the time is now for the Nats to really start making noise on the national level.

Most of the prognosticators are ignoring all the warning signs and putting their reputations on the line for the Nats. Are they capable of making a long playoff run? Yes. But simply ignoring warning signs from last season and expecting another near-perfect run in the regular season like 2012 would be foolish.

GM Mike Rizzo had a nice offseason. The addition of Doug Fister (presuming health) was enough to merit a good grade, but they also added veteran outfielder Nate McLouth to strengthen the bench and mitigate the inevitable Jayson Werth trip to the disabled list or Bryce Harper crashing into an outfield wall. The cherry on top was picking up lefty Jerry Blevins, who’s useful against righties just as well, for the bullpen.

Last week, Rizzo picked up UTL Kevin Frandsen off the waiver wire from the Phillies. This may prove to be a key addition to the bench as well.

But there are still plenty of question marks heading into the 2014 season. What are the top five issues Nats fans need to watch for? At the end of last season, I wrote a couple of columns on what went wrong in 2013. That’s a good place to start since many of the same issues still exist.

This might seem like I’m down on the Nats chances. Not so. The bar for this team is set around 91-92 wins. Best case scenario sees Harper bust out instead of incremental improvement, Werth’s normalization from last season’s overachieving isn’t a free-fall, and LaRoche recovers to career-average production instead of sliding further.

They could get reach the 95-96 win total without injury. Either way, I’m predicting first in the N.L. East by default. Atlanta was crippled by injuries to its rotation and the rest of the division is either too old (Philly), not ready (Mets) or flat-out lacking in talent (Miami). Of course, worst-case scenario sees all of the below scenarios blowing up and derailing another promising season.

GETTING ON BASE

Overall, the team carried a .313 OBP, in the bottom third of the league and it could have been worse if not for a hot stretch the last five weeks of the season — as late as mid-August they were next-to-last in total baserunners and finished just 12th in the league. They have to be better setting the table to truly contend.

But the starting roster is intact from last season, when the Nats needed a scorching hot final seven weeks to climb out of the cellar of run scoring and putting runners on base. That stretch coincided with Denard Span’s hot streak, so maybe Rizzo figures Span’s adjustment period to the N.L. is over and he’ll contribute a his career average .350 OBP at the top of the order all season long.

Span bottomed out on Aug. 16 at .258/.310/.353, nowhere near what’s necessary in the top spot in the batting order. For the next 39 games, he hit .338/.375/.459, instrumental in the Nats late resurgence. It was too little, too late to save the Nats playoff aspirations, but the Nats have to get more near his career line (.283/.351/.387) on a more consistent basis to make this offense work.

Hopefully, Anthony Rendon will eventually settle into the second spot in the order. In his rookie season (while learning a brand new position at the Major League level), Rendon hit .265/.329/.396 with seven homers and 23 doubles. In his short minor league career, the now 23-year-old hit .269/.408/.531 and he’s always been lauded for his plate discipline.

If Rendon can handle the two-spot, it goes a long way in helping Matt Williams set the heart of the order and provide protection for the next bullet point.

HITTING AGAINST LEFTIES

The Nats lefty swingers were a combined .211/.283/.291 last season, including Span’s .223/.278/.261, Bryce Harper’s .214/.327/.321, Adam LaRoche’s .198/.254/.313. That’s fully one-third of the Nats’ everyday lineup that hit like a pitcher against lefties.

I have very little doubt Harper will figure it out. He’s a world class baseball talent and hitting against lefties is the last element from him absolutely exploding at the plate.

Span is still in the prime of his career and should bounce back closer to his career norms of .281/.358/.374 (including last season) against southpaws.

LaRoche is a completely different matter. He’s 34. He’s never been good against lefties to begin with (.244/.300/.430 career). In his career year of 2012 he only hit .268/.319/.506 vs. LHP. This is very much a player in steady decline and really should be relegated to platoon work at this stage in his career.

He’s still capable with the glove, but he’s overrated in this market with exactly how much value he brings defensively considering the stone hands the organization ran out there before him at the position. If LaRoche slides anymore from what he provided with the bat in ’13, it’ll be time to consider other options at the position (see below).

RYAN ZIMMERMAN’S SHOULDER

Ah yes. Here it is. I was speaking with DSP’s fantasy baseball contributor Chris Garosi the other day during an on-line draft, and he remarked that the most important Nats player this season is Zach Walters. His theory: Zimmerman’s shoulder (and defense in general) is so unreliable at this point that his move to first base is more imminent than anyone in D.C. wants to admit. With Danny Espinosa’s problems with the bat (more below), Walters could factor very big in D.C. mid-season.

While that might be gloom and doom, it’s probably not far off.

I’m not a doctor. But I have had my share of shoulder injuries. In fact, I had the same injury as Zim (tear of the Acromioclavicular joint). Mine was a complete tear. Obviously I don’t have access to Zim’s medical file, and he’s had it surgically repaired. But he spent most of last season still mired in the throwing problems and had a not-so-mysterious lack of power until late in the season. It’s entirely possible that it took that long for the joint to gain strength back.

Offensively, Zimmerman should be fine. His defense got better as the season went along, but we still saw some problems with his throwing in spring training. This situation bears close attention, as Zimmerman remains the most important National and the Face of the Franchise. He’s signed through 2019. He could very well outlast Desmond, Zimmermann, Strasburg and Harper.

His bat is much more valuable at third than first base. But if he can’t provide the defense, he’s going to have to move. If that move is predicated by ineffectiveness by LaRoche, or Zimmerman’s throwing woes, it’ll come sooner than later, and perhaps even this season.

BACK OF THE BULLPEN

Do you have confidence in Rafael Soriano?

According to Fangraphs, Soriano has lost speed off his fastball the past four seasons in a row. He’s walking less, but striking out shockingly less, as hitters are making much more contact on him on pitches inside — and outside — of the strike zone. Outside the strike zone, baters went from 22.9 percent contact rate in ’12 to 29.6 percent in ’13. On strikes, the contact rate went from 60.8 percent to 63.9 percent. He’s given up 12 hits in five inning in Florida.

His hits per nine innings jumped an alarming 1.5 hits from ’12 to ’13 (with normal .296 BABiP) while his K/9 rate fell to 6.9. His line drive rate and fly ball rate are going up, his ground ball rate is going down.

All of this is dangerous territory and a recipe for unmitigated disaster. This is a pitcher whose skills are eroding very quickly.

As for options, of course Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen remain. Both have 40-save seasons to their credit. Clippard continues to defy logic with his repertoire of high fastballs and disappearing changeups from his awkward delivery.

Storen, on the other hand, remains a mystery.

Our Stuart Wallace took a look at Storen’s alarming rise in walk rate last week. Storen was fairly horrible the first couple months of last season, due to a large number of batted balls falling in and a higher walk rate (5.95 ERA, fueled by a .355 BABiP before demotion). After his exile in Syracuse, he came back with a more streamlined, natural delivery, rather than the unusual and clumsy straight leg kick he used. He had better command, kept the ball down and was pretty much his old self.

But he’s been back to getting lit up this spring. All caveats on spring training stats, but he’s walked six in 6 2/3 innings, while giving up nine hits and six earned runs. How long a leash does he have this season?

HELP FROM THE BENCH?

Last season the Nats bench was horrific. There’s no other way to say it. .207/.264/.351. Those are pitcher’s batting numbers.

They picked up Nate McLouth as a free agent to be the primary left-handed bat on the bench. McLouth is a capable fielder at all three outfield spots, so if the Nats have an injury there they at least have an MLB-caliber replacement, something they didn’t have last season in Steve Lombardozzi.

But for everyone’s fawning over the 32-year-old, let’s remember: prior to his career renaissance last season with Baltimore, McLouth had been simply waived by Pittsburgh (twice) and Atlanta.  In ’10 and ’11 with Atlanta he hit .190 and .228 with 10 homers combined. His first 34 games with Pittsburgh in ’12 were no better: .140/.210/.175, leading to his release. He’s never hit higher than .276 and is a career .250/.334/.418 hitter. He’s a capable backup, not more.

The other outfielder is Scott Hairston. Hairston is the right-handed hitting Yin to McLouth’s Yang. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work on paper. But Hairston’s overall numbers last year (.191/.237/.414) and age (34) – not to mention his paltry .214/.259/.484 against LHPs, who he’s supposed to “mash” — signal the end is rapidly approaching for the once versatile and useful player.

It’s true, all 10 of Hairston’s homers last season came against lefties, but as his slash line indicates, it was literally all or nothing for Hairston. 10 of his 27 hits in 140 plate appearances against LHPs were home runs. Against righties? .097/.147/.276. Can this actually be the Nats primary right-handed bat off the bench? With a walk rate of 5 percent and contact rate of 72 percent, this a guy whose skills aren’t declining, they’ve just about evaporated.

Danny Espinosa “won” a utility job in spring training after hitting .226/.305/.415 in 59 plate appearances. Where to start with Espinosa?

The rotator cuff tear in 2012 that he never had surgically repaired? The broken wrist that he sustained in April only to be revealed/properly diagnosed in late May which allowed him to “hit” .158/.193/.272 in 167 PAs? The months of ineptitude in Triple-A (.216/.280/.286 in 75 games) after taking just two weeks off to let the wrist calm down?

Espinosa’s career is at a crossroads as his performance has fallen completely off the table as his injuries continued to mount. If Espinosa can return healthy — and that’s not a given — he can provide 20 homer power and speed with Gold Glove caliber defense. After spring training, and the waiver-wire pick-up of Kevin Frandsen, we’re still waiting to see him prove his health.

Frandsen can play all over the diamond and outfield, and he’s proven adept at pinch-hitting (which is a highly volatile “skill”), but he has no power and doesn’t run. He is the very definition of journeyman utility player.

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