Starters: Logan Paulsen, Fred Davis
Reserves: Niles Paul, Chris Cooley
By the numbers: Davis wasn’t as big a factor in the passing game even before his injury. Though he was on pace for 55 catches, his big gains were slightly down. He managed four gains of 20 or more yards – one for every six receptions. Last season he averaged one such play every 4.2 catches. But he averaged 13.5 yards per catch in each of the past two seasons.
Better than 2011: Worse because of Davis’ injury. It took away a dynamic player at this position.
Analysis: After a quiet preseason, Davis made a little more noise in the seven games he played. But it was a sign of the Redskins new era that he was not making as many plays as he did in 2011, when he was the only pass catching target who could threaten a defense.
Davis was on pace for 55 catches when he tore his Achilles’ tendon. That’s a good number, but in 12 games a year earlier he caught 59 passes (and was targeted 81 times; he was on pace to be targeted 71 times this past fall). But when an offense invests at receiver and wants to make more plays downfield the tight end becomes a little bit less productive. But, had he stayed healthy, all it would have taken is a couple big games to alter his pace.
Somehow, despite his ability, Davis was able to get wide open at times. But you have to credit Robert Griffin III, and the scheme, for this. Defenses lost sight of Davis more than they would in a regular offense and it resulted in big plays. Watch Vernon Davis with the 49ers; he, too, gets lost by defenders because of how long defenders have to look in the backfield.
There’s no doubt Davis is a good pass-catcher, however. He’s become reliable, both with his hands and his routes. But, for me at least, his biggest improvement came as a blocker. I’d chuckle in the past when Davis would talk about his blocking because one good game would be followed by a terrible one in that area.
However, he was much more consistent in this role. He was better with his hands; he absorbed blocks better. Yes, Davis messed up on occasion (a missed block on the backside vs. Atlanta prevented an Alfred Morris touchdown). But he was much, much better. The Redskins need to re-sign Davis.
Paulsen was much better than a year ago. It wasn’t just his hands, it was his consistency as a blocker. Paulsen did a good job getting his feet around to seal the edges and understood better where to meet defenders. His improvement was a factor in the better stats running the ball. In 2011, he’d often meet them too deep, leading to problems. That wasn’t the case this past fall. He’s not fast; he’s not explosive. But his strong hands resulted in tough catches at times.
Paulsen did slow down as a pass-catcher, with 13 catches in the final eight games. But he still finished with 25 catches and a touchdown. Defenses did a better job of taking away certain routes out of the zone-read play-action game. But the healthier Pierre Garcon was, the more the quarterbacks looked for him and not necessarily the tight ends.
Paul did not have a terrific impact after switching from receiver, but it does take time to adapt to a new position. Even Paul underestimated the transition, something he admitted during the season. It wasn’t just a strength issue, but rather learning angles and proper footwork. Being a good athlete with toughness and good speed for the position is not enough. He’s a willing blocker and did his best work when he was able to get to the second level and in space.
Cooley was a good teammate, but was not much of a factor after his return. His blocking was fine, but he was not a part of the passing game and it’s hard to imagine him returning. He remains a smart player, which enabled him to jump into any spot. But even in training camp practices he did not run the way he once did – and though speed was never an asset he was now a step slower. I will say, it’s telling that he still considered this one of his most enjoyable seasons despite finishing with one catch. Cooley will segue into a nice TV career.
2013 outlook: It all depends on whether or not Davis returns. If he does then the Redskins should be encouraged. Paulsen continues to develop and, while not explosive, he is a solid blocker and has strong hands.
Paul needs to show he can be a legitimate tight end, something he did not do this season. There’s no doubt Paul is an excellent special teamer – it’s why the coaches wanted to keep him around. And he wasn’t going to make it as a receiver. You can’t have him switch to another position at this point – they’ve already made it clear he can’t play wideout for them — so he’ll have to get better at tight end.
If Davis and Paulsen are back and healthy, then Paul’s role will be as the occasional blocker and as a tough matchup for linebackers. But he needs to stay on his feet to be a consistent threat. He didn’t always look comfortable running routes from tight end; will one year plus another offseason alter that? Paul admitted during the season that, based on offseason workouts, he assumed his athleticism would help him a lot more than it did. He learned how important technique was and he’ll have to focus on that in the offseason.
Regardless, they should look to the draft to find another potential pass-catcher at this spot.
Offseason goals: Re-sign Davis. The tricky part is what do you pay him? If they used the franchise tag on him again it would cost around $6.6 million. Can they afford it? Or would it be best to sign him to multi-year deal with a lower cost per season (as my guy Grant Paulsen from 106.7 The Fan suggests). They also need to look at this position in the draft to bolster depth. Paul is a big-time special teams player, but does he have a position? He has to make it work at tight end.