Taking a look at each position unit entering Washington Redskins training camp. Today: Tight ends.
Key additions: Devin Mahina
Key losses: None
Others returning: Niles Paul
Up for grabs: Nothing and everything. The Redskins want to upgrade this position, though they did very little to do so in the offseason (Mahina was an undrafted free agent). Reed is the most talented, yet there is frustration with his inability to stay on the field. Paulsen is the best blocker, yet he must improve over last season. The key here is how the added 10-15 pounds translates on the field for Paul. There are new bosses in town; time to impress.
Reed's production: As a rookie, the coaches liked his ability to run after the catch, to separate and to become a bigger threat downfield. But, last season, Reed's primary work came on short routes. The average air yards on passes thrown to him as a rookie was 6.61 while last season it was 4.40, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The result: Reed averaged 11.03 yards per catch as a rookie and 9.30 this past season. Those numbers were even more pronounced on third downs -- and I think it would be wise if the Redskins reverted to how he had been used as a rookie. Again, the air yards tell the story: It was 7.59 as a rookie and 2.85 last season. Too many times they'd throw short and hope he could run for the first down (for me, Pierre Garcon would be better in this situation). Reed averaged 11.43 yards per catch on third down compared to 7.33 last season. Is that a big deal? Well, he converted 13 of 14 third-down receptions into first downs as a rookie and only eight of 18 last season.
Paul's production: He's coming off a career-best 39 catches, but there was a clear division of his production in 2014, thanks to Reed's absence or presence. Paul caught 21 of those passes in the season's first four games and caught just six passes in the final six games. He was more of a factor downfield, averaging 13.0 yards per catch (average air yards traveled per pass: 7.51). But Paul was a non-factor on third downs with only four receptions -- all in the first three games.
What they need: Better blocking. This group was too inconsistent for the coaches when it came to blocking and that includes Paulsen, too. It's not just on the offensive line to pass protect or open holes in the run game. They want, and need the tight ends to produce as blockers or other areas won't work. Bill Callahan likes to involve the tight ends more than most in pass protection, though it does not sound like it will be a whole lot different than it was before he arrived. Reed blocked better as a rookie than he did last season and that can't happen again. Paul's added weight will help in this area; he's worked on improving his angles and hand placement but sometimes was just outweighed. He's still slightly undersized but is a whole lot more suited to the position now than in the past.
Keep an eye on: Mahina. That's not to say I think he'll make the roster, but he does offer some intrigue because of his size (6-foot-6, 250 pounds). During the spring, I did not see him creating much separation on routes (in a very small sample size). Turns out that was a knock of his in college as well, though he was considered good after the catch. He finished with 20 catches for 244 yards and three touchdowns as a senior. A big factor will be his blocking: multiple scouting services rated him inconsistent in this area at BYU. Another key aspect: He's already 26, having served two years on a mission and then getting redshirted another year.
Outlook: Mixed. A lot depends on Reed's health and if he can stay on the field -- and whether he'll improve in all areas. If he's a playmaker, then you can live a little more with his blocking deficiencies, but he absolutely must improve there. Paulsen and Paul help from scrimmage and on special teams, but each also must do more as blockers. Can they? Or have they reached their peaks? Paulsen has done well here in the past and Paul continues to grow as a tight end (no, that's not a pun about the added weight). I'll be curious to see if and when they add another tight end -- not a lot of options out there. It might have to wait until after final cuts.