ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Redskins tight ends coach Wes Phillips clearly likes the group he’ll work with this summer. That’s why, when asked in the spring if this was the best group he’s coached in Washington, he took it one step further.
“This is the best group in the league, if you ask me,” Phillips said in June. “I don’t know all of them, but I feel like the luckiest tight end coach in the league for sure.”
It’s not just because he has a top starter in Jordan Reed or that Vernon Davis showed last year he could still play. Phillips likes the depth of the group, which means he'll face tough decisions when final cuts are made later this summer. The Redskins likely will keep four tight ends, but they have five who will be in the running for a spot.
Here’s what Phillips has to work with:
Jordan Reed: He’s obviously one of the best tight ends in the league, with durability his biggest knock. Reed, going into his fifth year, has yet to play 16 games in a season and concussions are a problem. But Reed continues to improve his game; his footwork while running routes is terrific, and he constantly wins one-on-one battles. Reed’s blocking has never been a strength, but at times he’s fine in this area. He’s paid big money to produce as a pass-catcher. In the past two seasons, quarterback Kirk Cousins has a combined 121.4 passer rating when targeting Reed (out of 201 attempts). That's 153 catches and 17 touchdowns.
Reed worked out in Florida instead of with the Redskins this spring. When he showed up for minicamp, Reed looked the same -- and perhaps just a little bit better when cutting in and out of breaks.
“As a guy who lost body fat and gained muscle, why can’t it be better?” Phillips said.
Vernon Davis: He showed he could still get open and, with the talent around him, he was left in favorable situations. Davis finished with 44 receptions in 2016. In the spring, Davis still looked fast –- and he’ll remain a downfield threat over the middle. The Redskins would like to use more play-action, which should help Davis. He’ll often be on the field in running situations because of his ability to block. Davis blocked well, though he was better in the first half of the season than down the stretch in this area.
Niles Paul: He can do a little of everything, but he does need to stay healthy after missing all of 2015 and eight games a year ago. Paul can handle in-line duties, though it was not his strength prior to 2015. He’s best on the move and blocks well in space -- and always has, dating to when he entered the NFL as a receiver. He also can line up at fullback when needed. The position is not as big in coach Jay Gruden’s offense, but Paul improved in the role last season before getting hurt.
“Niles is a beast,” Phillips said. “Niles is toughness, leadership, attitude. Hard work. All the things you want from a guy and great athletic ability. He can still run.”
Derek Carrier: He’s much more of a receiver than a blocker. This was his first healthy offseason with Washington. He was acquired in an August 2015 trade but spent last year rehabbing a torn ACL.
“He’s a grinder in everything he does,” Phillips said. “He’s very smart, aggressive, fast.”
Jeremy Sprinkle: If he makes the roster, Sprinkle would provide size at 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds. He was their fifth-round pick in April, but it will be tough for him to win a job given the competition. But if Sprinkle shows promise, he’d give the Redskins a young tight end. Younger usually means healthier, too. That’s important considering Reed’s injury history and the fact that Paul and Carrier have had their issues, too.
“He’ll play for a long time in this league,” Phillips said of Sprinkle.