ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — Right tackle was supposed to be the must-watch position battle for the Washington Redskins through training camp and preseason. Which of the three candidates would replace longtime favorite Jon Jansen? Would the winner be a sufficient anchor on a line that didn't perform well in the second half of last season?
The battle turned into a no-contest. Partly by default, and partly through performance, Stephon Heyer will be the starter Sept. 13 when the Redskins open the regular season at the New York Giants. The third-year player who wasn't drafted out of Maryland has shown more than the veterans brought in to compete against him.
"Stephon Heyer's way ahead of everybody, man," offensive line coach Joe Bugel said Tuesday. "He's a legit tackle. He's improved tremendously. This is his third year. He's been through all kind of torment and torture by me for three years. He deserves this opportunity. He's taking advantage of it."
Right tackle looked to be a four-way contest until late May, when the Redskins decided that age and injuries had caught up with Jansen and released him. Having failed to address the position in the draft or with a significant free agency signing, the front office put its faith into a trio of contenders: Heyer, Mike Williams and Jeremy Bridges.
Williams is an inspirational story that has yet to pay dividends on a practice field. The former first-round pick with the Buffalo Bills has lost more than 100 pounds in his bid to return to the NFL after three years away. But dehydration, a groin injury and now a sprained ankle could lead to a disappointing end to the comeback experiment.
"I'm about to the point where I'm tired of talking about this every week," Williams said, discussing his latest injury as he walked off the field this week.
And Bugel will get tired of waiting.
"I think the nagging injury, at one time you have to say, 'I'm playing.' Take an aspirin. Take an Alka-Seltzer. Let it dissolve. Play," Bugel said. "I wake up every morning hurting from head to toe. This is a violent game, you're going to be hurting."
Bridges has started 39 games at tackle and guard over six NFL seasons with Philadelphia, Arizona and Carolina, but he's looked much more at home at guard with the Redskins. He'll make the roster as a utility backup.
Meanwhile, Heyer has been setback-free. He's stronger and more flexible after spending part of the offseason in a workout program in Arizona with teammates Chris Samuels, Derrick Dockery and Williams. Plus, he's no longer being yo-yoed from left tackle to right tackle and back — his previous 12 starts over two seasons came at whichever position had an injury.
"I would not say he's there by default," coach Jim Zorn said. "He's taken every opportunity to step in there and not look back. He hasn't looked over his shoulder."
Heyer has always been a better pass-blocker than run-blocker, but Zorn thinks Heyer has improved enough that the running game will no longer be skewed to run disproportionately behind six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Samuels.
"We're not having to be left-handed," Zorn said. "You can go both ways and feel comfortable."
No NFC quarterback was sacked more than Jason Campbell last season. Clinton Portis had only one 100-yard rushing game over the second half of the year. Samuels and right guard Randy Thomas both had multiple surgeries during the offseason, raising concerns about their durability over a 16-game season. If Heyer can put the right tackle position to rest, that would be one less headache for Bugel, Zorn and company.
"I think I've come light years from where I was a couple of years ago," Heyer said. "Knowledge is power when it comes to this position the more years you're out there to experience a lot of things. I think the game has slowed down a little bit for me where I can make calls and do certain things differently."