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Training camp questions countdown: Chris Cooley

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This week I’m counting down the five most important personnel questions facing the Redskins in training camp and the preseason.

Monday – No. 5: Who will win the starting free safety position?

Tuesday – No. 4: What will the offensive line look like, considering two first-stringers are working back to full health?

No. 3: What will become of tight end Chris Cooley?

The answer doesn’t impact the Redskins’ on-field product as much as the offensive line issues we explored Tuesday. Cooley, after all, is not the first-string tight end. But this question is ranked higher because of Cooley’s status as a fan favorite and his place atop the Redskins’ tight end records list. The intrigue certainly is there.

Cooley, when healthy, is a productive receiver and blocker – perhaps Washington’s most complete tight end, ahead of Fred Davis. Cooley, who turned 30 last week, insisted in May that his surgically repaired left knee feels better than it has in years. The problem two months ago was that he admittedly couldn’t run as fast as he used to.

Cooley’s speed will be a major factor in determining his place on this year’s team. Let’s see during camp if he runs well. If so, it’s fair to expect him to be a potent receiver, who, as we all remember, is exceptional gaining yards after the catch. Tight ends are critical blockers in the outside zone scheme, as well, and Cooley is a fine blocker when his legs are right. That wasn’t the case last season, when he played only five games due to knee and hand injuries.

The Redskins already are exploring other tight end options. Niles Paul converted from wide receiver this offseason. He’ll create mismatches as a receiver because of his speed. However, Paul must prove he can block bigger defensive ends, and mastering the hand placement and leverage that requires will take time.

Another factor in play is that Cooley costs $6.23 million against this season’s salary cap. That’s more than any Redskin except left tackle Trent Williams and cornerback DeAngelo Hall.

The Redskins are approximately $3.1 million under the cap after quarterback Robert Griffin signed Wednesday morning. Third-round pick Josh LeRibeus’ deal shouldn’t count more than around $600,000, so the Redskins will have some flexibility if they need to sign a veteran during camp. But if for some unforeseen reason (i.e. injury) the Redskins needed to make an expensive player acquisition, Cooley’s cap number would jump off the page.

One thing is clear from talking to Cooley: He desperately wants to be part of the Redskins’ turnaround. The franchise means a lot to him, understandably so. He joined the team the same year Joe Gibbs returned, and he tasted the playoffs in ’05 and ’07. It’s the only pro team he’s ever played for.

Now that Mike Shanahan is coaching the team and Griffin is on board, Cooley, like many others, sees the franchise on an upward arc. He’ll give full effort to make sure he’s along for the ride.

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