With apologies to the late, great Jerry Smith, Chris Cooley is the best tight end the Washington Redskins have ever had.

In six and a half seasons (he missed the second half of 2009 with a broken ankle), Cooley has 420 catches, two shy of topping 14-year veteran Smith for fifth on Washington’s career list. If Cooley can match the 849 yards he recorded in each of his last two full seasons, he’ll be just 10 yards shy of passing Smith’s career total of 5,496 which ranks seventh in Redskins history. That’s no mean feat considering that three of the burgundy and gold’s top six are enshrined in Canton.

What’s more, Cooley, who won’t be 30 until next July, is third among NFL tight ends in yards after the catch and fourth in catches and yards since he arrived in Washington as a third-round draft choice in 2004.

On the current roster, only Mike Sellers, who has been shunted to a backup role and might not survive this summer’s cuts, has been a Redskin longer than Cooley.

But that’s all on paper. The bad news for Cooley is that his “sore” left knee kept him out of practice all last week as well as the preseason opener against Pittsburgh after which coach Mike Shanahan said he expected the two-time Pro Bowl pick to miss another couple of weeks. That moved Cooley’s return to perhaps the Sept. 1 preseason finale against Tampa Bay.

But then Shanahan said he wasn’t sure if Cooley, who had the knee scoped in January, would be ready for the season opener against the New York Giants 10 days later. Some “sore” knee.

“He’s getting some rehab,” said Shanahan, who declined to confirm a report that Cooley had seen Dr. James Andrews, the go-to surgeon for NFL players. “He’s working extremely hard. He can get some mental reps by looking at the film. He’ll probably be working in the weight room the majority of the time, but there’s no sense putting added pressure on the knee.”

That makes sense since the Giants’ game is still 26 days away, but Cooley’s absence during the regular season would put more pressure on the rest of the skill position players on Washington’s offense which could include new starters in quarterback John Beck, receiver Jabar Gaffney and running back Tim Hightower.

Fred Davis did a fine job filling in when Cooley was hurt in 2009, but the Redskins still went 2-7 the rest of the way after Cooley went down. With Cooley healthy last year, Davis basically faded from view. And as the starter last Friday, Davis couldn’t hold onto a deep ball when crunched by two Steelers defenders.

It’s premature to forecast Cooley missing the season or even needing serious surgery, but for a team that’s already fighting an uphill battle in the NFC East against Philadelphia, the New York Giants and Dallas after three straight last-place finished, an injury to any key player can’t be breezily dismissed with a “he’ll be fine” thought.

Simply put, the Redskins — who haven’t had bone-jarring safety LaRon Landry on the field for nine months but hope to have him back very soon and were also minus free safety O.J. Atgowe (hamstring), Beck (groin) and Torain (hand) against Pittsburgh — can’t afford not to have all hands on deck.

David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.


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