By Grant Paulsen

Although the majority of the starters won’t be playing tonight for the Washington Redskins, the final preseason game presents some interesting battles worth watching.

Here are five players to keep an eye on tonight as they vie for a spot on the Redskins’ 53-man roster, which must be set by Saturday at 6 p.m.

RB Chris Thompson

The 2013 fifth-round pick didn’t play in Washington’s first preseason game and wasn’t able to flash on special teams until the club’s third exhibition tilt. He’s being asked to run more inside-zone plays this preseason (he’ll be better as an outside-zone rusher) so that the Redskins can see what the 5-foot-7 back is capable of between the tackles.

The bad news for Thompson is that he’s lost a fumble in each of the two preseason games he’s played in and there are already questions about his durability.

The good news is that he’s blazing fast and could be tough to sneak through waivers based on his game-changing straight-line speed. The other thing benefiting Thompson is that with Richard Crawford out for the season, Washington’s punt returning situation is in limbo. He’s as capable in the return game as any of Washington’s other unproven options.

A strong final preseason showing in Tampa Bay will lock a roster spot up for Thompson.

OL Tony Pashos

The Redskins will certainly be keeping eight offensive linemen, likely including their five starters and three young backups (tackle Tom Compton and guards Josh LeRibeus and Adam Gettis). But will the team keep a ninth? If so, Pashos should get the nod over the rest of the contenders along the team’s offensive front.

Keeping Pashos would mean a couple of things.

First, the Redskins feel like he’d be better served backing up Tyler Polumbus at right tackle than Compton, a second-year player who has played exclusively on the left side during training camp and the preseason. If Compton can play swing tackle – backing up Trent Williams and Polumbus – then you can get by with just one reserve tackle.

Secondly, the Redskins need to ask themselves is do you really want to enter the season without a single experienced backup? Compton has never played in an NFL game. Neither has Gettis, and LeRibeus played minimally last season. Are you sure that those three 2012 draft picks could thrive if being asked to take over a starting role?

My guess is Washington keeps an extra skill position player over a ninth lineman. The Redskins’ coaching staff values skill position depth more than they do players up front, where they have had luck turning mediocre players in other schemes into viable starters in DC.

WR Dez Briscoe

Keeping Briscoe on the roster is a simple question of how many wide receivers can you keep. If Washington elects to only retain five wideouts than Briscoe won’t make it. If the club keeps a sixth wide receiver, Briscoe should get the nod over the similar but more raw Lance Lewis.

Briscoe, who is still just 23 years old, caught six touchdowns with Tampa in 2011. He’s laced with upside and is a much better option to contribute on offense than any of the other wide receivers the Redskins will likely be releasing in the coming two days.

Contrarily, Briscoe isn’t going to help much on special teams, meaning his 2013 value will only manifest itself in the wake of an injury.

Washington has never kept less than six wide receivers during Mike Shanahan’s time with the team and I don’t expect them to start now. Briscoe is the type of player that good teams have waiting for an opportunity, pushing the players in front of him. He’s talented and he can play in the league. His potential to become something exceeds that of some of the other players vying for spots at other positions and because of that, I’d hang on to him – even if only as a backup for another season.

DE Phillip Merling

A former second-round pick who has spent the past five seasons as an NFL backup, Merling is the defensive end who could benefit the most from Jarvis Jenkins’ four-game suspension to begin the season. A roster longshot when camp began, Merling has performed well in the preseason and now looks like a possible fourth defensive end in Jenkins’ absence.

The former Clemson star is still competing for the sixth spot on Washington’s defensive line and he’ll need one final stellar showing to hold off younger roster contenders Dominique Hamilton and Chigbo Anunoby.

S Jose Gumbs

I really like everything about Gumbs. Traditionally a strong safety, he’s being asked to play free safety this preseason – and he’s exceled. He’s delivered several big hits and consistently stood out in the second half of Washington’s games. In doing so Gumbs has gone from the back of a depth chart to a guy who is on the precipice of a roster spot.

The debate comes down to Gumbs or Jordan Pugh at safety, where the Redskins likely have just one available spot for a pair of safeties who could help out on special teams while serving as defensive reserves. Of course, Washington could keep six safeties (both Pugh and Gumbs) and release one unforeseen player at another position, perhaps on offense.

Pugh was with the Redskins during their seven-game winning streak last season and he played extensively during Washington’s stretch run. His familiarity with the scheme and the rust the coaching staff has in him could serve as a tie-breaker of sorts, but Gumbs has helped his cause with his play. If he doesn’t make Washington’s roster a safety-starved team should consider bringing him in for an audition.

 
 
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