If record-breaking running back Alfred Morris was the biggest surprise for the Redskins in 2012, tight end Jordan Reed played that part in Washington in 2013.
Morris, a sixth-round draft pick out of forlorn Florida Atlantic, was a borderline candidate to make Washington’s roster with Tim Hightower, Roy Helu and Evan Royster ahead of him on the depth chart. However, the veterans’ banged-up bodies gave Morris an opening in preseason, one he stormed through and has yet to let go while becoming one of the NFL’s top backs.
Reed’s path from backup to stardom wasn’t quite as bumpy given that he was a third-round selection from formidable Florida. However, Reed began last season as Washington’s third or fourth tight end. Veteran Fred Davis had returned from a torn Achilles to his accustomed starting spot. Logan Paulsen was the blocking specialist for a fourth straight year. Niles Paul was going to be active on game days because of his usefulness on special teams.
That left Reed, who, like Davis, had spent the offseason practices working on the side because of a thigh injury suffered in college that wound up hampering his left quadriceps and knee, too.
Reed had caught just six passes for 55 yards during preseason, but in the opener against Philadelphia on “Monday Night Football,” he caught five for 38 yards. Reed scored his first NFL touchdown the next week at Green Bay. Davis sprained an ankle during practice the following Friday. Reed had five catches for 50 yards against Detroit before leaving with an injured right quadriceps.
The 6-foot-3, 236-pound Reed missed the Oakland game with that injury, but he returned after the bye with four catches for 58 yards, including a 29-yard grab, at Dallas while Davis didn’t catch a ball for a second straight game.
Given the opportunity to supplant the veteran again, the rookie from New London, Conn., took off, hauling in 17 balls for 224 yards and a touchdown against Chicago and Denver. Reed continued his strong play with 10 catches for 99 yards and another score against San Diego and Minnesota before the injury bug bit again, this time with a concussion at Philadelphia.
He wouldn’t play again, sitting out the final six games while dealing with headaches and other lingering effects of the concussion. Washington was 2-5 in the games during which Reed was available from start to finish, 1-8 otherwise.
Despite missing so much time, Reed still ranked seventh among rookies with 45 catches and 10th with 499 receiving yards. Only record-setting receiver Pierre Garcon had more of either for Washington and only Tampa Bay’s Timothy Wright — each of whom played in all 16 games — ranked higher among rookie tight ends.
The most productive tight ends in Redskins history, Chris Cooley (37 catches, 314 yards) and the late Jerry Smith (19, 257) had lesser rookie years than did Reed, although neither missed a game.
Assuming that Reed’s medically cleared, he’s clearly the starter in 2014 for offensive coordinator Sean McVay, his position coach last year, who was promoted by new coach Jay Gruden.
Davis, who also had several off the field issues during his six seasons, including a four-game substance suspension, caught just seven passes for 70 yards and will all but surely be departing as a free agent despite the coaching change.
Paulsen, who had 25 catches for 308 yards after Davis went down in 2012, had 24 catches for 235 yards and three touchdowns (tied for second on the team). Eleven of those catches, 113 of the yards and two of the scores in Weeks 13-16. He will return in his blocking tight end role for new position coach Wes Phillips.
Paul, a college receiver who converted to tight end in 2012, caught just 14 passes for 228 yards and a touchdown in his first three seasons. As awful as Washington’s punt coverage was in 2013 and as poorly as he returned kickoffs, he figures to be in a fight to keep a job in 2014.
The last three seasons as Cincinnati’s coordinator, Gruden relied on tight end Jermaine Gresham as the No. 2 target, behind Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green, for young quarterback Andy Dalton. If Reed can stay healthy, he should fill that role as Garcon’s sidekick for Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.