Francis making most of opportunity with Redskins

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

BALTIMORE – A.J. Francis stood up the center immediately after the snap then pushed him into the backfield.

Francis spotted running back Taquan Mizzell trying to turn upfield so he disengaged and gave chase. The 6-foot-5, 337-pound nose tackle covered ground quickly as he charged outside, nailing Mizzell just before he reached the line of scrimmage to register a tackle for loss.

That play marked one of many times Francis showed up strong for the Washington Redskins during Thursday's preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. The Severn native was extremely active and routinely was around the football.

"I feel like I had a good game tonight – got off blocks and made plays," Francis said inside the cramped visitors locker room. "I was definitely in the backfield a little bit. That's usually where I am."

Francis clearly has not lost confidence despite suffering numerous setbacks during his four-year National Football League career. The University of Maryland graduate has been waived six times since entering the NFL in 2013, but has persevered and repeatedly landed on his feet.

Now it appears the 27-year-old may have finally found a home. Francis has been listed No. 2 on the depth chart at nose tackle for the Redskins throughout training camp and saw plenty of action during Thursday's preseason game.

"A lot of the places I've been haven't given me the opportunity the Redskins have given me," Francis said. "I feel like I'm the same player I've been for the past four years, but I'm finally getting a legitimate opportunity and I'm not going to waste it."

Francis believes he should have made an NFL roster to start the regular season before now. He performed well in training camp in 2015 with the Dolphins and in 2016 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but was part of the last round of cuts both years.

"We really thought A.J. did enough to make the team that third year in Miami. We definitely know he did enough last year in Tampa," said Mike Francis, who has always been his son's biggest supporter. "I told A.J. to just keep chopping wood. Don't give up. If this is something you really want to do, don't worry about what's happened in the past, just focus on the future."

Francis has appeared in three regular season games and all came in 2015 – one with Miami and two with the Seattle Seahawks. The massive nose tackle's career statistics consist of two tackles – one solo and one assisted.

Washington signed Francis to its practice squad on October 12, 2016, just over a month after he was released by Tampa Bay. The Redskins promoted the Anne Arundel County native to the active roster on Nov. 29 of last season, but he did not get into a game.

However, Washington defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula both liked what they saw from Francis last season and the organization re-signed him.

Now Francis seems to have a real role with the Redskins as the clear-cut backup to starting nose tackle Phil Taylor. Joey Mbu, a former undrafted free agent who has spent the past two seasons on the practice squad of the Atlanta Falcons, is the third-stringer for now.

"Some places I've been, I barely got any reps and still made plays, but it just didn't matter," Francis said. "I'm now being given an opportunity to truly show what I can do. I'm in a position of getting plenty of reps and that's translating into me making a lot more plays. I really appreciate Greg Manusky and Jim Tomsula for believing in me and trusting me."

Francis, who has been with five organizations over the past four years, has worked his way up to No. 2 on the depth chart before and been baffled when things suddenly changed. That is why the Gonzaga College High School graduate is determined to push Taylor for the starting job.

"It feels good to be two, but one is what I want. I'm not going to settle for two. I want to be the starting nose on this team, and I feel like I'm good enough to be the starting nose on this team," Francis said. "I've got a lot of competition in Phil Taylor and Joey Mbu, which is good. Nobody is shying away from the competition because that's going to make us all bettter."

The Redskins have completely overhauled their defensive line and the nose tackle group is brand new after 2016 starter Chris Baker left in free agency and backup Ricky Jean Francois was cut.

Tomsula, in his first season as the team's defensive line coach, has been impressed by Francis as both a player and a person.

"A.J. is a great personality and has been wonderful to work with," said Tomsula, formerly head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. "He's smart, tough-minded and working incredibly hard right now."

Francis is already looking ahead to Washington's second preseason contest, being held Saturday against the Green Bay Packers at FedEx Field. Training camp is a grind the local product enjoys, but games are when it really counts.

"I just need to get more game reads. Practice is important, but it's the reps during the games that really get you honed in," Francis said. "Things happen at different speeds during games than they do in practice. If you mess up in a game, it's a big deal and shows up on film. You have to be ready to stand up under the bright lights and make plays."

Mike Francis introduced his only son to football with the Severn Athletic Club, serving as a coach with those youth league teams. The elder Francis was in the stands at M&T Bank Stadium along with a large contingent of family and friends to watch A.J. make his 2017 debut.

"It's really, really special. When I see him out on that field it takes me back to when we first started. I get to be a big fan and a proud dad all over again," said Mike Francis, currently the boys basketball coach at Old Mill High. "It feels good to see him playing in the first quarter instead of the fourth quarter of preseason games."

Mike Francis has traveled to Richmond for Redskins training camp on several occasions so far this summer and has been encouraged by what he's seen.

"We go to training camp and A.J. is repping with the ones and the twos the whole time. It does seem like the Redskins believe in him and I'm really happy that he's finally getting a chance to show his skills," he said. "A.J. has really changed his body and gotten a lot stronger. It's good to see him get the rewards for working so hard."

Mike Francis has always been a diehard Dallas Cowboys fans and admittedly cringed a bit when his son signed with the rival Redskins. However, he has come around and purchased a full wardrobe of Redskins clothing since then.

"It's funny, I was on the Redskins for two months before pops broke down and finally bought some gear," A.J. Francis said. "It's not just my father, it's my whole family. They're all Cowboys fans. Now they're all decked out in Redskins gear. That shows how much they love me because there's no one else they would do that for."

There is still a long way to go in preseason and Francis isn't taking anything for granted. After what has happened in previous years, the beefy defensive lineman wants to leave no doubt he belongs on the 53-man roster for the Sept. 10 season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.

"I've had a good camp so far, but there's still a lot of work to be done. I have to get better before week one, but right now I feel good," Francis said.

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