The Redskins were arguably the league’s most surprising playoff team in 2015. They came into the year with just 7 wins in the previous 2 seasons combined and didn’t even have their own #2 overall pick in 2014, as a result of the Robert Griffin trade, in which the Redskins sent their 2012 1st round pick (#6 overall), their 2012 2nd round pick (#39 overall), their 2013 1st round pick (which ended up being #22 overall), and their 2014 1st round pick (which ended up being #2 overall) to the Rams to move up to the 2nd overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and take Baylor quarterback and Heisman winner Robert Griffin.
Griffin was supposed to be the franchise savior and he looked like it as a rookie, leading the Redskins to the playoffs and winning Offensive Rookie of the Year over Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. However, injuries and poor performance derailed his 2013 and 2014 seasons and by last off-season he was locked in a tight battle with backup Kirk Cousins (a 4th round pick in that same 2012 draft) for the starting quarterback job. Though many expected Griffin to still beat out the backup, Cousins surprisingly won the job and RG3 spent all season on the bench.
Cousins started the season slow, as did the Redskins, as Cousins completed 66.9% of his passes for just 6.34 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions in the first 8 games of the season. The Redskins won just 3 over those 8 games and their offense moved the chains at a mere 70.97% rate. However, Cousins caught fire down the stretch and the Redskins won 6 of their final 8 games to finish as 9-7 NFC East champs. He completed 73.6% of his passes for an average of 9.31 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions over those 8 games, while the offense moved the chains at a 73.47% rate.
Now with RG3 in Cleveland, this is officially the Kirk Cousins show in Washington. I do like Griffin’s chances of bouncing back in Cleveland, in a fresh situation with a system that fits his skill set better, but keeping Cousins over him (with both hitting free agency this off-season) was the obvious choice. Cousins is not a great quarterback, but, like Andy Dalton was in Cincinnati, he’s a fantastic fit for Jay Gruden’s scheme because of his accuracy and ability to make quick reads and quick throws. The scheme and coaching do deserve a lot of credit for his production last season, but obviously so does he, as he finished the season 16th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. It’s a perfect marriage of scheme and quarterback.
Cousins is still not signed long-term, after being kept off of the open market with the franchise tag this off-season, but the current situation seems to be the best one for all involved. Cousins will make 20 million guaranteed this year and with another strong year could get a monster deal next off-season. The Redskins, meanwhile, obviously want to keep Cousins in 2016, but are understandably hesitant about committing big money long-term to a guy who has really only one great half season. If he repeats his 2015 season in 2016, they should have no problem paying him like a franchise quarterback.
The biggest reason why Cousins was able to have so much more success in the second half of the season, as compared to the first half of the season, was that his receiving corps was healthy. Tight end Jordan Reed missed 2 games early in the season, while wide receiver DeSean Jackson played just 63 snaps over the first 8 games of the season, missing 6 of them with injury. Over the final 8 weeks of the season, Jackson caught 27 passes for 513 yards and 4 touchdowns, while Reed caught 49 passes for 584 yards and 7 touchdowns. Those are both 1000+ yard paces extrapolated over a 16 game season.
Jackson has had 4 seasons of 1000+ yards in the past, but Reed’s 2015 season was much more of a breakout year. Reed, a 2013 3rd round pick, flashed in his first 2 seasons in the league when healthy, catching 95 passes for 964 yards and 3 touchdowns in 20 games, despite making just 6 starts over that time period. In 2015, he put it all together, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked tight end. The 6-2 237 pounder is not much of a blocker, but he causes major mismatches in the passing game with his combination of size, speed, and pass catching ability, finishing last season 3rd among tight end on Pro Football Focus in pass catching grade. If he can stay healthy, Reed could definitely finish with 1000+ yards (he ended last season with 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 games). The Redskins are betting that he can, after giving him a 5-year, 50 million dollar extension this off-season ahead of his contract year.
Derek Carrier was the 2nd tight end last season, but he struggled, grading out 50th out of 67 eligible tight ends on 402 snaps. He’ll face competition from both free agent acquisition Vernon Davis and Niles Paul, who missed all of 2015 with a broken ankle. Neither one is a good option. Davis is going into his age 32 season and has been a shell of his former self over the past 2 seasons, grading out 62nd out of 67 eligible in 2014 and then 51st out of 67 eligible in 2015. Paul, meanwhile, actually led all Redskin tight ends in snaps played in 2014 with 585, prior to missing all of last season with injury. However, that was the only season in his career in which he played significant snaps and he struggled overall, grading out 59th out of 67 eligible tight ends. He had decent pass catching numbers (39/507/1), but struggled mightily as a run blocker, finishing 62th out of 67 eligible in that aspect. He’d be a poor fit as a #2 blocking tight end behind Paul. Davis is the best blocker of the bunch and is probably the favorite for the #2 job.
Meanwhile, at wide receiver, DeSean Jackson is only going into his age 30 season, but this is already his 9th year in the league. As I mentioned, he’s topped 1000 yards in 4 of 8 years in the league. He’s not a top level receiver, but he’s graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 31st in 2015. He’s also only missed 16 games those 8 years, including the 6 he missed last season, so he it’s not like he’s always hurt or anything. Having him healthy for the full season is going to help this offense a lot.
Pierre Garcon returns as the other starter, though that wasn’t a given after the Redskins used their first round pick on Josh Doctson, a wide receiver out of TCU and Pro Football Focus’ #10 overall ranked prospect (#1 among wide receivers). Garcon is not worth his 8 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, but he’s a capable starter and, this late in the off-season, the Redskins don’t really need the cap space; there’s no one left to sign. Garcon finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked wide receiver, but that was the only the second time in his career in which he graded out above average and he’s never finished better than 25th. Even in his best season in 2013, when he caught 113 passes for 1346 yards and 5 touchdowns (his only career 1000+ yard season), he needed 174 targets to do it. He’s a solid #2 possession receiver, but little else.
Doctson might not even enter the 2016 season as the 3rd receiver, as 2015 4th round pick Jamison Crowder was surprisingly impressive as a rookie, both on the slot and as the starting receiver opposite Garcon when Jackson was hurt. He caught 59 passes for 604 yards and 2 touchdowns and graded out 43rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus on 799 snaps. Doctson might have just been drafted for the future, with both Jackson and Garcon going into their age 30 contract years. It’s highly unlikely the Redskins bring both back next off-season, with Doctson waiting in the wings and Crowder also showing a lot of promise. It’s a deep and talented receiving corps across the board.
Along with a strong receiving corps, Kirk Cousins also benefitted from a strong offensive line last season, much improved over the previous season thanks to 3 first year starters. Two of those were 2nd year players Spencer Long and Morgan Moses, who moved into the starting lineup at left guard and right tackle respectively last season. Both are 3rd round picks in 2014 and both barely played as rookies, playing 16 and 127 snaps respectively. However, both played well in their first year as a starter, as Long finished 28th on Pro Football Focus among guards and Moses finished 16th among offensive tackles. Both are technically one-year wonders so it’s tough to trust that they’ll be able to repeat their 2015 seasons in 2016, but both are also obviously still very young and could be even better going forward.
The other first year starter who helped the Redskins out significantly last season was right guard Brandon Schreff, the 5th overall pick in last year’s draft. Schreff was a bit of a surprise pick at 5 because guards don’t normally go that high and he didn’t quite live up to his top-5 pick billing as a rookie, but he still finished 26th among guards, above average, and helped solidify a position of need for them upfront. Schreff is a collegiate offensive tackle, but the Redskins like him better at guard and, with Moses locked in at right tackle, Schreff is locked it at right guard for the foreseeable future. He could take another step forward in his 2nd year in the league in 2016.
Along with that trio, left tackle Trent Williams is also very valuable for the Redskins upfront on the offensive line. The 6-year veteran once again had a strong season in 2015, finishing 8th among offensive tackles. He’s finished in the top-18 among offensive tackles in 4 straight seasons, topping out at #1 overall in 2013. One of the best left tackles in the league, Williams was given a well deserved 5-year, 66 million dollar extension last off-season, making him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL in average annual salary.
The Redskins’ only weakness on the offensive line is center, where Kory Lichtensteiger and Josh LeRibeus both struggled last season. Lichtensteiger started the year as the starter, but missed the final 11 games of the season with injury. He wasn’t good at all even when healthy, finishing dead last out of 40 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus. LeRibeus, who started those final 11 games, wasn’t much better, finishing 25th out of 40 eligible centers. The Redskins were reportedly interested in taking the draft’s top center, Alabama’s Ryan Kelly, at 21, but the Colts grabbed him at 18, leaving the Redskins to take Doctson.
LeRibeus is no longer on the team, locking Lichtensteiger into the starting lineup at least at the start of the season. While he struggled last season, he actually graded out above average in 3 of the previous 4 seasons (at both left guard and center), including 9th among centers in 2014. Going into his age 31 season, his best days are likely behind him, but I wouldn’t rule out a solid season from him. Their other option is shifting Spencer Long inside and starting 2nd year player Arie Kouandjio at guard, but he barely played (1 snap) as a 4th round rookie last year and Long is unproven as a center in the NFL. It’s overall a strong offensive line, but the Redskins do have one obvious hole.
Other than center, the only real weakness on the Redskins’ offense is running back. Despite having a strong offense overall, the Redskins really did not run the ball well last season, averaging 3.65 yards per carry, 30th in the NFL. Starting running back Alfred Morris struggled, rushing for 751 yards and 1 touchdown on 202 carries, an average of 3.72 YPC, but backup Matt Jones was arguably even worse, rushing for 490 yards and 3 touchdowns on 144 carries, an average of just 3.40 YPC. He also fumbled 5 times (losing 4) on 163 touches. The only thing he did well was totalling 304 yards and a touchdown on 19 catches, as he finished the season 66th overall among running backs on Pro Football Focus, out of 69 eligible.
The Redskins clearly still like the 2015 3rd round pick though, talking him up all off-season, not adding a running back in free agency (or re-signing Morris), and not drafting a running back until the 7th round of the draft. With Chris Thompson as the only other running back on the roster with a carry in their career, Jones could be a three-down workhorse for the Redskins this season, though it remains to be seen if he’ll be effective in that role. So far he hasn’t shown any evidence that he will be.
Thompson, meanwhile, is purely a passing down back and change of pace back at 5-8 193. The 2013 5th round pick has just 38 carries and 41 catches in his career. He could be pushed for the backup job by 7th round rookie Keith Marshall immediately, which just shows how bad things are at the position. The Redskins could also bring back Pierre Thomas as a free agent, though he looked washed up last season and is going into his age 32 season. It’s a position of major weakness for the Redskins, even if Jones pans out, as they have no depth.
The Redskins lost a trio of contributors on their 3-man defensive line this off-season, as defensive end Jason Hatcher retired, ahead of what would have been his age 34 season, nose tackle Terrance Knighton signed with the Patriots as a free agent, and Stephen Paea was released when he couldn’t get healthy ahead of final cuts Those three graded out above average on 540, 369, and 215 snaps respectively last season, so the Redskins have a lot of available snaps on the defensive line and need players to step up. They originally converted outside linebacker Trent Murphy to defensive end, but he had to move back to outside linebacker when Junior Galette tore his achilles again, knocking him out for the 2nd straight season.
Knighton could actually be the tougher one to replace because he was the nose tackle last season. The Redskins may have to move Chris Baker inside in base packages. Chris Baker was the other starting defensive end opposite Hatcher last season last season and had a surprising breakout year in his 7th year in the league (since going undrafted in 2009), not only grading out above average for the first time in his career, but finishing 12th among defensive tackles on 617 snaps.
The 6-2 325 pounder didn’t just excel against the run, but he showed surprising pass rush ability. He’s already said this off-season that he’s not really interested in moving to nose tackle, but the Redskins don’t seem to have much of another choice. It would only be in base packages and he’d still have the opportunity to rush the passer and get up field in sub packages, like he did last year. He’s their best defensive lineman so the Redskins aren’t going to want him coming off the field very often, though it’s is worth noting that he’s still a one-year wonder. Last season could prove to be a fluke.
The Redskins other options at nose tackle include Kedric Golston, who played just 199 snaps last season and who is going into his age 33 season, and Ricky Jean-Francois, a natural defensive end at 6-3 297, but someone who does have some experience on the nose. It’s possible all 3 see action at the position. Jean-Francois is also one of the players who will be part of the Redskins’ rotation at defensive end. He graded out above average on 385 snaps last season, the 3rd season in a row in which he’s graded out above average. He’s a solid rotational player who can start in a pinch and also play some nose tackle if needed.
Kendall Reyes is also in the mix for snaps on the line, after signing a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal this off-season, coming over from San Diego. Reyes has plenty of starting experience, making 50 starts in 4 years in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2012 (including 46 starts in the last 3 seasons), but he’s also been terrible in those starts. He was Pro Football Focus’ 44th ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 45 eligible in 2013, their 46th ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 47 eligible in 2014, and then finished last season 120th out of 123 eligible interior defenders. It’s a thin defensive line.
As I mentioned, Trent Murphy will remain at outside linebacker, with Galette getting hurt again. Murphy, a 2014 2nd round pick, played well in each of his first 2 seasons in the league at outside linebacker, on 595 and 671 snaps respectively, so the Redskins still have good depth at the position, even without Galette. Murphy will rotate with Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith. Smith was a 2nd round pick in last year’s draft. He had a decent rookie year, grading out slightly below average on 577 snaps, and could be in line for a bigger role in 2016.
Ryan Kerrigan remains the best of the trio, as the 2011 1st round pick has graded out above average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league. He graded out 19th, 7th, 26th, and 5th respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers from 2011-2014, before finishing last season as Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked edge defender. The Redskins gave him a 5-year, 57.5 million dollar extension ahead of his contract year last off-season, so he’ll remain in Washington for the foreseeable future.
Things are not nearly as good at inside linebacker though. Will Compton, Keenan Robinson, Perry Riley, and Mason Foster all saw significant action at the position last season, playing 715, 546, 463, and 259 snaps respectively. However, they all struggled, finishing 95th, 72nd, 88th, and 50th among linebackers respectively on Pro Football Focus (out of 97 eligible). Foster was the best of the bunch, though he also played the fewest snaps. It’s not like he was good either, as he graded out below average, something he’s done in all 5 years he’s been in the NFL, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2011 by the Buccaneers. He has plenty of starting experience (59 career starts), but is simply not a starting caliber player.
Keenan Robinson signed as a free agent with the Giants and he won’t be missed. Neither will Perry Riley, who was let go ahead of final cuts. However, they didn’t do much to add at the position this off-season, so Foster will have to start, as will Compton. Compton actually led Redskin middle linebackers in snaps played last season, but was easily the worst of the bunch; only 2 eligible linebackers graded out worse than him on Pro Football Focus. That was the first significant action of the former undrafted free agent’s career, so it’s all we really have to evaluate him on. The only good news at the position is 2nd round rookie safety Su’a Cravens is expected to come down and play middle linebacker in sub packages, but it’s a problem when you’re counting on a 2nd round rookie hybrid to elevate a position group.
The Redskins are also expecting Cravens to upgrade the safety spot, at least in base packages when he’ll play there; that was a position of major weakness last season. Cravens played both linebacker and safety at USC, playing everywhere from 215-235 pounds, and is a versatile chess piece for the Redskins in a league where the line between linebackers and safeties is becoming more and more blurred every year. His skill set is comparable to Mark Barron and Deone Bucannon, two ex-safeties who excelled at linebacker last season. Whether he turns out to be as good as those two remains to be seen, but the upside is there for a guy who doesn’t even turn 21 until July.
In sub packages, David Bruton will likely be the guy, coming over as a free agent from Denver on a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal. It was an underrated signing because Bruton flashed in limited action as a reserve safety last season, grading out above average on 481 snaps. The 2009 4th round pick has largely been a backup and special teamer in his career, making just 8 starts in 104 career games, but he showed enough last season to suggest that he could be deserving of a bigger role. In Washington, he’ll play about half of the snaps, assuming Cravens beats him out for the base package role.
At the other safety spot, converted cornerback DeAngelo Hall is expected to start, after spending the final 6 games of last season at the position. Hall has made 155 career starts at cornerback, but, going into his age 33 season, safety is now his best position. He played okay there to end last season, but his age is a concern, as is the fact that he’s missed 18 games over the past 2 seasons. If he gets hurt again, it could open up an every down role for Bruton, a versatile safety capable of playing both free and strong safety.
At Hall’s old position of cornerback, the Redskins made a big free agent signing, adding Josh Norman on a 5-year, 75 million dollar deal, after the Panthers shockingly pulled back his franchise tender in April, allowing one of the league’s most coveted cornerbacks to hit the open market. This is the second straight off-season in which the Redskins signed a cornerback to a large contract, as they signed ex-49er cornerback Chris Culliver to a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal.
Culliver’s first year in Washington went as bad as it could have. Culliver was suspended for week 2 for violating the league’s code of conduct and then torn his ACL in November. Even when he was on the field, Culliver struggled mightily, grading out 110th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 6 snaps in 350 games. The only good thing about Culliver’s 2015 season for the Redskins is that his suspension voided any remaining guarantees on his contract, allowing the Redskins to cut him after just 1-year and 7.83 million, freeing up the cap space necessary to bring in Norman.
The Redskins are obviously hoping that Norman’s tenure in Washington is a lot better; it would be hard to be worse. He’ll definitely help this team, but I think they overpaid. The fact that the Panthers felt comfortable pulling back his franchise tag after it became clear they were not going to come to a long-term agreement is concerning. He played well last season, finishing 11th among cornerbacks, but he was not good enough to deserve being named All-Pro. He looked better than he was because of all the talent around him on Carolina’s defense; Kawaan Short, Luke Kuechly, and Thomas Davis were all more valuable to the Panthers than Norman. Also, last season was easily the best season of his career, as he had never finished higher than 27th among cornerbacks prior to 2015, in 4 years in the league.
Bashaud Breeland will remain the starter on the other side, opposite Norman, after making 13 starts in 15 games last season. The 2014 4th round pick struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 99th among 108th eligible cornerbacks on 863 snaps (15 starts in 16 games), but had a breakout year in 2015, finishing 21st among cornerbacks. He’s still a one-year wonder, but he could have another strong season in 2016. He and Norman are one of the better cornerback duos in the NFL.
Will Blackmon was the 3rd cornerback last season, though he had to make 10 starts last season because of injuries. He struggled on 786 snaps, grading out 84th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks, and probably won’t be any better, going into his age 32 season in 2016. He’ll be pushed for his job by 3rd round rookie Kendall Fuller. Fuller could have gone in the first round and only dropped in the draft because of concerns about his knee; he missed most of the 2015 season with injury and also had microfracture surgery, which is a very serious surgery. If he’s healthy, he should be able to beat out Blackmon, though his health is far from a given. It’s a much improved secondary from a couple years ago, but it’s still one that has issues.
The Redskins’ surprising playoff season in 2015 required a lot of players having the best year of their career, including quarterback Kirk Cousins. Cousins is still unproven, but is a good fit for this offense and has a good receiving corps and offensive line around him, so they should remain good in the passing game, even if Cousins regresses a little. However, they figure to struggle to run the ball once again and their defense is okay, but little else. It’s a solid roster, but they’re far from a lock to repeat in the NFC East. In a division with 3 teams that all figure to be better this season (Dallas, Philadelphia, NY Giants), I wouldn’t even consider them the favorite.
Prediction: 8-8 4th in NFC East