Washington Redskins 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s not often a team lets a healthy franchise quarterback in the prime of his career walk in free agency, but that’s exactly what the Redskins did this off-season with Kirk Cousins. Originally franchise tagged after a breakout 2015 season, in which he completed 69.8% of his passes for an average of 7.67 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, Cousins was made to prove it again in 2016. That was probably a smart decision on the Redskins’ part, but then when he did prove it again in 2016, completing 67.0% of his passes for an average of 8.11 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, they franchise tagged him again and lowballed him with long-term offers.

The Redskins actually took it one step further, announcing their lowball offer to the public in an attempt to make it seem like Cousins was being unreasonable turning down their offer, The contract they offered him had just 2 guaranteed years on it, even though he already had 1 guaranteed year locked in with the franchise tag and he would cost about 34 million to franchise tag again in 2018. At this point, it became clear that Cousins and the Redskins were heading for a divorce after the season, but Cousins still played well in 2017, completing 64.3% of his passes for an average of 7.58 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, despite losing a pair of thousand yard receivers in free agency last off-season and playing behind a banged up offensive line.

Seeing the writing on the wall with Cousins, the Redskins moved quickly to acquire veteran quarterback Alex Smith from the Chiefs. Smith is coming off arguably the best season of his career, completing 67.5% of his passes for an average of 8.00 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, but he’s going into his age 34 season, meaning he’s 4 years older than Cousins, and he doesn’t come cheap, as the Redskins had to surrender a 3rd round pick and promising young cornerback Kendall Fuller in the trade and then they had to give him a 4-year, 94 million extension with 55 million guaranteed to keep him beyond 2018. That’s ironically more guaranteed money than they ever offered Cousins. Cousins, meanwhile, took a fully guaranteed 3-year, 84 million dollar deal from the Vikings.

Smith is not a bad fall back option and could easily be an adequate replacement for him in the short-term, but, given his age and how much they had to give up to acquire him, it was probably worth offering Cousins more guaranteed money last off-season. Smith is a solid starter, but you never want to have to change quarterbacks and there could be some growing pains for him in his first season in a new city in a new system with new teammates.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As mentioned, the Redskins had major injury problems on the offensive line last season. Only Miami and Baltimore had more adjusted games lost to injury on the offensive line. It wasn’t just their offensive line that had injury problems though, as they led the league in adjusted games lost as a team. They also had the 3rd hardest schedule in the NFL in terms of DVOA. A 7-9 team in 2017, it won’t be easy for them to make the post-season in a what is once again a tough NFC, but they could easily win more games if they have better health.

Center Spencer Long missed the most games with injury last season, limited to just 397 snaps in 7 games. He’s no longer with the team though, signing with the Jets on a 4-year, 27.4 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, and the Redskins didn’t really do anything to replace him, so they can’t count on improved play at the center position in 2018. Chase Rouiller, a 2017 6th round pick who made 7 starts in Long’s absence last season, is expected to be the starter, but he was pretty underwhelming last season and was not a very high pick, so he’s not a guarantee to ever develop into a starting caliber player.

Left guard Shawn Lauvao also missed 7 games, but he wasn’t really missed, as he’s been one of the worst starting guards in the league over the past few seasons. He has 85 career starts in 8 seasons in the league, but has earned negative grades from Pro Football Focus in 5 of the past 6 seasons and finished last season 62nd out of 80 eligible guards. Now going into his age 31 season, Lauvao could remain the starter now that he’s healthy, as the Redskins didn’t add another option this off-season, but they also left him unsigned into May before bringing him back and might opt to move forward with 2015 4th round pick Arie Kouandjio, who made 6 starts in Lauvao’s absence last season. Kouandjio has just 8 career starts in 3 seasons in the league and has been pretty unimpressive, but he at least gives them more upside than Lauvao.

Fortunately, the rest of this offensive line should be pretty strong if they can stay healthy. Left tackle Trent Williams is typically one of the best players in the NFL at his position, but that was not the case last season, as he missed 6 games and was limited in several others with a knee injury that eventually needed surgery. He still finished 13th among offensive tackles on PFF, his 6th straight season in the top-22 at his position, but he was their #1 offensive tackle in 2016 and also finished 2nd in 2013, so he has higher upside than he showed last season. His age is becoming a minor concern in his age 30 season, but, assuming he’s healthy, he should be one of the top left tackles in the league again.

Right guard Brandon Scherff is also one of the better players in the league at his position. Only missing 2 games with injury, Scherff finished last season as PFF’s 9th ranked guard. The 5th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Scherff has improved in every season in the league, going from 28th among guards on PFF as a rookie to 20th in 2016 and then taking another step forward last season. Now in his 4th season in the league, he could keep improving. The Redskins made the no brainer decision to pick up his 5th year option for 2019, which guarantees him 12.525 million for injury, and will work to reach a long-term extension with him in the next year or so. He could push to be the highest paid guard in the league, upwards of 14 million annually.

Right tackle Morgan Moses made all 16 starts, but he suffered a ankle injury week 13 and, though he played through it for the rest of the season, he needed surgery in the off-season and is questionable for the start of training camp. Moses was having a pretty disappointing year even before the injury and ended up falling to 41st among offensive tackles on PFF, after ranking 15th in 2015 and 13th in 2016. A 2014 3rd round pick, Moses is only going into his age 27 season and has obvious bounce back potential, but he needs to stay healthy. The Redskins signed him to a 5-year, 38.5 million dollar extension last off-season ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2017, making him the 3rd highest paid right tackle in the league in average annual salary, so they need him to get healthy and return to form.

The Redskins also used a 3rd round pick on Louisville offensive tackle Geron Christian. With Moses out, he’s seen a lot of work with the first team this off-season and figures to be the swing tackle as a rookie, though he may end up at guard long-term, where he has a clearer path to playing time. With no clear starter at left guard, Christian could end up making starts there as a rookie and might be the first one off the bench after an injury at either tackle or guard. The Redskins are obviously hoping they can stay healthier though.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

In addition to a banged up offensive line, Kirk Cousins also had a pretty underwhelming group of pass catchers. After losing a pair of thousand yard receivers in free agency last off-season (DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon), the Redskins were banking on leaps forward by young receivers Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson and a big year from free agent addition Terrelle Pryor, but they didn’t really get any of those. Pryor and Doctson played roles, as did 2014 5th round pick Ryan Grant, but none of them topped 600 yards receiving. Jamison Crowder led the team with a 66/789/3 slash line, but that was actually down from his 2016 numbers, 67/847/7, despite receiving 7 more targets in 2017 than 2016.

Crowder could have his breakout year in 2018 though, as he’s only going into his age 25 season and is a good fit with new quarterback Alex Smith, who prefers underneath targets that can make plays after the catch. A 4th round pick in 2015, Crowder has an average depth of target of just 5.99 yards from the line of scrimmage in 3 seasons in the league, but adds about 5.57 yards per catch after the catch. He’s been about a league average receiver in his career, but could be better now in his 4th season in the league. He’s the favorite to lead this team in catches and yards.

In 3 wide receiver sets, Crowder will move to the slot, where the undersized 5-9 177 pounder is at his best, with Josh Doctson and free agent acquisition Paul Richardson serving as the two outside receivers. Unlike Crowder, Doctson and Richardson are not good fits with Alex Smith because they primarily run deep routes, averaging 14.3 yards per catch and 16.0 yards per catch respectively last season. Smith did a good job on deep balls last season, but that was mostly because he had Tyreek Hill at his disposal, which he doesn’t with the Redskins.

The Redskins are hoping Smith can have that same connection with Richardson, giving him a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal, but that seems like wishful thinking for a team that struck out with Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins at the top of the market. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Richardson was only a part-time player in 2014 and 2016, with a lost year due to injury in between, before having a 44/703/6 slash line in his first year as a starter in 2017. Those are decent numbers, but he also played with a much better deep ball thrower with Russell Wilson last season and he finished slightly below average on Pro Football Focus on the season. Only 26, he could be keep getting better, which is probably what the Redskins are banking on, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Doctson also has upside, going in the first round in 2016, but he’s shown very little thus far in his career. Limited to 31 snaps by injury as a rookie, Doctson played 74.3% of the snaps in 2017, but had an underwhelming 35/502/6 slash line on 78 targets and finished as PFF’s 91st ranked wide receiver out of 118 eligible. He’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league and may struggle to get on the same page with Alex Smith. Both Richardson and Doctson could disappoint statistically with Smith looking to other parts of the field, but, with Grant and Pryor leaving this off-season, they should be locked into their roles.

Two of Smith’s favorite targets will likely be tight end Jordan Reed and running back Chris Thompson, assuming both can stay healthy. That’s far from a guarantee with either of them though. Limited by chest, shoulder, toe, and hamstring injuries, Reed played just 234 underwhelming snaps in 6 games last season and managed just a 27/211/2 slash line. He was a top-4 pass catching tight end on PFF in 2015 and 2016 though and has averaged a 85/866/7 slash line per 16 games in his career.

The problem is he’s never actually played all 16 games, missing 28 of 80 games in 5 seasons in the league and maxing out at 14 games played in 2015, when he had a 87/952/11 slash line. Only going into his age 28 season, he has obvious upside with Alex Smith if he can stay healthy, but history suggests he’ll miss at least a few games. He’s also never been a good run blocker at 6-2 245. When on the field, expect him to be Smith’s favorite target, much like Travis Kelce was with the Chiefs.

Thompson, on the other hand, was actually having a great season last year before going down, rushing for 294 yards on 64 carries (4.59 YPC), catching 39 passes for 510 yards, and scoring 6 touchdowns in 10 games, before going down for the season with a broken leg. An undersized scat back at 5-8 193, Thompson has durability concerns dating back to his collegiate days, but he has Dion Lewis type upside when he’s healthy. He probably won’t average 13.1 yards per catch again, but he’s averaged 50.5 catches per 16 games over the past 3 seasons and could easily top that number with Smith under center if he can stay healthy.

Backup tight end Vernon Davis will also be in the mix, after posting a 43/648/3 slash line on 69 targets last season. Assuming this receiving corps is healthier in 2018, I don’t expect him to have quite as big of a role in the passing game and his age is also a concern, going into his age 34 season, but he’ll continue having a role in two-tight ends with Reed and is good insurance behind an unreliable starter. This is a decent receiving corps with upside if they stay healthy and young players progress.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Even with Thompson averaging 4.59 yards per carry on his 64 carries, the Redskins still only managed just 3.61 yards per carry on the season, 30th in the NFL. Between that, their banged up offensive line, and their underwhelming receiving corps, this offense ranked just 23rd in the NFL in first down rate last season, despite a strong season from Kirk Cousins. Thompson will continue to have a role as a runner, but he averaged just 6.4 carries per game and is unlikely to see significantly more carries per game this season. Not only is he not built to handle a big workload, the Redskins also used a 2nd round pick in the draft on LSU running back Derrius Guice.

Guice is not much of a pass catcher, but the 5-11 224 pounder could have an immediate role as an early down hammer and he complements Thompson well. He’ll face competition from Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley, but both are underwhelming options. Perine averaged just 3.45 yards per carry on 175 carries as a 4th round rookie in 2017, while Kelley averaged 4.19 yards per carry on 168 carries as an undrafted round rookie in 2016, but then was limited to 3.13 yards per carry on 62 carries in an injury plagued 2017 season. Neither does much on passing downs either, so they’re probably just competing for one spot. If Thompson can stay healthy and Guice has a solid rookie year, this should be a much improved backfield.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

While their offense was underwhelming in 2017, their defense was actually surprisingly solid, finishing 11th in first down rate allowed. That’s despite the fact that they had some significant injuries on defense as well. On the defensive line, their biggest injury was first round rookie Jonathan Allen, who flashed on 159 snaps in 5 games before going down for the season with a foot injury. Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 3-4 defensive end at the time of the injury, Allen could have a breakout second season in the league if he can stay on the field. At one point considered a likely top-5 pick, Allen fell on draft day because of durability concerns, but he has a sky high upside.

In Allen’s absence, Matt Ioannidis led this defensive line in snaps with 584 and the 2016 6th round pick had a mini-breakout year. He struggled against the run, but had 4.5 sacks, 7 hits, and 34 hurries on 379 pass rush snaps and finished as PFF’s 6th ranked 3-4 defensive end in pass rush grade. He’s still a one-year wonder, but he’s also only going into his age 24 season, so he could easily keep getting better. He and Allen should play the majority of the snaps inside in sub packages. 2016 undrafted free agent Anthony Lanier will also be in the mix in sub packages. He’s terrible against the run, but the 6-6 285 pounder flashed with 5 sacks, 4 hits, and 8 hurries on just 232 pass rush snaps last year in the first significant action of his career.

In base packages, this year’s first round pick Da’Ron Payne figures to have a big role. The 13th overall pick will be their nose tackle in base packages and has the potential to develop into a better pass rusher and stay on the field in sub packages, although he might not do so as a rookie. He’ll replace Ziggy Hood, who finished as PFF’s worst ranked defensive tackle out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on 539 snaps as the starting nose tackle last season.

A 9-year veteran, Hood has earned a positive grade on PFF just once in his career and has frequently been one of the worst defensive linemen in the league. The Redskins also used a 5th round pick on Virginia Tech defensive tackle Tim Settle, so Hood is not a roster lock, owed 1.7 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season. If he makes the roster, he may play most of his snaps as a base defensive end, where he has some experience.

Stacy McGee is also a base defensive end. He had a solid season in his first season in Washington on 432 snaps, after signing a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal last season, coming over as a free agent from the Oakland Raiders. He’s never played more than 40% of the snaps in a season in 5 years in the league and likely won’t this season either, but he’s developed into a capable rotational player. With Allen returning from injury and Payne replacing Hood on the nose, this should be an improved defensive line. It’s a solid unit overall.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Redskins had injury problems in the linebacking corps as well, as starting middle linebackers Zach Brown and Mason Foster both suffered major injuries and outside linebacker Trent Murphy tore his ACL before the season even began. Foster played just 288 snaps in 5 games before going down for the season with a shoulder injury, while Foster played through leg injuries for most of the second half of the season and then missed the final 3 games with the Redskins eliminated from playoff contention. The Redskins re-signed both Brown and Foster as free agents this off-season and they should remain the starters inside in Washington’s 3-4 defense.

Foster may have to compete for his job though, as he only re-signed on a 2-year, 3.4 million dollar deal. He has 76 starts in 7 seasons in the league, but he’s been an marginal starter at best throughout his career. The Redskins don’t really have good competition for him though, as the players they started in the absence of Brown and Foster didn’t show much. Zach Vigil was the only one to earn a positive grade from Pro Football Focus, playing a career high 394 snaps and making the final 6 starts of the season. The 2015 undrafted free agent is probably Foster’s biggest competition, while bottom of the roster talents Martrell Spaight and Josh Harvey-Clemons will compete for a roster spot with 6th round rookie Dion Hamilton. I expect Foster to start, even if he has to compete for it.

Brown, on the other hand, is locked in as an every down player, after re-signing on a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal this off-season. In 5 seasons as a starter, he’s made 61 starts and has earned a positive grade from PFF for a season 4 times, topping out at 13th in 2016. He fell to 22nd in 2017, but that was largely due to the injury, as he ranked 4th among middle linebackers through week 8. Only in his age 29 season, he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy all year. Having him and Foster healthy should be a boost for this linebacking corps.

At outside linebacker, Trent Murphy won’t be returning, signing with the Bills on a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Considering he missed all of last season, he won’t really be missed. Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith will remain the starters. Kerrigan is as reliable as they come, playing all 112 games in 7 seasons in the league since the Redskins drafted him with the 16th overall pick in 2011 and he’s been a consistently good pass rusher, getting at least 7.5 sacks and earning a positive pass rush grade from PFF in all 7 seasons.

All in all, he has 71.5 sacks and 50 quarterback hits in his career and, after struggling against the run early in his career, he’s earned positive grades against the run in each of the past 2 seasons. As a result, he’s finished 12th and 8th among 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Going into his age 30 season, he may begin to decline in the next couple years, but he has no injury history and should still have a strong season in 2018.

Smith is not as good, but the 2015 2nd round pick is only in his age 26 season, so he could keep getting better. After struggling early in his career, he’s improved in every season in the league and was about an average starter on 754 snaps in 2017. He should play a similar role in 2018. Now going into the final year of his rookie deal, he could be a candidate for an extension this off-season.

Junior Galette was their 3rd outside linebacker last season, playing 407 snaps in a rotational role and excelling as a situational pass rusher, with 3 sacks, 9 hits, and 25 hurries on just 258 pass rush snaps. He was not brought back as a free agent this off-season, but the Redskins did a good job replacing him with ex-Bear Pernell McPhee. McPhee has been limited to 658 snaps in 22 games by injury over the past 2 seasons combined, but he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in all 7 seasons in the league and topped out at 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers in both 2014 and 2015.

Now going into his age 30 season, given his injury history, McPhee’s best days are probably behind him, but he can still make an impact in a situational role if he’s healthy. He’s not the most reliable option, but he was worth a flyer on a 1-year, 1.8 million dollar deal and the Redskins have insurance for him in 2017 2nd round pick Ryan Anderson. Despite being a high pick, Anderson played just 193 mediocre snaps as a rookie, but he could be better in his 2nd season in the league and should have a bigger role, especially if McPhee can’t stay healthy. With better health at middle linebacker, this should be an improved linebacking corps in 2018.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Injuries were also an issue in the secondary. Starting cornerbacks Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland each missed a pair of games, while safety Montae Nicholson went suffered a season ending concussion week 11 after 319 snaps. Third cornerback Kendall Fuller played all 16 games, starting 6 of them, and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked cornerback on 719 snaps. He was traded to the Chiefs in the Alex Smith trade though, which is a big blow to this secondary.

The Redskins also lost Bashaud Breeland in free agency, but at least they prepared for his departure, taking Fabian Moreau in the 3rd round in 2017. He played just 59 snaps as a rookie, but should be a top-3 cornerback in 2018 and could easily be the starter opposite Josh Norman. Breeland also didn’t play as well as Fuller, grading out about average on PFF, so he won’t be as hard to replace. Fuller’s replacement will likely be veteran free agent addition Orlando Scandrick, who comes over from the Cowboys.

Scandrick has been a solid starter for a number of years, making 50 starts since 2013 and earning positive grades from PFF in each of his previous 4 healthy seasons prior to 2017, but he’s going into his age 31 season and was PFF’s 115th ranked cornerback out of 121 eligible in coverage grade last season. Originally owed 3 million non-guaranteed before being released by the Cowboys, the Redskins actually gave him a raise with a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal. He’s a low upside veteran stopgap, though his ability to play the slot will be valuable. With the Redskins not drafting a cornerback until the 7th round, his only real competition is Quinton Dunbar, a 2015 undrafted free agent who has been a decent reserve cornerback in 3 years in the league, but he’s never played more than 372 snaps in a season and is a projection to a larger role.

Josh Norman remains locked in as the #1 cornerback. PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback in 2015 with the Panthers, Norman hasn’t quite lived up to the 5-year, 75 million dollar deal they gave him the following off-season, but he’s been an above average starter in both seasons in Washington and has earned 4 straight positive grades for a season overall. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a dominant top level cornerback and he’s already going into his age 31 season, so he could decline over the next couple seasons, but he should still be a solid starter and is probably the Redskins’ best defensive back.

Safety DJ Swearinger was their only defensive back to make all 16 starts last season. A 2nd round pick by the Texans in 2013, Swearinger was a bust early in his career, bouncing around from the Texans to the Buccaneers to the Cardinals, but he had a breakout year in his contract year in 2016 in Arizona, finishing 8th among safeties and, though he fell to 27th in his first season in Washington, he proved to be more than worth the 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal the Redskins signed him to as a free agent last off-season. Still only going into his age 27 season, Swearinger should remain a solid starter.

Montae Nicholson is expected to return after his rookie season was cut short by a bad concussion in 2017. A 4th round pick, He played well enough in limited action to warrant starting again, but he’s still pretty inexperienced, so he probably won’t be handed the job. Deshazor Everett, a 2015 undrafted free agent, made 8 starts in Nicholson’s absence last year in the first significant action of his career and wasn’t terrible, though Nicholson is the higher upside option. The Redskins also used a 4th round pick on Penn State Troy Apke, but it’s unclear if he’ll have much of a role beyond special teams as a rookie. A freak athlete, Apke has developmental upside, but was considered a late round pick at best on tape before an eye opening combine. This isn’t a bad secondary overall, but they’ll miss Kendall Fuller.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Redskins bungled their quarterback situation and had to give away a high pick and a promising young cornerback in order to get a starting caliber quarterback this off-season, but Alex Smith isn’t really a downgrade and this supporting cast should be healthier in 2018. The problem is they play in the NFC, which will have numerous talented teams competing for wild card spots. The Redskins played a hard schedule last year, but it won’t be much easier this season, so they’ll have a hard time qualifying for the post-season. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Redskins are being overlooked coming into the season, but they are a solid team. If they were in the AFC, they’d like be a playoff team, but they’ll have a tough time qualifying in the NFC.

Prediction: 8-8 3rd in NFC East

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