Washington Football Team 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2019, Washington was among the worst teams in the league, finishing at 3-13 and ranking 31st in first down rate differential at -4.40%. In 2020, things seemed to be going the same way, with Washington starting just 2-7, but there was plenty of reason to believe they would be better going forward. As bad as their record was, part of it was just their 0-3 record in games decided by 3 points or less, including two losses to the Giants by a combined 4 points in which Washington won the first down rate battle by a combined +4.60%, but lost both games narrowly because they lost the turnover battle by a combined six, missed a makeable field goal, and allowed a return touchdown, all highly inconsistent metrics on a week-to-week basis. 

Washington also had a league worst fumble recovery rate and a league worst net field goal rate through those 9 games, which are also highly inconsistent metrics. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, Washington actually ranked 10th through their first 9 games, despite their underwhelming record and first down rate differential tends to be much more consistent and predictive. All of this was a good sign for this team going forward.

The one thing that was a bad sign for Washington though was how dependent on their dominant defense they were over those nine games, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed over expected, but just 27th in first down rate over expected. Normally, teams with that kind of profile regress going forward because defense is significantly less predictive than offense, so teams with a dominant defense and a weak offense are more likely to regress on defense than improve on offense. 

However, even their offense had reason to be somewhat optimistic once this team changed to veteran Alex Smith at quarterback. Even in his first two games, both field goal losses by Washington to drop them to that 2-7 record, Smith looked noticeably better than Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen who started games before him and, while Smith was never a spectacular quarterback during his stint as a starter last season, he was a steadying hand for an offense that otherwise had decent talent, leading to a noticeable offensive improvement that offset any regression by their defense. 

They finished 10th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.52%, not much different from where they ranked when they were 2-7, but, as is often the case in this situation, the team’s record predictably started catching up with where they ranked in first down rate differential, leading to Washington finishing with a 7-9 record that was actually enough to win the pitiful NFC East. Smith’s insertion into the starting lineup got most of the credit for their turnaround and, in fact, their two losses over that stretch were games started by backup Dwayne Haskins in place of an injured Alex Smith, but even those losses were one score losses and, while Smith obviously helped this team, all he really did was provide a replacement level upgrade under center to offset any regression from their defense. 

The predictable swing of the metrics that worked against Washington earlier in the season would have likely led to at least somewhat of a turnaround even without Smith, although you can definitely make the argument that they would not have won the division and made the post-season without Smith. Beyond that, even replacement level play from Smith was something of a miracle for a player who suffered a devastating broken leg and subsequent bouts of infection in 2018, which threatened not just his career, but his life and mobility off the field. However, after almost two years and countless surgeries, Smith returned to the field in 2020.

Even after rejoining Washington last off-season, Smith still seemed to have a long way to go to see any playing time, as Washington had 2019 first round pick Dwayne Haskins, who was drafted to replace him, and Kyle Allen, a former Panthers backup and spot starter that new head coach Ron Rivera, formerly of the Panthers as well, liked as a potential starting option in case Haskins struggled, leaving Smith as the third quarterback and seemingly more of an emotional leader and coach than someone who would do anything notable on the field. However, Haskins continued to struggle on the field and behind the scenes with the coaching staff, leading to his benching and ultimate release, while Allen suffered a leg injury of his own that opened the door for Smith to start.

Smith played well enough to win Comeback Player of the Year (though just stepping on the field might have been enough for that) and to steady this team to the post-season, but, at the same time, the lasting effects of Smith’s injury were noticeable. Once an above average runner at the quarterback position, Smith seemingly lacked all mobility, rushing for just 3 yards on 10 carries and being limited to being a pocket passer. On top of that, Smith strained his calf on that surgically repaired leg, causing him to miss the two games that Haskins started in his place late in the season.

Even when Smith returned in week 17, he was clearly even more hobbled than before the injury and ultimately was ”benched” and replaced with Taylor Heinicke, another of Ron Rivera’s former backup quarterbacks from Carolina, who closed out their division clinching win over the Eagles week 17 and then started a playoff game against the Buccaneers in which Washington only lost by one score to the eventual Super Bowl champs with a 4th string quarterback, once again showing the potential of this team if they can get the quarterback position resolved.

The struggles Smith had with his leg last season ultimately led to Smith hanging them up this off-season at age 37, finishing an overall impressive 16-year NFL career that will probably be best remembered for his improbable comeback in 2020. Dwayne Haskins, originally supposed to be this team’s quarterback of the future before he proved himself to be a megabust, is no longer with the team, leaving Washington needing to find a replacement for Smith under center this off-season. 

Allen is set to return from his leg injury and Taylor Heinicke impressed enough in his limited action to earn a 2-year, 4.75 million dollar deal, but they are career backups with 18 starts between them and a career QB rating of 84.4 and 71.7 respectively, so Washington obviously needed to add more to the mix. Picking 19th overall because of their division title last season, Washington wasn’t in position to select one of the top quarterbacks in the draft unless they paid a steep price to move up like the Bears did for Justin Fields, so they found their quarterback before the draft, signing veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal.

Fitzpatrick is heading into his age 39 season and is certainly not a long-term solution for a team that will likely be searching for another quarterback again next off-season, but in the short-term, he could be a nice fit for a team that otherwise has a strong roster. Fitzpatrick is the ultimate journeyman, now joining his 9th team for his 17th season in the league, having never stayed in one place more than four seasons, but, even though he was not a high level quarterback in his prime, Fitzpatrick remarkably has not shown his age at all, in fact having some of the best seasons of his career in his mid-to-late 30s.

Fitzpatrick hasn’t entered the season as the undisputed starter since 2016 and his last 16-game starting season was 2015 when he struggled, but he’s still made 27 starts over the past three seasons and has finished 10th, 14th, and 19th among quarterbacks on PFF over those three seasons respectively, while completing 64.8% of his passes for an average of 7.87 YPA, 50 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions. Fitzpatrick also has some much more mediocre seasons earlier in his career and it’s possible he’ll regress to that now that he’s back in a season long starting role, or maybe age will finally catch up with him, but Fitzpatrick has the upside to be a solid starting quarterback for this team.

Even his worst case scenario probably isn’t worse than what Washington had under center last season. He’s not a slam dunk solution, but he wasn’t a bad signing for this team given the circumstances and he could easily make them better offensively than they were a year ago, when they finished just 27th in first down rate over expected, even with Smith playing reasonably well down the stretch. Washington didn’t add a quarterback at all through the draft, leaving just the two former Panther backups behind him on the depth chart, so this is pretty undisputedly his job unless he struggles mightily. 

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, Washington otherwise had a decent offense outside of the quarterback position last season. I’ll get into the key skill position players later and what Washington has done to supplement them this off-season, but one underrated group on this offense last season was their offensive line, which saw all five starters have above average grades on PFF by the end of the season. Washington did have some struggles upfront earlier in the season, but two things turned that around. One big one was just the return from injury of right guard Brandon Scherff, who missed three games early in the season, but otherwise finished as PFF’s 7th ranked guard in his 13 starts. 

On top of that, Washington finally found a left tackle, settling on Cornelius Lucas, who made 8 starts down the stretch last season and finished as PFF’s 22nd ranked offensive tackle. Lucas also earned PFF’s 28th highest grade among offensive tackles across 536 snaps (9 starts) in 2019, although prior to 2019 the veteran journeyman had made just 14 starts in 5 seasons in the league and had never earned more than an average grade from PFF for a season, so it’s understand Washington was a bit skeptical of giving him the starting job week one, cycling through lesser talents in Geron Christian and David Sharpe before finding Lucas, whose insertion into the starting lineup also somewhat coincided with this team’s offensive improvement, although obviously the change at quarterback was a big part of that as well.

Washington still seems somewhat skeptical of Lucas, signing ex-Bears left tackle Charles Leno to a one-year deal in free agency and using their 2nd round pick on Texas’ Samuel Cosmi, but they did release right tackle Morgan Moses ahead of a non-guaranteed 7.75 million dollar salary, so Lucas still has a good chance to earn a starting job at one of the two tackle positions and he has experience on both sides, even if he’s still very unproven for a player now heading into his age 30 season.

Leno, meanwhile, has made all 16 starts over the past 5 seasons and has earned an above average grade from PFF in four of those five seasons, maxing out at 13th in 2017 and ranking 30th last season. He’s going into his age 30 season and could begin declining a little bit, but he’s only a short-term option on a one-year deal, with Cosmi looking like a long-term starter behind him. Cosmi could also beat out Lucas with a good training camp if the coaching staff is still skeptical of Lucas as a season-long starter. 

However, even with two talented players being added to this group this off-season, releasing Moses is still a big of a head scratching move. It did save them significant money and he was going into his age 30 season, but he still finished 15th among offensive tackles on PFF last season and by swapping him for Leno, Washington essentially replaced one aging tackle with a slightly less talented, slightly cheaper option. Washington isn’t in dire financial straits so it didn’t seem like a necessary move, but Leno should still remain at least a solid starting left tackle, with Lucas as the most likely early season option on the right side.

One move Washington could have made to free up some immediate cap space was to come to a long-term agreement with Brandon Scherff, who currently has a cap hit of 18.036 million, his one-year salary on his second straight franchise tag. Injuries have become a predictable occurence for Scherff, not only missing the three games last season, but not topping 14 games since 2016 and missing 18 games in 4 seasons since. 

Scherff is also going into his age 30 season, so all in all it’s somewhat understandable they haven’t come to a long-term deal yet, but Scherff has also been one of the best guards in the league when healthy, finishing in the top-29 among guards in all six seasons in the league since being selected 5th overall by Washington in 2015, including four straight top-15 finishes and a 7th ranked finish in 2020, so it’s a bit surprise he hasn’t been extended yet.

Center Chase Rouiller and left guard Wes Schweitzer weren’t quite as good last season as Scherff, but they had strong seasons as well, finishing 6th among centers and 19th among guards respectively across 16 starts and 13 starts respectively. For both players it was a career best year, but Rouiller has more of a track record, earning average or better grades from PFF in all four seasons in the league (53 starts) since being selected in the 6th round in 2017, including a 15th ranked finish among centers in 2019, while Schweitzer was previously about a league average starter across 36 starts, after being selected in the 6th round in 2016 by the Falcons. 

Rouiller should remain an above average starter, but Schweitzer is actually probably headed to the bench, despite last year’s solid season, with Washington bringing in Ereck Flowers via trade with the Dolphins to be his likely replacement. Flowers was with Washington in 2019 and was originally replaced by Schweitzer last off-season, after Flowers signed a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal with the Dolphins last off-season. Flowers wasn’t bad last season in Miami, finishing with the same rank, 32nd, among guards on PFF as he did the previous season in Washington.

However, Miami decided not only to move on from him, but to also eat 6 million of his 9 million dollar guaranteed salary, effectively paying him 17 million for one year and sending him back where he came from for seemingly no reason. He should be a capable starter, with Schweitzer then slotting in as excellent depth. This group probably won’t be quite as good as they were down the stretch last season, but it remains an above average offensive line and could be more consistent overall this season, after struggling to find a capable left tackle for most of the first half of last season.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Washington also has one of the most promising young wide receivers in the league in Terry McLaurin, a 2019 3rd round pick. As a rookie, McLaurin posted a 58/919/7 slash line on an otherwise pitiful offense, ranking 14th in yards per route run at 2.05 and earning PFF’s 5th highest grade among wide receivers. In 2020, McLaurin saw more playing time on an improved offense and finished with a 87/1118/4 slash line, but he did actually fall to 34th in yards per route run at 1.87 and 28th in overall grade from PFF. 

However, he was better than that before playing the final 4 games of the season through an ankle injury, as through week 12, as he ranked 9th among wide receivers on PFF in overall grade and had the 13th highest yards per route run average as well at 2.29. He was also on pace for a ridiculous 100/1401/5 slash line, which would have been the 4th most receiving yards in the league if he maintained it for a full season. Now going into his third season in the league with his best quarterback yet, McLaurin has a massive statistical upside if he can stay healthy and he could easily develop into one of the best wide receivers in the league over the next couple seasons, just entering his prime in his age 26 season.

The issue last season is Washington didn’t have another consistent target in the passing game. Tight end Logan Thomas and passing down back JD McKissic were 2nd and 3rd on this team with slash lines of 72/670/5 and 80/589/2, but they were mostly just check down options who did little downfield, with Thomas averaging 1.10 yards per route run, 6.09 yards per target, and 9.31 yards per completion and McKissic averaging 1.48 yards per route run, 5.35 yards per target, and 7.37 yards per completion. Behind McLaurin, wide receivers Cam Sims, Steven Sims, and Isaiah Wright posted slash lines of just 32/471/1, 27/265/1, and 27/197/0 respectively.


Cam Sims was the best of the bunch, but his 1.22 yards per route run average only looks good by comparison with Stevens Sims and Isaiah Wright, who averaged 0.97 yards per route run and 0.83 yards per route run respectively, and all three earned below average grades from PFF. Sims could still potentially compete for a role in 2021, but this is a much improved group after adding a pair of veteran free agents in Curtis Samuel and Adam Humphries and third round pick Dyami Brown.

Samuel was the biggest investment of the bunch coming over from the Panthers on a 3-year, 34.5 million dollar deal and he figures to have a significant role as the #2 receiver opposite McLaurin. Carolina picked Samuel in the 2nd round when Ron Rivera was there, so he has that connection, but he actually didn’t have his best season until Rivera left, averaging 1.14 yards per route run over the first three seasons of his career, before seeing that jump to 1.93 in 2020, when he also finished 31st among wide receivers on PFF on overall grade.

His 77/851/3 slash line fell short of 1000 yards, but it came as the third receiver on an offense with an underwhelming quarterback and he topped 1000 yards if you include the 200 yards he added on 41 carries (34 out of the backfield, 7 on end arounds or sweeps). Samuel is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level, but he’s also still only going into his age 25 season and could easily keep getting better going forward. Washington will likely continue getting him the ball in creative ways, although his 31 carries in his first three seasons with Ron Rivera would seem to suggest he’ll be used as more of a traditional wide receiver in Washington than he was in his last season in Carolina. Either way, he’ll give Washington a much needed upgrade to take some coverage away from McLaurin.

Adam Humphries, meanwhile, is a much shakier veteran addition, as evidenced by his 1-year, 1.19 million dollar contract. Humphries has been a capable slot receiver over the past five seasons, averaging a 61/648/3 slash line per 16 games with a 1.39 yards per route run average and earning middling grades from PFF, but injuries have limited to him just 19 games over the past two seasons combined, including a concerning series of concussions that seemed to have his long-term future in doubt at one point. 

Humphries is still only going into his age 28 season and could easily bounce back and be a solid slot receiver if he can stay on the field, but that isn’t a guarantee. He could have to face competition from Dyami Brown, Cam Sims, or even 2020 4th round pick Antonio Gandy-Golden, who struggled across 124 rookie year snaps, but could still be better going forward. Either way, this is a much improved wide receiver group, with players who saw significant action last season now competing for bottom of the roster spots.

With a much better wide receiver group, tight end Logan Thomas should see much less volume and his production should fall off significantly as a result. A converted quarterback, Thomas had never topped 16 catches or 336 snaps in a season prior to last season and only really saw significant action last season out of pure desperation. Now going into his age 30 season, Thomas is unlikely to have significant untapped potential. He could also have to face competition for playing time from 4th round rookie John Bates, a blocking first tight end who is likely to earn the #2 tight end role even as a rookie, given their lack of other proven options. This isn’t a spectacular group overall, but it’s a significant upgrade on last year’s group.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Along with having a talented #1 receiver in Terry McLaurin last season, Washington also had a talented lead back in Antonio Gibson. Gibson was just a third round rookie, but he showed a lot of promise, even though he was never made into a true feature back, with JD McKissic stealing 85 carries from him along with most of the passing game work and even plodding backup Peyton Barber stole 94 carries. Gibson didn’t show much as a receiver in the limited passing game action he saw, but as a runner he rushed for 4.68 YPC and, while that was partially due to great run blocking by Washington’s offensive line, Gibson still ranked 21st in carry success rate, and 19th in elusive rating and was PFF’s 5th ranked running back in rushing grade.

Gibson was limited to 170 carries on the season, in part because of inexperience early in the season and in part because of some injuries he picked up late in the year, but, even though McKissic and Barber both return for 2021, they averaged just 4.29 YPC and 2.74 YPC respectively, despite having the same great blocking, so Washington’s offense would almost definitely benefit from giving Gibson the lion’s share of the carries and could easily do so. Gibson also could easily see more passing game work, which would cut even more into McKissic’s target share, on an offense that has more wide receiver talent this season and won’t need to target running backs as often as a result.

McKissic doesn’t have much of a track record either, never topping more than 80 touches in a season before being stretched into a much larger role on this underwhelming offense last season, but he may have a better history than Barber, who has plodded his way to 3.48 YPC across 645 carries in 5 seasons in the league, but somehow remains on an NFL roster. Any of his carries that are given to Gibson instead give this offense a much better chance of staying on schedule. With Gibson at the top of this group, Washington’s running game has a high upside.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Ordinarily, teams with strong defenses have a harder time maintaining that year-to-year than teams with strong offenses and, as a result, teams with Washington’s profile, struggling on offense (27th in first down rate over expected at -2.40%), but dominating on defense (3rd in first down rate over allowed expected at -3.93%), tend to regress in win total the following season, with their strong defenses regressing to the mean more often than their weak offenses. 

However, we’ve already established that Washington has a good chance to be significantly improved on offense this season as a result of upgrades at quarterback and in the receiving corps and I think their defense will have more staying power than most top defenses. The reason for that is simply that this is a young, relatively inexpensive unit that Washington was able to keep together this off-season, with only two of Washington’s top-17 defenders in terms of snaps played from last season no longer with the team and, those two players, Ronald Darby and Kevin-Pierre Louis were both arguably upgraded on this off-season, which I’ll get into more later. 

Defenses tend to be more inconsistent on a year-to-year basis than offenses because strong quarterback play can elevate an offense year after year, while defenses need above average play in at least 7-9 spots to play at a high level, which gets very expensive to keep together after a while, but Washington has avoided the talent attrition for now. This young, talented defense was led by a starting defensive line of four recent former first round picks who have all managed to pan out, giving Washington one of the best defensive lines in football for the foreseeable future. 

Probably the best known of the bunch is 2020 2nd overall pick Chase Young, who instantly showed why he was selected so high, finishing his rookie year as PFF’s 6th ranked edge defender and being selected Defensive Rookie of the Year, despite missing a game and playing through injury for most of the first half of the season. It’s not hard to see how Young could be even better in year two and, while development is not always linear, it’s at the point where it would actually be surprising if Young didn’t develop into one of the best defensive linemen in the league over the next few years, as long as he can stay healthy.

Montez Sweat might not be as well known, but he is a former first round pick in his own right and, not only that, but if not for some questionable medicals, Sweat could have been a top-10 pick, ultimately ending up in Washington with pick number 26. Everyone else’s loss has been Washington’s gain as, after a middling rookie year across 724 snaps, Sweat showed his top-10 potential in 2020, totaling 9 sacks, 12 hits, and a 11.7% pressure rate, while dominating against the run and earning PFF’s 12th highest edge defender grade overall, forming one of the best all-around edge defender duos in the league with Young.

Sweat is technically still a one-year wonder and, even if he does keep getting better going forward, he might not necessarily be improved in year three, but with a pair of talented, young, former first round picks, Washington is in very good shape at this position for the foreseeable future. However, depth is a bit of a concern behind Young and Sweat, as Washington has gone from having good depth with Ryan Kerrigan (398 snaps) and Ryan Anderson (146 snaps) to having next to no depth with both Kerrigan and Anderson signing elsewhere this off-season. 

Washington drafted a pair of players in the 7th round in William Bradley-King and Shaka Toney and also used a 7th rounder on the position in 2020, taking James Williams-Smith, but he didn’t play a snap as a rookie and any of those three players would likely struggle if forced into significant action. Washington badly needs Young and Sweat to both stay healthy, not just because of how talented they are, but because of how big the dropoff would be without either one. Washington would benefit from making a cheap veteran addition or two just to get somewhat proven depth added to the mix.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

On the interior, Washington has another pair of first round picks in 2017 17th overall pick Jonathan Allen and 2018 13th overall pick Da’Ron Payne. Allen has left something to be desired against the run, but he’s totalled 17 sacks, 27 hits, and a 9.1% pressure rate in 52 career games, including a career best 2020 season in which he had 2 sacks, 12 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate and finished as PFF’s 15th ranked interior defender overall. Allen is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played last season, but he’s earned above average grades from PFF in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 26 season, so he’s just entering his prime.

Payne, on the other hand, is more of a big run stuffing nose tackle at 6-3 319, earning above average run stopping grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league, but never earning more than an average grade as a pass rusher, with 10 sacks, 10 hits, and a 5.8% pressure rate in 47 career games. Payne is still only going into his age 24 season and may have further untapped potential, but he’s essentially been the same player throughout the first three years of his career and might not have another level. 

Allen and Payne aren’t as talented of a duo as Young and Sweat, but they are a solid starting duo and the depth situation is much better on the interior as well. Tim Settle was the primary reserve with 348 snaps played last season and he earned an above average grade from PFF for his limited action, but their depth should be even better in 2021, with Matt Ioannidis set to return after having his 2020 season ended after 81 snaps in 3 games by injury. 

Ioannidis played an average of 617 snaps per game from 2017-2019 before last year’s injury ruined season and he was a great situational pass rusher over that stretch, totaling 20.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 12.4% pressure rate in 44 games. He has struggled against the run and probably won’t see the same snap count as he averaged in those three seasons in a very deep and talented group, but his return should allow Payne to focus on more of a base package role, which should upgrade their interior pass rush noticeably. He should play above Settle, a talented reserve in his own right, as, in addition to last season, the 2018 5th round pick also earned an above average grade from PFF across 314 snaps in 2019. This is a loaded position group with plenty of depth and talent.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

As I mentioned earlier, Washington lost veteran linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis this off-season, but he only played about half the snaps (506 snaps) as a situational player and could easily be upgraded by 19th overall pick Jamin Davis, who profiles as an every down player long-term. Not only is Davis expected to replace Pierre-Louis in the starting lineup, but he could replace Jon Bostic as the top linebacker, as Bostic ranked a pretty underwhelming 60th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF last season across 966 snaps and could benefit from playing a smaller role in 2021.

Cole Holcomb, who showed promise down the stretch last season, finishing 11th among off ball linebackers on PFF across 555 snaps, is also in the mix for a role. The 2019 5th round pick was underwhelming in a larger role as a rookie and he’s unlikely to play above Jamin Davis, but he could easily play above Jon Bostic, who he at the very least figures to split snaps with. Bostic has made 77 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s finished above average on PFF just once in those seasons and is now heading into his age 30 season. With Davis being added this off-season and Holcomb showing promise down the stretch last season, which could bury the veteran Bostic on the depth chart, things are looking up in this position group, even if they are relying on young players.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Cornerback Ronald Darby also let go this off-season, but, even though he finished 14th among cornerbacks on PFF last season, Washington arguably might have upgraded by signing ex-Bengal William Jackson to a 3-year, 40.5 million dollar deal. Jackson had a similar season to Darby in 2020, ranking 26th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he has a better track record than the injury prone Darby, finishing in the top-28 among cornerbacks on PFF in three of the last four seasons, while missing just five games due to injury over that stretch. A former first round pick who is still in his prime in his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect anything different from him in 2021.

Jackson will start opposite Kendall Fuller, who was added last off-season on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal. Fuller actually began his career in Washington, being selected in the 3rd round in 2016 and spending his first two seasons there, including a 2017 campaign where he was one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league and ranked 2nd among cornerbacks overall on PFF across 720 snaps. That 2017 season drew him enough attention from the Kansas City Chiefs for him to be included with a draft pick in the trade that originally brought Alex Smith to town, but Fuller has yet to have a season nearly that good since.

Fuller wasn’t bad in his first season in Kansas City, finishing 33rd among cornerbacks and starting all 16 games as an every down player for the first time in his career, but injuries and ineffectiveness led to him playing just 498 snaps in 11 games in a 2019 season in which he finished slightly below average on PFF. That led to his market being weaker than it likely would have been as a free agent last off-season, but Washington was still willing to give him a chance on a multi-year deal because of their familiarity with him.

Fuller didn’t perform at his 2017 level in 2020, but he at least bounced back to his 2018 level and earned an above average grade from PFF as an every down player in 14 starts, leading to Washington locking him up long-term on a more lucrative deal this off-season. He might never be as good as he was in 2017 again, but he’s still only going into his age 26 season and should remain at least an above average starter. He’ll play both outside and inside for this secondary, but the slot is his best location.

Jackson and Fuller are a solid starting duo, but the third cornerback spot is a concern. Jimmy Moreland, a 2019 7th round pick, was the third cornerback last season, but he ranked 78th among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF across 601 snaps. He’s still young and has theoretical upside, but he struggled across 471 snaps as a rookie as well and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed, given how late he was drafted. 

Moreland will face competition from 3rd round rookie Benjamin St-Juste and veteran journeyman Darryl Roberts, who has played 532 snaps per season over the past five seasons, but has finished below average on PFF in four of five seasons, including a 95th ranked finish out of 136 eligible across 469 snaps in 2020. Whoever wins this job could easily struggle, but St-Juste at least gives them some upside as he projects as a starter long-term.

At safety, Washington lost Landon Collins for the season with a torn achilles after 398 snaps in 7 games, which would seem like a crippling blow for this defense, as Collins is one of Washington’s highest paid players and one of the highest paid safeties in the league on a 6-year, 84 million dollar deal, but Collins was actually pretty mediocre before getting hurt last season and, while Washington had to cycle through several different options at the position in his absence, with five safeties, including Collins, all playing 263 snaps or more for Washington last season, they were able to find a couple diamonds in the rough in Kamren Curl and Jeremy Reaves.

Curl was just a 7th round rookie last season, but he found his way onto the field for 763 snaps and held his own, finishing just above average on PFF. Players drafted as low as him don’t have great long-term track records and it’s possible Curl doesn’t have a huge ceiling as a player or that he’ll regress after his rookie year, but he could also remain a solid starting safeties for years to come. Reaves, meanwhile, didn’t see any action until week 12 of last season and had played just 113 snaps in two seasons in the league prior, since going undrafted in 2018, but from week 12 on he played 263 snaps and was PFF’s 6th highest ranked safety over that stretch. He’s still very unproven and will most likely be the 3rd safety with Collins returning and Curl likely to remain a starter, but he has more upside than most 3rd safeties and it’s possible Washington could use more three safety looks this season to mask their lack of proven depth at cornerback.

With Curl and Reaves showing a lot of promise in his absence, Collins will probably need to have a good year in 2021 in his return from injury to justify his contract beyond this year. Collins was a second round pick by the division rival Giants in 2015 and in his second and third years in the league he looked like one of the best safeties in the NFL, finishing 10th and 12th respectively among safeties on PFF, but he fell to 39th in his contract year in 2018 and, though that didn’t stop Washington from giving him a big contract, that contract looks like a big mistake now, as Collins continued regressing in his first season in Washington in 2019, ranking 41st among safeties, before his injury plagued 2020 campaign when he was a relative non-factor even when healthy.

Washington actually could have moved on from Collins this off-season if they wanted, as only 5 million of his 13 million dollar salary was guaranteed, but he’s still only in his age 27 season and Washington is hoping he can somewhat return to his top form even after a serious injury. If he can’t show that in his third season in Washington in 2021, it’s hard to see him seeing the 13 million, 14 million, or 15 million in non-guaranteed money he has scheduled for 2022-2024. For a player who lacked elite mobility even before the injury, he could easily be a liability in coverage, but Washington should get more out of him than they did last year. Even if they don’t, they may have the depth to compensate. This isn’t a great secondary, but it’s a solid unit overall.

Grade: B

Kicker/Punter

Washington was a slightly above average special teams unit in 2020, ranking 15th in special teams DVOA, but kicker was a weakness, as Dustin Hopkins went 30/32 on extra points and 27/34 on field goals, en route to finishing 26th among 36 eligible kickers on PFF. Hopkins returns unchallenged as the starter in 2021 and has been better in the past, but he’s been a pretty underwhelming kicker overall throughout his 6 seasons as a starter, making just 83.9% of his field goals and 94.9% of his extra points, so he could easily be a mediocre kicker again in 2021.

Punter Tress Way had a much better 2020 season than Hopkins, ranking 5th in punting average at 48.0 yards per attempt, 4th in net punting average at 44.3 yards per attempt, and 10th in hangtime at 4.43 seconds and, as a result, punting was the obvious strength of Washington’s special teams and one of the best punting units in the league. Hopkins also fared better on kickoffs, as he typically has throughout his career, but Washington did not have the same success in kickoff DVOA as they did in punting DVOA, in large part due to differences in supporting cast play. Like Hopkins, Way remains the unchallenged starter in 2021 and he’s generally been a solid starter throughout 7 seasons in the league, averaging 46.8 yards per punt, 41.3 net yards per punt, and 4.45 seconds of hangtime. He’s the better of their two kicking specialists.

Grade: B+

Return Specialists

Washington was mediocre in both return games last season as well, with their above average special teams DVOA being primarily driven by their punting game and, to a lesser extent, their kickoff game. Steven Sims averaged 6.7 yards per across 24 punt returns, while Danny Johnson averaged 22.0 yards per across 26 kickoff returns, which are both mediocre averages. Sims and Johnson remain with the team and could keep their jobs, but both figure to face competition. Most notably, both will face competition from free agent acquisition DeAndre Carter, who has averaged 21.8 yards per kickoff return across 45 attempts and 9.3 yards per punt return across 63 attempts in his 3-year career. 

Carter has been underwhelming as a kickoff returner, but should at least be an upgrade on punt returns. Isaiah Wright, who scored 5 special teams touchdowns in college, is also an option for both roles, but he returned just two kickoffs and four punts as a rookie, so he’s somewhat of a long shot. His easiest path to playing time will be at kickoff returner because both Johnson and Carter are underwhelming options, while Wright averaged 24.2 yards per return at the collegiate level, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the professional level. Washington’s returners seem better than a year ago, but there is still some concern here. 

Grade: B-

Special Teamers

Washington’s supporting special teams weren’t bad last season, but they weren’t good either, with no one playing more than 100 snaps and finishing in the top-100 among special teamers on PFF. This season, things figure to be similar. Shaun-Dion Hamilton (306 snaps), Jeremy Sprinkle (224 snaps), and Fabian Moreau (177 snaps) are all decent special teamers who left this off-season. Joe Walker (274 snaps), David Mayo (204 snaps), and Linden Stephens (161 snaps) come in to replace them and, though Stephens has mostly struggled in his career, this is largely a comparable group, especially if Walker and Mayo can be a little better like they’ve been in the past.

Khaleke Hudson (354 snaps), James Smith-Williams (272 snaps), Danny Johnson (234 snaps), Jared Norris (183 snaps), and Troy Apke (175 snaps) are their top returning special teamers and all have been solid, if unspectacular throughout most of their careers. Once again, this is unlikely to be a great group of supporting special teams, but they should remain serviceable at least, especially if they can get contributions from their rookie class.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

Washington’s defense might not be quite as good as it was last season, but with largely the same personnel, led by a dominant defensive line, without any glaring weaknesses, they should remain one of the best in the league on that side of the ball. On top of that, their offense should be significantly better, as they should have better health, after having the 5th most adjusted games lost to injury on offense in 2020, and they have made upgrades at quarterback and wide receiver, which were major positions of weakness last season. 

Any regression by their defense will likely be compensated for by improvement on offense and it’s very possible that their offense could improve more than their defense regresses. Washington is also starting from a higher base point than most realize as they finished last season 10th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.53% and could have been 9-7 if not for improbably losing both games to the Giants, despite winning the first down rate battle by +4.60% across the two games. The Giants and Cowboys will also be better in 2021, but Washington has a good chance to defend their division title, this time in a division that is a little more legitimate.  I will have a final prediction for Washington at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

8/8/21: Special teams being more predictive than I thought doesn’t help Washington’s projection, but they should still be in the running for the division title.

9/4/21: I have Washington falling short to Dallas in the division because, even though their offense should be better, their defense was so good last season that they could regress and still be one of the better defenses in the league, which will likely be the case. They could still win the NFC East, but I would rather go with an offensive led team like Dallas than a defensive led team like Washington, given how much more predictive offensive performance is than defensive performance.

Prediction: 8-9 2nd in NFC East

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