In 2012, the Redskins mortgaged the future to move up 4 spots in the draft to select Baylor quarterback and Heisman winner Robert Griffin, sending picks #6 and #39, along with future first rounders in 2013 and 2014, to the Rams for #2. Griffin won Offensive Rookie of the Year that season and the trade looked like a huge success for a franchise in need of stability at the quarterback position, but he suffered a torn ACL in their playoff loss to the Seahawks that season and was never the same again.
Given all that they gave up to get him, that mistake had the potential to set their franchise back a few years, but the Redskins were saved from that by Kirk Cousins, a 4th round pick in that same 2012 draft and a head-scratching selection in a lot of people’s eyes at the time, given all they had already given up to get Griffin. Cousins struggled early in his career as a spot starter and those struggles continued into his full first season as a starter in 2015. In his first 17 career starts, Cousins completed just 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.97 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions.
Then the light seemed to click for him 8 games into 2015 and he has been on some kind of run since then, completing 68.8% of his passes for an average of 8.48 YPA, 44 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 24 starts. His second half tear in 2015 got the Redskins into the playoffs and earned him the 15th place rank on Pro Football Focus among quarterbacks. In 2016, the Redskins just missed the playoffs at 8-7-1 and Cousins finished 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. With Griffin spending last season on a 1-15 Cleveland team, Cousins’ emergence has shown just how quickly things can change in the NFL and the value of selecting the best overall player in the draft regardless of need, especially in the middle rounds.
The Redskins have been rightfully a little skeptical of his sudden emergence, franchise tagging him in each of the last 2 off-seasons, but being very conservative in long-term extension talks. Cousins will make a combined 43.9 million on the two tags, but the Redskins have refused to go above 20 million dollars annually on a long-term deal. Cousins would be owed about 34.5 million on a third franchise tag next off-season, making that not a realistic option. Something will have to give at some point. Cousins is rumored to be interested in signing with ex-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, who didn’t do much to address the quarterback position this off-season and who would welcome Cousins with open arms. Cousins could ultimately prove to be more of a system quarterback, but he’s a great fit in Jay Gruden’s system and should be able to continue his hot streak.
Cousins threw for 4,917 yards last season, 3rd best in the NFL, and averaged 8.11 yards per attempt, also 3rd best in the NFL. He deserves a lot of the credit, but he was definitely helped out by one of the league’s best receiving corps. Unfortunately, his top 2 wide receivers, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, left in free agency this off-season. Both players topped 1000 receiving yards last season, one of 4 wide receiver duos in the league to do so (Brandin Cooks/Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders/Demaryius Thomas, and Amari Cooper/Michael Crabtree), and they combined for 2,046 receiving yards, 41.4% of the team’s total. They won’t be easy to replace.
The Redskins do have some obvious replacements though, including free agent acquisition Terrelle Pryor. A failure as a quarterback, Terrelle Pryor’s NFL career got a second life when he converted to wide receiver with the Browns 2 seasons ago. The position change ended up being one of the smartest things the Browns have ever done, as Pryor had a breakout season in 2016 in just his second season as a wide receiver, catching 77 passes for 1007 yards and 4 touchdowns and finishing 31st among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus.
He’s still a one-year wonder and teams are still skeptical about him as a legitimate top flight receiver, as evidenced by the fact that he had to settle for an incentivized 1-year, 6 million dollar deal in free agency. That being said, he’s incredibly gifted athletically with legitimate 4.3 speed at 6-4 223 and may just be scratching the surface on his potential as a wide receiver, still only going into his age 28 season. With a full season as a starter under his best, Pryor has a good chance to improve on his 2016 numbers on a much better passing offense than Cleveland’s. With Garcon and Jackson leaving behind 216 targets, Pryor could match the 140 targets he received with the Browns last season. He could prove to be a very wise signing on a relatively low risk deal and emerge as the clear #1 receiver in Washington.
Opposite him, last year’s first round pick Josh Doctson is penciled in as the other starter. The 21st overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Doctson is a complete mystery as an NFL player still, after being limited to 31 nondescript snaps as a rookie by achilles problems. If he’s healthy, he could have a real impact, but he’s basically still a rookie given how little he’s actually played. The one obvious benefit with Doctson and Pryor instead of Jackson and Garcon is height, as Doctson and Pryor are 6-3 and 6-4 respectively, while Jackson and Garcon are 5-10 and 6-0 respectively. The Redskins ranked 30th in red zone touchdown percentage last season, ahead of only the Jets and Texans, so, even if they don’t have as many passing yards as they had last season with Jackson and Garcon, they could make up for it with greater efficiency near the goal line.
Jamison Crowder is the leading returning receiver and he too is undersized at 5-8 182. Just a 4th round pick in 2015, Crowder has surprisingly been a solid slot receiver in 2 seasons in the league, catching 126 passes for 1451 yards and 9 touchdowns in 32 games (15 starts) and grading out about average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. Still only going into his age 24 season, Crowder’s best football could be yet to come. He’ll probably start the off-season as the 3rd receiver again, but could push Doctson for playing time outside if Doctson underwhelms the coaching staff, though Crowder’s size is a real limitation outside. Even if he remains the slot receiver, he’s surpassed 700 snaps in each of his first 2 seasons in the league in that role, so he will remain a big part of the offense. With Jackson and Garcon gone, expect Crowder to top the 97 targets he had last season, regardless of where he officially lands on the depth chart.
Tight end Jordan Reed could also top his target total from a year ago (87), but only if he can manage to stay healthy, something he’s never been able to do. Reed has never suffered any serious injuries, but hasn’t played more than 14 games in a season in 4 seasons in the league and has missed a total of 18 games, including 4 last season. When on the field, he’s one of the best tight ends in the league, finishing in the top-7 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 4 seasons in the league. At 6-2 246, Reed moves like a wide receiver and is an improving blocker. His career per game averages translate to a slash line of 86/905/7 over 16 games, so he could have a huge year if he can finally stay on the field. That would go a long way towards replacing Jackson and Garcon and improving their red zone offense.
Reed’s durability issues opened up playing time last season for #2 tight end Vernon Davis, who played 674 snaps. He fared pretty well as the #2 tight end, catching 44 of 59 passes for 583 yards and 2 touchdowns. Davis graded out above average in 5 straight seasons from 2009-2013, but looked like a shell of his former self in 2014 and 2015, grading out 62nd out of 67 eligible in 2014 and then 51st out of 67 eligible in 2015. Davis showed he still had something left in the tank in 2016 though and finished 21st among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 33 season, Davis’ best days are probably behind him, but he should still be a solid #2 tight end.
Even with Jackson and Garcon gone, this receiving corps is in good shape. They were one of the deepest receiving corps in the league prior to losing Jackson and Garcon and they may have gotten the steal of the off-season in Terrelle Pryor. Between that, a possible breakout year by Jamison Crowder, and the potential of Jordan Reed and Josh Doctson coming off of injury, this receiving corps has a very high upside. There is always risk involved when you have to change up the receivers as much as the Redskins did this off-season, but the Redskins could have a better passing offense even if they don’t pass for as many yards because they should be more efficient in the red zone.
Kirk Cousins was also helped by a strong offensive line and, unlike in the receiving corps, they return all 5 starters on the offensive line. The best of the bunch is left tackle Trent Williams, who finished 1st among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Williams has made 73 of 80 starts over the past 5 seasons and finished in the top-18 in all 5 seasons, including a first place finish both last season and in 2013. The one downside with Williams is he’s a failed drug test away from a season long suspension, but, if he can avoid further trouble, he has a good chance to play more games this year than last year, when he missed 4 games with a suspension. If he does miss time, backup Ty Nsekhe would fill in and he played pretty well last season, so the Redskins are deep at the position too.
On the other side, right tackle Morgan Moses is also a strong starter. A 3rd round pick in 2014, Moses struggled in limited action as a rookie, but he has made all 32 starts in the past 2 seasons and finished 16th and 17th respectively among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie contract, the Redskins locked him up long-term with a 5-year, 38.5 million dollar extension this off-season. That makes him the 3rd highest paid right tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary. If he continues playing like he has in the past 2 seasons, he is well worth it.
With Moses locked up long-term, the Redskins may turn their attention to center Spencer Long, another 2014 3rd round pick who is going into the final year of his rookie deal. Long is not as good as Moses, but he has been a solid starter over the past 2 seasons, first at left guard in 2015 and then at center last season. He was a little bit better at left guard and may ultimately move back there, but he’s a capable center as well and worth locking up at the right price because of his versatility.
Current left guard Shawn Lauvao is also going into the final year of his deal, but re-signing him shouldn’t be a priority, especially with Long capable of playing left guard, as Lauvao is the weak link on this offensive line. Lauvao has plenty of experience, with 51 career starts, but has never once graded out above average and finished last season 60th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 30 season, Lauvao likely isn’t getting any better any time soon and will not be guaranteed a starting job for 2018. The Redskins used a 6th round pick on center Chase Rouiller and could start him at center and Long at left guard in 2018 if Rouiller develops as a rookie.
Rounding out the offensive line is another recent draft pick, Brandon Schreff, the 5th overall pick in 2015. The highest draft interior offensive lineman in 30 years, Schreff drew Zach Martin comparisons coming out of Iowa, but has been somewhat of a disappointment thus far in his career. He has finished 26th and 19th among guards in 2 seasons in the league, but has yet to show that he was worth drafting as high as the Redskins took him. Still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he shows it this year and he definitely still has a high ceiling. It’s a strong offensive line overall.
One area where the Redskins want to be better this season is on the ground. They averaged a reasonable 4.47 yards per carry average, but that was largely because of a strong offensive line. They also passed 607 times to 379 runs, so much of their production on the ground came as a result of the defense worrying about the pass. Matt Jones started the season as the lead back with 99 carries in the first 7 games of the season, but then lost a fumble, his 6th lost fumble on 243 career carries in 2 seasons in the league, and didn’t see any touches the rest of the season. The 2015 3rd round pick has talent, but has just averaged 3.91 yards per carry in his career and hasn’t been able to hold onto the football. He’s no lock for the final roster.
After Jones lost the job, the Redskins turned to Robert Kelley, an undrafted rookie. The big 6-0 228 pounder picked up what was blocked and rushed for 704 yards and 6 touchdowns on 168 carries (4.19 YPC), but was underwhelming overall and didn’t offer anything in the passing game (12 catches for 82 yards). He will be pushed for the starting job by 4th round rookie Samaje Perine. Perine has good upside, but is very unproven and will be tough to count on. He’s similar to Kelley in that he has great size (5-10 235), but isn’t overly explosive and doesn’t offer much in the passing game.
Fortunately, the Redskins have Chris Thompson to serve as the passing down back, regardless of who carries the load on early downs. Thompson led the backfield with 489 snaps last season and could easily do so again in 2017. He had just 68 carries, which was actually a career high, but he chipped in 49 passes, after catching 35 a season ago. He’s not a great talent, but fills an important role for this offense because he is their only running back with good hands out of the backfield. Barring a breakout rookie year from Perine, the Redskins’ running backs should be underwhelming again in 2017.
As good as their offense was last season, 5th in first down rate, the Redskins still missed the playoffs because they had one of the worst defenses in the league, allowing the 3rd highest first down rate of any defense in the league. Making matters worse, the Redskins lost 3 of their top-4 defensive linemen in terms of snaps played this off-season, Chris Baker (783), Cullen Jenkins (308), and Ricky Jean-Francois (442). All 3 players played pretty well, grading out above average, especially Baker, who finished last season 9th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus.
They didn’t do much in free agency to address the defensive line, aside from overpaying Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain on a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal and a 4-year, 21 million dollar deal respectively. Both players are mediocre options. McClain made 15 starts last season, but didn’t start a game from 2012-2015 and finished last season 86th out of 127 eligible interior defensive lineman. Already going into his age 29 season, he probably won’t be any better going forward. McGee, meanwhile, played alright on 242 snaps last season in 9 games in an injury plagued season, but graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league prior to that. Both figure to see significant playing time at the 3-4 defensive end position.
Given how weak they are they upfront, the Redskins were very fortunate that Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen fell into their lap at 17th overall. Considered by some a top-3 talent and widely considered a top-10 lock, concerns about his shoulders and an early run on offensive skill position players led to a draft day fall for Allen. Assuming their medical staff cleared him, the Redskins probably didn’t waste much time deciding whether or not to take him once he fell to 17. He adds talent at a position of major need and could end up being one of the steals of the draft if he can stay healthy. He could lead this defensive line in snaps played as a rookie. Allen, McGee, McClain, and second year player Matt Ioannidis, a 5th round pick who struggled on 103 snaps as a rookie, will rotate at the defensive end position this season.
Ziggy Hood is the one holdover from last season and he will remain the starting nose tackle. Unlike Baker, Jenkins, and Jean-Francois, who were all capable or better players last season, Hood struggled mightily, so his return doesn’t really help them. He played 661 snaps, second most on the team, but finished 120th among 127 eligible interior defensive linemen. Hood is plenty experienced, with 60 career starts in 114 games, but has graded out below average in all 8 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 30 season, Hood shouldn’t be given as many snaps as he was last season, even on an overall weak defensive line. He shouldn’t be anything more than a pure base package player who plays 400-500 snaps. The addition of Allen in the draft could help this unit immensely, but, outside of Allen, this might be the least talented defensive line in football.
The Redskins are much deeper at the outside linebacker position though, where Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith, and Trent Murphy rotated snaps last season, playing 788, 768, and 675 snaps respectively. They are even deeper at the position this season, with Junior Galette finally getting healthy after missing the last two seasons with two torn achilles tendons and Ryan Anderson coming in as a 2nd round pick. The Redskins don’t seem to have much room for Galette and Anderson to break into the rotation, so they may line up Smith and Murphy, who are bigger edge defenders at 6-5 265 and 6-5 268 respectively, inside on passing downs in certain situations. That would help mask their issues on the defensive line.
Things aren’t all good at outside linebacker, as Murphy will miss the first 4 games of the season after failing a drug test for performance enhancing drugs and Galette hasn’t played since 2014 and has off-the-field issues as well. Galette isn’t owed any guaranteed money this season, so, if he lacks explosiveness coming off of the injuries or his off-the-field issues become more of a problem, he could easily not make the final roster. Prior to the injuries, Galette finished 12th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and 4th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, totalling 22 sacks, but that’s close to ancient history at this point. The Redskins are likely considering anything he gives them in 2017 a bonus, but he definitely has some upside, still only going into his age 29 season.
Murphy, meanwhile, will be counted on to contribute upon his return from suspension, though he might not see as many snaps per game as he did last season in a more crowded position group. A 2014 2nd round pick, Murphy has graded out above average in all 3 seasons in the league and is coming off of his best year to date, finishing 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. It’s unclear how much of that is as a result of whatever substance he tested positive for, but he should be at least a solid rotational player for them in 2017 regardless.
Ryan Kerrigan is the best of the bunch, playing all 96 games in 6 seasons since going 16th overall in 2011 and finishing 19th, 7th, 26th, 5th, and 9th respectively. One of the most consistent players in the league, Kerrigan is still in his prime, going into his age 29 season, and should continue playing at a high level in 2017. Preston Smith, meanwhile, has been the worst of the bunch through 2 seasons in the league, grading out below average in both seasons, but he’s hasn’t been terrible either and the 2015 second round pick could take a step forward in his 3rd year in the league. The rookie Ryan Anderson will also see some snaps, but they could be limited, considering all of the other edge defenders the Redskins have. He could be in line for a bigger role in 2018 with Murphy and Galette both set to hit free agency next off-season. It’s unclear why the Redskins have used 3 second round picks on the outside linebacker position in the last 4 drafts, but they do have a deep position group.
At middle linebacker, the Redskins have a pair of veteran middle linebackers coming off the best season of their career in Mason Foster and Zach Brown. Foster graded out below average in each of the first 5 seasons of his career, but came out of nowhere to finish 6th among middle linebackers in 2016. Re-signed to a 2-year, 2.5 million dollar deal last off-season, Foster proved to be a steal. Last season was likely a fluke, but he could continue being a capable starter for them in 2017.
Brown, meanwhile, was signed to just a 1-year, 1.25 million dollar deal by the Bills last off-season and responded by finishing 11th among middle linebackers. Brown wasn’t a bad player prior to last season, grading out around average in his first 4 seasons in the league from 2012-2015, but last season was the first season he played well both in coverage and against the run, after struggling to tackle early in his career. The Redskins signed him on an incentivized 1-year, 2.55 million dollar deal this off-season, as Brown was greeted by a skeptical market, and he could prove to be a steal again. At the very least, he should be an upgrade over Will Compton, who made 15 starts and finished 74th among 87 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus. It’s a solid linebacker group.
Su’a Cravens played some linebacker last season as a rookie, but the 2016 2nd round pick is expected to move full time to safety this season, after flashing on 294 snaps in a hybrid role. The 6-1 222 pounder will be primarily a box safety. He will start next to free agent acquisition DJ Swearinger, who could prove to be a steal on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal. Swearinger finished 9th among safeties last season with the Cardinals, but drew limited interest on the open market because he was a one-year wonder who was already on his 3rd team with the Cardinals.
A 2013 2nd round pick by the Texans, Swearinger made 22 starts in 2 seasons with the Texans, but didn’t play well and frustrated the coaching staff, which got him released prior to the 2015 season. He spent 2015 with the Buccaneers, where he didn’t play much, before breaking out in a contract year with the Cardinals last season. Still only going into his age 26 season, Swearinger has always had talent and may have turned a corner as a player, but he will need to prove it again considering his history. The Redskins didn’t pay much to get him, so he was a pretty low risk signing, and he has the upside to make a real difference in this secondary. After struggling for consistency at the position in 2016, the Redskins’ safeties figure to be better this season.
The Redskins had more consistency at cornerback last season, where Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland made 16 starts and 14 starts respectively. The Redskins signed Norman to a 5-year, 75 million dollar deal last off-season after he finished 11th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus with the Panthers in 2015. Norman wasn’t quite as good as he was in 2015, but still finished 22nd at the position. Norman has made 42 starts in 46 games over the past 3 seasons and has finished in the top-27 among cornerbacks in all 3 seasons. He’s not quite the top flight cornerback the Redskins are paying him to be, but he’s definitely a valuable asset. The one concern is his age, as he’s already going into his age 30 season, despite this just being his 6th season in the league. The 2012 5th round pick was an old rookie, part of why he fell in the draft. He should still have another couple strong seasons left in the tank though.
Breeland, on the other hand, didn’t come close to matching his 2015 season. A 2014 4th round pick, Breeland seemingly had a breakout year in 2015, when he finished 21st among cornerbacks, but he fell to 82nd out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2016. Add in the fact the he finished 99th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks as a rookie in 2014 and his 2015 season looks like a complete fluke. He’s still young though, only going into his age 25 season, so he still has some upside going forward. In the final year of his rookie deal, this is a very big year for him. If he shows his 2015 form, he could cash in somewhere. He’s started 42 games out of 45 played in 3 seasons in the league and will continue to start opposite Norman.
Kendall Fuller, a 2016 3rd round pick, is the favorite to be the nickel cornerback. He actually finished 3rd on the team in cornerback snaps with 478, even though he didn’t really see playing time until week 4. He didn’t play all that well, but he could be better in his second season in the league. He will have to hold off Quinton Dunbar and Dashaun Phillips, both recent undrafted free agents who struggled on 300 and 157 snaps respectively last season, as well as 3rd round rookie Fabian Moreau.
Moreau has serious talent and could have gone in the second round, but he tore his pectoral working out before the draft and might not be ready for the start of the season. Even if he is, he’ll be behind the eight ball after missing the off-season. He’s not a natural fit on the slot either, so he was probably drafted more to be a long-term replacement for Bashaud Breeland than anything. The Redskins are pretty tight on cap space, so, if Breeland plays well this season, he would probably be priced out of Washington’s budget. Fuller should open the season as the 3rd cornerback in an improved secondary.
The Redskins had a tough off-season ahead of them with Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson set to leave to take more money elsewhere, but they did a good of job of adding talent on value contracts, bringing in Terrelle Pryor, DJ Swearinger, and Zach Brown. Their receiving corps will look a lot different this season, but they still have a lot of receiving talent and should be better near in the red zone because of their improved size. It’s hard to look past their defensive line and the additions of Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain to replace Chris Baker are unlikely to pan out, but they did get a gift when Jonathan Allen fell into their lap with the 17th overall pick. The Redskins should compete for a playoff spot once again. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.