Even by the standards of the Washington Football Team, the past year-plus was full of chaos, from head coach Ron Rivera’s cancer diagnosis to the controversy over the team name to Alex Smith’s ballyhooed return and rancorous exit. The 2020 season itself featured a five-game losing streak early, a four-game winning streak late and four different quarterbacks. But the trend-line was clear: In Rivera’s first season, the team went from 3–13 to 7–9 and an unexpected NFC East title.
Having spent a full year restructuring and remodeling, the WFT brain trust — newly remade in Rivera’s image — is expecting bigger things in 2021. While the quarterback of the future is still TBD, the team made a shrewd signing in veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick as a placeholder, while a smart use of its ample cap space allowed the team to sign not only Fitzpatrick but also playmaking WR Curtis Samuel and ace CB William Jackson III. And Washington’s draft class, led by versatile LB Jamin Davis, hit most of the team’s biggest needs. The defense, led by second-year pass-rush phenom Chase Young, could be among the toughest in the league. If there isn’t another significant step forward in 2021, it will be a disappointment in the nation’s capital.
If it seems like Washington’s quarterback picture has been an unsettled mess since — take your pick: Alex Smith’s gruesome leg injury in 2018, Kirk Cousins’ departure after 2017 or Robert Griffin III’s flameout in 2014 — that’s because it has been. Just since Smith’s injury, the position has been manned by Colt McCoy, Josh Johnson, Mark Sanchez, Case Keenum, Dwayne Haskins Jr., Smith (again), Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen. The churn will continue in 2021, now that the team signed Fitzpatrick, a 17-year veteran who is little more than a placeholder until a permanent solution can be found. For now, Washington hopes Fitzpatrick, 38, can give a capable impression of the savvy gunslinger who helped Miami leap from 5–11 in 2019 to 10–6 a year ago.
In 2020, Washington had one legitimate deep threat in No. 1 receiver Terry McLaurin. But in 2021, there could be at least three, following the additions of Samuel via free agency and Dyami Brown via the draft. Samuel has the versatility to play outside, inside or out of the backfield, and Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner will undoubtedly make good use of that shiftiness. And Brown, who reminds some of McLaurin himself, averaged 20 yards per catch in each of the past two seasons at North Carolina.
The team signed slot receiver Adam Humphries largely on the recommendation of Fitzpatrick, who was impressed by Humphries when they played together in Tampa. Humphries, however, missed more than half the 2020 season with concussions and other injuries. If he stays healthy, he could man the slot with McLaurin and Samuel lined up outside. The team should have solid depth, particularly if Kelvin Harmon makes a successful return from ACL surgery, joining the likes of Antonio Gandy-Golden, Steven Sims Jr., Cam Sims and Isaiah Wright. Fitzpatrick could also make use of running backs Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic and tight end Logan Thomas, a trio that accounted for 188 receptions in 2020.
Washington used the franchise tag for the second straight year on right guard Brandon Scherff, a move that cost the team $18 million and some of its leverage on a long-term deal; it now seems likely he will depart after this season. Scherff hasn’t played a full season since 2016, but he did enough in 2020 to earn first-team All-Pro honors and make his fourth Pro Bowl. Center Chase Roullier should be around for a little longer after signing a four-year extension in January but the team did release right tackle Morgan Moses so that job will be up for grabs during training camp. On the left side, a late-April trade to bring back guard Ereck Flowers shored up a spot that saw three different starters (Wes Martin, Saahdiq Charles and Wes Schweitzer) in 2020, and it also served as insurance against the potential departure of Scherff after this season. The left tackle position has been in flux since Trent Williams’ departure in 2019, but Washington addressed it by signing former Bears starter Charles Leno Jr. in May.
In its first year under coordinator Jack Del Rio, Washington’s defense jumped from the bottom five to the top five in most statistical categories — a remarkable transformation fueled by a defensive line that remains the bedrock of this unit, and perhaps the entire roster. That’s all by design, as the team spent first-round picks on D-linemen in each year from 2017 to 2020. The last of those, of course, was DE Chase Young, taken second overall in 2020, who appears every bit the generational talent the team expected him to be. Young pairs with Montez Sweat as a formidable tandem of edge rushers, with tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne inside. Best of all, the entire quartet is playing on their rookie contracts, with only Allen unsigned beyond 2021.
Linebacker was the weak spot in 2020 — susceptible to exploitation by opposing running backs and tight ends in the passing game — which is perhaps a surprising development given the fact Rivera and Del Rio were both NFL standouts at the position in their day. The team addressed the need in a big way, spending its 19th overall draft pick on Kentucky’s Jamin Davis, whose athleticism and versatility will be put to good use. Although Del Rio likes to move his personnel around, Davis is likely to see the majority of time on the weak side, opposite strong-side LB Cole Holcomb, with Jon Bostic in the middle.
In the backfield, the cornerback situation is fairly settled, with William Jackson III and Kendall Fuller as starters and Jimmy Moreland seeing plenty of snaps as the third man. Jackson, signed to a three-year contract, is an elite cover man, with the speed, size and skills coaches covet at the position. The safety picture, however, has some intriguing questions, chiefly the status of veteran strong safety Landon Collins, who had a season-ending Achilles tear last October. The emergence of rookie Kamren Curl in his absence in 2020 has complicated the picture this season; if Collins is back to full health, the team could move Curl to free safety. Third-round draft pick Benjamin St-Juste was mainly a cornerback at Minnesota, but he could enter the mix at free safety for Washington, along with fifth-rounder Darrick Forest, a three-year starter at Cincinnati.
Placekicker Dustin Hopkins suffered through the worst year of his Washington tenure in 2020, connecting on just 27 of his 34 field-goal tries — 79.4 percent, down from 84.9 percent over the previous five seasons. Nonetheless, the team re-signed him to a one-year contract for 2021, banking on his lengthy track record and his improved performance down the stretch last season. He will team with Tress Way, the punter since 2014, as one of the most stable specialist duos in the NFL. Newly signed WR DeAndre Carter is an intriguing option to return kicks and/or punts — though the team has holdover options at both. The team will have a new long-snapper for the first time in more than a decade after severing ties with 11-year veteran Nick Sundberg. The team used a sixth-round pick to draft Sundberg’s replacement, Camaron Cheeseman.
Washington treated the 2021 draft like a team that has a chance to go a long way this season — using its picks strategically to shore up weak spots, rather than applying its capital to address the long-range question at quarterback. Given the strength of the team’s defense and the state of the NFC East, it’s easy to see why there is such optimism in Washington. At the very least, it is safe to say there is more talent, depth and versatility on this roster than there has been in a very long time.