Two significant obstacles stand between the Redskins and the next step in their turnaround: The fitness of quarterback Robert Griffin III’s right knee and the $18 million salary cap penalty the club is serving in 2013. Washington could hardly enjoy its first NFC East division championship in 13 seasons because Griffin had surgery on Jan. 9 to revise the reconstruction of his ACL and repair his lateral collateral ligament and medial meniscus. Griffin’s status for the regular season won’t crystallize until training camp, and even then, questions will remain about his ability to stay healthy.
Meanwhile, the Redskins’ salary cap sanction hindered efforts to sign free agents to bolster the first string. Washington’s contingency plan was to retain 21 of 22 starters from last year’s squad. That offense led the NFL with 6.2 yards per play, so the continuity could serve the Redskins well if Griffin is healthy. Defensively, though, the secondary needs an infusion of talent. Those problems make defending the division title difficult, though not impossible.
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 12th
Griffin expected to miss at least the Redskins’ offseason program because of his knee injury. Spring practices would have helped him evolve as a drop-back passer. Coach Mike Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle, didn’t force Griffin to drop back frequently during his rookie year because they opted to highlight what he did well at Baylor — line up in the shotgun and use his legs to help set up simple throws. The Shanahans believe Griffin will develop into one of the NFL’s best throwers, but that process is delayed.
There’s also the matter of Griffin’s durability. Coaches are emphasizing the importance of throwing the ball away and sliding, but those self-preservation methods detract from Griffin’s explosiveness and his ability to turn negative plays into positive gains.
Overall, though, Griffin is extremely dynamic when healthy. He protects the ball and became a more accurate passer as his rookie season progressed. He can make every throw, and his running ability allows Washington’s option package to keep defenses guessing.
Fellow second-year quarterback Kirk Cousins has the coaches’ confidence if Griffin can’t play. His tendency to make throws based on instincts can be problematic, but he is smart and well-prepared.
It would be surprising if running back Alfred Morris duplicated his 1,613-yard rookie season because Shanahan knows Morris would wear down if he fed him another 335 carries. Morris will get most of the touches because he has good vision and footwork in the one-cut system, and he usually gains yards after contact. Roy Helu missed virtually all of his second NFL season because of a foot and toe injury that required surgery in the spring. Fifth-round draft pick Chris Thompson tore the ACL in his left knee at Florida State last October and hopes to be ready for training camp.
Washington’s receivers should be even better this season. The sprained right foot that cost Pierre Garcon six games is almost fully healed. Joshua Morgan had a plate and seven screws removed from the right ankle he had surgically repaired in 2011. They might be the most physical receiving duo in the NFL. Tight end Fred Davis can be a dynamic weapon if he returns as expected to full fitness from tearing his left Achilles tendon last October.
The Redskins return all five starting offensive linemen. Tyler Polumbus, Jeremy Trueblood and Tony Pashos will compete to start at right tackle. Polumbus, the incumbent, struggles at times with footwork and leverage in pass protection, but he moves defenders in the run game.
Washington’s secondary is the team’s greatest source of uncertainty, so getting strong safety Brandon Meriweather back healthy from a torn ACL in his right knee is imperative. His speed enables the Redskins to disguise coverages, and he plays balls in space well.
Free safety presents the biggest question. Tanard Jackson, last summer’s first-stringer, remains suspended indefinitely until at least Aug. 31, so Washington can’t count on him. Incumbent Madieu Williams was the only starter not re-signed; he lacked range in deep coverage. The Redskins could move Meriweather to free safety and fill strong safety with the committee approach they used last season in place of Meriweather. Reed Doughty is a smart player whose tackling ability and physicality suit him well in the box. Jordan Pugh replaced Doughty in passing situations, when his speed in the deep secondary was required.
Coordinator Jim Haslett could go another direction and play sixth-round rookie Bacarri Rambo. He has collegiate experience playing strong and free, which meets the interchangeability requirement the Redskins have for their safeties. Unfortunately, fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas is no longer an option as the rookie will miss all of 2013 after sustaining a season-ending Lisfranc injury in his first preseason game.
Two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo returns to aid the pass rush. He is recovered from the torn left pectoral muscle that cost him 14 games last season. His strength, speed and technique help him push the pocket.
The front seven remains an asset, particularly against the run. It must generate a more formidable pass rush with only four rushers. Defensive end Adam Carriker’s recovery from a season-ending quadriceps tear in Week 2 was delayed by a setback in March. His strength makes him an important part of the line rotation in the nickel package. Without him, others have to do extra work, so the Redskins hope he’s back for training camp.
The Redskins’ greatest loss in free agency was Pro Bowl special teamer Lorenzo Alexander. He constantly commanded double teams by opposing kickoff and punt return units. Kai Forbath is an accurate field goal kicker, but his kickoffs fall short of desired distance. As long as he’s making field goals, though, his job is safe. Punter Sav Rocca can be inconsistent, but he’s capable of long punts when necessary. Richard Crawford shined as a punt returner late last season because of his fearlessness getting up the field. Niles Paul isn’t an explosive kick returner, so his hold on that job is tenuous.
Final Analysis: 4th in NFC East
The Redskins return all but one starter from the team that overcame significant injuries en route to 10 wins and the division title. Their success hinges on Griffin’s health, but the Redskins are well-coached and deeper than they’ve been in years. If Griffin is healthy all season, they could contend. If not, they could have trouble breaking the .500 mark.
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Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)
San Diego (8/20)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)