The prevailing view of the Redskins some 18 months ago was of an organization beset by dysfunction — with a meddling owner, a revolving door of coaches and GMs, a mercurial quarterback (Robert Griffin III) who was never the same after reconstructive knee surgery and a history of terrible (and terribly expensive) free-agent signings.
The Redskins’ 2015 season, which produced a surprising NFC East title behind quarterback Kirk Cousins, went a long way toward shedding the dysfunction label. So did the uncharacteristic harmony and decisiveness of the management team, headed by GM Scot McCloughan, whose vast overhaul of the roster continued this offseason — a period bookended by the long-expected release of Griffin and the surprise signing of star cornerback Josh Norman.
Washington may not be the model franchise it was in its 1980s heyday, but with 18 of the 22 starters listed for last season’s Wild Card game returning in 2016, and with what appears to be another solid draft class coming in, the Redskins remain a team on the rise. Much, of course, will depend upon the continued development of Cousins in his second year as the full-time starter in Jay Gruden’s offense.
Handed the starting job during training camp over Griffin — the player drafted three rounds before him in 2012 — Cousins put up dazzling numbers, setting franchise records for passing yards (4,166) and completions (379) while leading the league in completion percentage (69.8) and guiding the Redskins to a 9–7 record. Most important, he learned to protect the ball — his biggest failure in previous seasons — throwing 11 interceptions and losing only four fumbles, both respectable totals, while also avoiding sacks better than his more mobile predecessor. The biggest question now is whether Cousins fits in the team’s long-term plans; he was hit with the franchise tag for 2016, and talks are ongoing regarding a long-term extension.
Cousins has a nice assortment of targets for the passing game, from rising-star tight end Jordan Reed to big-play threat DeSean Jackson to steady veteran Pierre Garçon. Reed led the team in receptions (87), receiving yards (952) and touchdowns (11) in his third season in the league. Jackson averaged 17.6 yards on his 30 receptions. There’s also a nice crop of young players such as Jamison Crowder — who caught 59 passes as a rookie last year — and 2016 first-round draft pick Josh Doctson. The latter was a bit of a surprise for the Redskins in the first round, given their needs elsewhere, but Doctson was also a hedge on the upcoming free agencies of Jackson and Garçon.
The running back spot is something of an unknown. Matt Jones, coming off an unremarkable rookie year, ascends to the starting job, replacing popular veteran Alfred Morris. Backup Chris Thompson is coming off minor shoulder surgery and will have to compete with seventh-round draft pick Keith Marshall — who ran a 4.31 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine — for carries behind Jones. Marshall appeared headed for greatness early in his career at Georgia before tearing his ACL in 2013. Morris isn’t the only veteran back whose departure will be felt in Washington. The team also jettisoned fullback Darrel Young and likely won’t replace him.
If the offensive line is not exactly a strength for the Redskins, at least it is no longer a clear weakness. Left tackle Trent Williams, a four-time Pro Bowler, remains the anchor of the line, while right guard Brandon Scherff, the fifth overall pick in 2015, is coming off a stellar rookie campaign.
At first glance, the sudden signing of Norman, following his release from Carolina, appeared to be another case of Redskins impetuousness. But credit for this move goes to McCloughan, who put aside his build-through-the-draft strategy and pivoted decisively when a game-changer like Norman became available. One of the top cover men in the game, Norman will fit perfectly in coordinator Joe Barry’s zone scheme. With Norman’s signing, the secondary goes from a weakness to a potential strength, with Norman and Bashaud Breeland forming one of the top cornerback duos in the league — a huge plus in a division where they will face Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant twice each.
By the time the Redskins selected cornerback Kendall Fuller in the third round of the draft, there was so much depth in the secondary that the team released veteran corner Chris Culliver, its top free-agent signee of the previous offseason.
Meanwhile, the pass rush should also get a massive boost with the expected return of sack specialist Junior Galette, who missed the entire 2015 season after tearing his Achilles tendon in August; he had 22 total sacks in 2013-14 with New Orleans. On the other side is veteran Ryan Kerrigan, who has totaled 23 sacks the past two seasons. And don’t forget 2015 second-rounder Preston Smith, who amassed six sacks in the final four games of 2015. If Galette returns healthy, outside linebacker Trent Murphy, a 2014 second-rounder, could be moved to defensive end.
Among the more intriguing members of the Redskins’ 2016 draft class was second-rounder Su’a Cravens, a linebacker/safety hybrid out of USC. At 6'1", 226 pounds, he has the size to go either way — though he will be listed as a safety — and the Redskins envision using him as a “dime linebacker,” covering slot receivers, tight ends and running backs on passing downs.
The Redskins’ special teams were once a perennial laughingstock but now are a pillar of stability for the franchise. The team was happy enough with lefty punter Tress Way to take the rare step of signing him to a five-year contract. In 2014, he became the first Redskins punter since 1958 to lead the league in punting average. Kicker Dustin Hopkins, meanwhile, signed with the team last September after being cut by New Orleans and paid immediate dividends. His 52 touchbacks in 2015 were nearly three times as many as Kai Forbath had the year before, while opponents’ starting field position following kickoffs declined by nearly six yards. He also made 25 of his 28 field goal attempts for the year — more than good enough to ensure his roster spot for 2016. The team’s top return men for 2016 also appear set, with Rashad Ross handling kickoffs and Crowder returning punts.
It is tempting to say the signing of Norman pushed the Redskins into the role of favorites in the NFC East. The division was the only one in the NFL last year with three teams with losing records. The Redskins haven’t had back-to-back winning seasons since 1996-97 and haven’t made the playoffs in back-to-back years since making it three in a row from 1990-92, but this year both distinctions could fall. They are certainly far from a sure thing, but with a little more improvement from Cousins, some luck with health and a typical suffocating performance by Norman, the Redskins could improve on last year’s surprising run to the division title.