Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: The Redskins once again led the league in offseason dysfunction. This time the intrigue centered on the abrupt firing of general manager Scot McCloughan just six weeks before the draft — which the Redskins turned into an even larger media circus by leaking anonymously that the dismissal was due to a relapse of McCloughan’s alcohol issues.
As a result, a team that won its division in 2015 and remained in contention in 2016 until the final weekend — losing a win-or-go-home game against the Giants to fall to 8–7–1 and miss the playoffs — was plunged into chaos again. And it wasn’t just the McCloughan firing, which left the Redskins in the awkward position of going into the draft without a GM. It was also the lingering uncertainty over the future of quarterback Kirk Cousins, the departure of both coordinators and the enduring lack of public accountability by the team’s ownership and upper management.
With no GM as the calendar turned to May, and with Cousins likely to depart after this season, the biggest source of stability in Washington by far these days is head coach Jay Gruden, now entering his fourth year in D.C. and signed to a two-year extension in March. It is a testament to his leadership in the face of all this dysfunction that the Redskins actually have a chance to be a better team in 2017.
Despite the gaudy numbers the offense produced in 2016 — when the Redskins ranked third in the NFL in total yards and second in passing yards — there will still be major changes this season, among them a new coordinator (Matt Cavanaugh, promoted from quarterbacks coach), a new primary play caller (Gruden himself), a new quarterbacks coach (newly hired Kevin O’Connell) and a rebuilt wide receiver corps, with Pierre Garçon and DeSean Jackson (who combined for 2,046 receiving yards last season) now gone, and Terrelle Pryor on board as the top playmaker. Pryor was an early target for the Redskins, who are desperate to improve their ugly red zone numbers from a year ago. A former standout QB in college, Pryor has completed his transformation to receiver. Last season, he caught 77 passes for 1,007 yards as the top target in Cleveland.
For a long time, it appeared Cousins, coming off a Pro Bowl season, could join the Redskins’ exodus, but after entertaining options ranging from a lengthy contract extension to a blockbuster trade, the team settled on the middle ground of franchise-tagging him for the second year, at a cost of $24 million. Cousins, a fourth-round pick in 2012, has started 16 games in each of the last two seasons. Last year, he threw for 4,917 yards with 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing 67.0 percent of his attempts.
If this is Cousins’ last shot at winning big in D.C., he will at least be surrounded by solid pieces, including the electrifying Pryor at wide receiver; Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis at tight end; a running back corps that includes incumbent starter Rob Kelley, fourth-round pick Samaje Perine and third-down back Chris Thompson; and an offensive line that returns all five starters from a unit that helped produce the third-most total yards and fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL last year.
A year ago, the Redskins focused on offense at the expense of defense in the 2016 draft, and it wound up costing them dearly, as the failure to make the playoffs is largely the fault of a unit that gave up 377.9 yards per game, fifth most in the NFL. In the aftermath, coordinator Joe Barry and two of his assistants lost their jobs and the Redskins went heavy on defenders in the 2017 draft, selecting a lineman (Alabama’s Jonathan Allen), a linebacker (Alabama’s Ryan Anderson) and a cornerback (UCLA’s Fabian Moreau) with their first three picks.
In particular, Allen and Anderson — the former a much-needed in-the-trenches presence, the latter a promising edge rusher — have a chance to make an immediate impact at their positions under defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s scheme. (Moreau, who tore a pectoral muscle at UCLA’s pro day and spent the rest of the spring rehabbing, may not be ready by the Redskins’ offseason workouts.)
But the overhaul of the defense actually began well before the draft, with the free-agent additions of ends Terrell McClain and Stacy McGee — the latter of whom could be shifted to nose tackle, a position he played in Oakland, following the addition of top draftee Allen — and linebacker Zach Brown, a Pro Bowl performer for Buffalo in 2016.
With top pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan (58.5 career sacks, including 11 last year) returning, and veteran cornerback Josh Norman back for a second season in D.C., the pass defense is anchored by proven performers. But at the other corner, Bashaud Breeland had an inconsistent 2016, and there could be an opportunity for Moreau, provided he’s healthy, to have an early impact in nickel coverage, if not more.
It also wouldn’t be a Redskins offseason without a player getting hit with a four-game drug suspension; this time, the perpetrator was pass rusher Trent Murphy, who had nine sacks last year and whose absence will force some tough decisions in the early portion of the Redskins’ schedule.
Placekicker Dustin Hopkins has converted 84 percent of his field goal attempts and 95 percent of his extra points in two seasons in Washington, and he routinely buries his kickoffs in the end zone. But some critical misses, including a potential game-winner against Cincinnati, made the Redskins entertain thoughts of a change. If anything, however, the franchise has been guilty in the past of giving up on kickers too quickly (Graham Gano and Shaun Suisham come to mind), so while he will probably get some competition in training camp, the guess here is that Hopkins will be back in 2017. Punter Tress Way, too, appears safe for a fourth season in D.C., even though his yards-per-punt average has declined in each of the past two seasons. The long snapper will be eighth-year pro Nick Sundberg, who signed a four-year extension in January.
As for kick returns, expect Jamison Crowder — whose 85-yard touchdown return against Baltimore provided a win in Week 5 — to be back deep fielding punts again, and Thompson to reprise his role as primary kick returner. Among the new influx of draft picks, safeties Montae Nicholson (fourth round) and Josh Harvey-Clemons (seventh round) are expected to be immediate contributors on special teams.
Complaining about the special teams is a time-honored tradition among Redskins fans, but this group, altogether, is one of the franchise’s most solid in recent memory.
In the weeks leading up to the draft, as the team was firing its GM and turning its negotiation with Cousins into a daily circus, the Redskins looked like a franchise on the verge of a significant, multi-year regression. But then all of a sudden, a bout of sensibility overcame the team’s top management. The personnel chiefs were set free to make a slew of smart moves, leading up to and including the draft, where — largely relying on a draft board left behind by McCloughan — they gambled somewhat by using premium picks on players with injury concerns, including Allen and Moreau.
Plenty can still go wrong, and the ongoing speculation over Cousins’ future status will dominate the discourse all summer. But for 2017, at least, Cousins appears well-armed with intriguing targets — with Pryor, in particular, representing the type of big, explosive wideout the likes of which Cousins has never had in Washington.
Given all that has gone on since the bitter end of the 2016 season, it seems amazing to say this — but at least on paper, the Redskins appear to be a better team than the one that went 8–7–1 and narrowly missed the playoffs a year ago.