After three full seasons of gaudy statistics and seemingly constant contract intrigue -- but zero playoff wins -- the Redskins finally cut ties with quarterback Kirk Cousins, a decision that shaped not only the franchise’s direction but also the entire NFL offseason. Former 49ers and Chiefs standout Alex Smith, Cousins’ replacement, is significantly older (34) but arguably better -- and most important, he has seven career playoff starts, with a 97.4 QB rating in those games. The blockbuster move cost the Redskins a solid, young cornerback (Kendall Fuller), a third-round pick in 2018 and $71 million in guaranteed money as part of a four-year $94 million contract extension for Smith.
To put a winner around Smith, the Redskins largely shunned free agency, counting on the return of some injured stars and a seemingly strong 2018 draft class to do the job. But this is a franchise known mostly for dysfunction, one that hasn’t won a playoff game in 13 years and that is coming off an ugly finish to 2017 -- with a season-ending loss to the woeful Giants costing them a chance at a .500 record. As a result, Jay Gruden, now in his fifth season as head coach (or first season of his second term, as they prefer to say in Washington), may be running out of chances.
Whether it’s true or not, the Redskins certainly believe they have upgraded at quarterback in 2018, following the tumultuous departure of Cousins and the trade for Smith. The expectations for Smith, who hasn’t been part of a sub-.500 team since 2010 and is coming off the most productive season of his 12-year career, will be sky high.
He is likely to have much the same cast of characters around him as Cousins did in 2017, beginning with an offensive line anchored by six-time Pro Bowler Trent Williams at left tackle and two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Scherff at right guard. However, both Williams and right tackle Morgan Moses are coming off injuries that are expected to limit them in training camp (and may have prompted the team to spend a third-round pick on Louisville tackle Geron Christian).
Meantime, explosive tight end Jordan Reed, should he remain healthy (always a question mark for him), could easily develop into Smith’s favorite target -- the latter loves throwing to tight ends -- and wide receivers Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder will be expected to take steps forward in 2018, particularly now that the team has moved on from veterans Ryan Grant and Terrelle Pryor. Paul Richardson, a free-agent pickup from Seattle, appears set to be the starter at the third receiver spot.
On the other hand, running back has remained mostly unsettled for the Redskins since Alfred Morris’ departure at the end of 2015, and the team used a second-round pick on LSU’s Derrius Guice, an enormously gifted but combustible talent, in hopes of generating enough of a running game to keep the heat off Smith. Chris Thompson, who was in the midst of a career year when he suffered a broken leg in Week 11, is expected back as a dynamic, versatile third-down back who will give Smith yet another solid option in the passing game.
After finishing last in the NFL in run defense in 2017 -- giving up a staggering 134.1 yards per game -- the Redskins understandably made that their top priority this offseason. They plugged their giant hole up front with 640-plus pounds of interior defensive linemen, using two of their first five draft picks on Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne (first round, 13th overall) and Virginia Tech’s Tim Settle (fifth round). Despite having run a 3-4 base defense this entire decade, the Redskins, curiously, had never drafted an impact nose tackle, which only adds to the sense that Payne, in particular, will be a much-welcomed addition to the defense. With Payne on board, veteran Ziggy Hood could at times slide out to end, where he can use his skills to get after the QB. Payne’s pass-rushing abilities are less certain, highlighted by the fact he managed only three sacks in three years at Alabama.
Free agency brought help for the run defense as well. The Redskins re-signed inside backer Zach Brown, their leading tackler in 2017 -- a move that ensures that all four starting linebackers from 2017 will return in 2018 -- and added injury-plagued Pernell McPhee on a bargain contract. But the biggest reason for optimism might just be the healthy return of talented end Jonathan Allen, who made only five starts as a rookie in 2017 due to a Lisfranc injury. Thankfully, the Redskins never have to worry about Ryan Kerrigan, one of the most prolific and respected pass rushers in the league.
The Redskins’ pass defense ranked ninth in the NFL in 2017 but still needed to be rebuilt following the departures of Fuller, Su’a Cravens and Bashaud Breeland. To that end, they poached cornerback Orlando Scandrick from the rival Dallas Cowboys and added him to the mix of options -- which also includes holdovers Fabian Moreau and Quinton Dunbar -- to play opposite former All-Pro Josh Norman at the corners. Likewise, D.J. Swearinger and Montae Nicholson return at the safeties. But given the three key departures, and the lack of impact additions, it is fair to wonder whether the Redskins did enough in free agency and the draft to rebuild the secondary.
Punter Tress Way has been with the franchise since 2014, signed a five-year $9.4 million extension in 2016 and amassed a career-high 83 punts in 2017, but the Redskins still signed free agent Sam Irwin-Hill in March to give Way some competition in training camp. It was a curious move that may reflect some dissatisfaction with the fact that the team ranked 28th in the NFL with 40.5 net yards of field position per punt. On the other hand, the Redskins thought enough of veteran placekicker Dustin Hopkins to re-sign him to a three-year, $7.75 million contract prior to free agency in March; he spent the second half of 2017 on injured reserve with a right hip rotator muscle strain, but he has made 83.9 percent of his field-goal attempts over the course of his career.
The Redskins had nine different players return a kickoff in 2017, and the leader (Breeland, with 10) is now gone, leaving Samaje Perine (two returns for 48 yards) as perhaps the best bet to fill that role in 2018. Meantime, Crowder presumably returns as the primary punt returner; however, he had some issues with fumbles in 2017, and the team spent its final two draft picks on players who have experience returning punts in Virginia Tech cornerback Greg Stroman and SMU wide receiver Trey Quinn.
The Redskins have given fans little reason to believe in them of late. The franchise is 64-95-1 over the past 10 seasons, with six last-place NFC East finishes in that span, and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2005. And on top of everything else, they now must deal with the problem of having the defending Super Bowl champions in their division, and just a couple hours north on I-95.
Unlike those Philadelphia Eagles, the Redskins appear to occupy that crowded, murky middle ground -- fitting for a franchise that has averaged exactly eight wins the past three seasons -- of teams good enough to contend for a playoff spot, but also a few key injuries away from a collapse. That was largely the story of their 2017, as they placed a whopping 20 players on injured reserve and never put together a consistent stretch of games.
Can 2018 be different? Once again, they have given fans just enough reason to believe that it can. In Smith, the Redskins have a proven, playoff-tested quarterback. In Guice, they have arguably their most complete back since the days of Clinton Portis. And in Allen, Payne and others, they have perhaps their most talented group of young, front-seven defenders in years. But because it’s the Redskins, everyone will be waiting for things to go terribly wrong. As famous fan Dale Earnhardt Jr. told The Washington Post in April, “We just want to be relevant again.”
Prediction: 4th in the NFC East
(Top photo by Garrett Campbell/Washington Redskins, courtesy of www.redskins.com)