Rookie Dwayne Haskins could become the Redskins' staring quarterback sooner rather than later
The Redskins once defined dysfunction; now, they define mediocrity. Their last four seasons have produced an aggregate 31–32–1 record (with seven to nine wins each year) and one measly playoff appearance. Oh, there's still plenty of dysfunction, too, as when the inevitable reports surfaced over the offseason about friction between head coach Jay Gruden and team president Bruce Allen — denied, of course, by both sides.
Add a heaping portion of horrible luck, as when quarterbacks Alex Smith and Colt McCoy suffered broken legs within two weeks of each other late last season, and you can see how the surreal sight of Mark Sanchez taking snaps for the Redskins in December came to pass.
You can also see how a promising 6–3 start to 2018 — at which point Washington held a two-game lead in the NFC East — devolved into a 7–9 disappointment that, a year later, has 2019 feeling like a crossroads for Gruden, his staff and the entire organization. The gruesome nature of Smith's injury means he won't likely return in 2019 and may be facing the end of his career, forcing the Redskins to look elsewhere to solve their QB issue — which they did through a trade with Denver for Case Keenum and the drafting of Dwayne Haskins at No. 15 overall. But there are major questions here for the franchise to solve if it is going to rise above its mediocre recent past.
How soon until Haskins, the former Ohio State Buckeye with impressive size and immense potential, starts at quarterback? That will be the key question facing the Redskins heading into Week 1. When the team acquired Keenum, it was viewed as largely a stop-gap move, but between Keenum and veteran McCoy, the Redskins at least have experienced options to run the offense while Haskins learns the ropes — if that's the way they choose to go. But quarterbacks taken in the top half of the first round typically start right away.
Either way, the Redskins will be counting on largely the same group of options at the other skill positions to generate yards and points. Washington lacked big-play capabilities the last couple of seasons, but the return of receiver Paul Richardson and running back Derrius Guice from injuries should help. After losing all of 2018 to a torn ACL, Guice could be poised for a breakout season in 2019 — and if not, the fallback is merely future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson, whom the team signed off the street last August. After watching him rush for 1,042 yards, the Redskins quickly signed the now-34-year-old veteran to a two-year extension. Third down back Chris Thompson is coming off an injury-riddled 2018, and the team may have found his eventual successor in fourth-round draftee (and former Heisman Trophy runner-up) Bryce Love — who is himself coming off knee surgery.
The Redskins' talented tight ends, Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis, are 29 and 35, respectively, and count a combined $15 million-plus against the salary cap this season — in other words, it is crucial that they produce.
The somewhat lackluster receiving corps is led by Josh Doctson, who faces a make-or-break season after having largely failed to live up to his first-round pedigree thus far. There are also high hopes within the organization for new draftees Terry McLaurin (third round) and Kelvin Harmon (sixth), either of whom could unseat Trey Quinn as the top slot receiver out of the gate.
After spending the past two seasons with a makeshift offensive line thanks to a rash of injuries, the Redskins used free agency (former first-round pick Ereck Flowers) and two picks in the draft to build interior depth up front between veteran tackles Trent Williams and Morgan Moses. There's some uncertainty with Williams, who finished last season on injured reserve and has been absent from the team's offseason activities. It has been reported Williams is hoping to negotiate a new contract. Any prolonged absence once training camp begins could have a ripple effect throughout Washington's offensive line.
The additions of inside linebacker Reuben Foster (waivers), strong safety Landon Collins (free agent), and edge rusher Montez Sweat (first round of draft), combined with holdovers Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen and Matt Ioannidis on the defensive line, give the Redskins' defense an enviable core of 25-and-under talent. Foster won't be a part of this youth movement this season, however, after tearing the ACL and LCL in his left knee during his first practice with the team in May.
Signing Collins away from the rival New York Giants on an $84 million contract may have been an overpay for a box safety, but it was a necessary one after the team parted ways with D.J. Swearinger in December. The other safety slot could belong to Montae Nicholson if he gets his off-field issues ironed out.
The drafting of Sweat at No. 26 overall gives the Redskins a much-needed speed-rusher to help shore up their third down defense, which was atrocious in 2018; his eye-popping 40-yard-dash time of 4.41 at the NFL Scouting Combine was faster than the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Tyrann Mathieu and Amari Cooper have posted in years past.
There were rumblings the Redskins might move on this offseason from veteran cornerback Josh Norman, whom the team made the highest-paid cover man in the game in 2016. Instead, they kept the 31-year-old, and Gruden challenged Norman by name to play like a superstar in 2019. Norman and Quinton Dunbar are locked in as the starting corners as long as they're healthy.
Up front, Payne, a first-round pick in 2018, transformed the run defense almost overnight; in 2019, Payne, Ioannidis (recently signed to a contract extension) and Allen will again anchor what should be one of the league's best defensive lines.
Special teams could be the Redskins' strongest unit — that's not something any team wants to hear, but it beats being torpedoed by your own special teams, as this franchise has been in the past.
Washington should have mostly the same cast of characters back from 2018 — aside from a new coordinator, Nate Kaczor, replacing Ben Kotwica — led by punter Tress Way and placekicker Dustin Hopkins, both of whom put up the best seasons of their careers last year. Way was middle of the pack in average yards per punt in 2018, but of more importance, he paced the NFL with 41 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. Hopkins, meantime, went a perfect 12-of-12 on field goals under 40 yards and — after facing questions about his leg strength — a near-perfect 4-for-5 on 50-yard-plus tries.
In the return game, the Redskins may lack an electrifying option for either punts or kickoffs, but in Greg Stroman, a seventh-rounder in 2018, they at least have a solid in-house option who handled the job for chunks of last season.
The stakes will be high at FedEx Field this season — the Redskins haven't made the playoffs since the 2015 season and haven't won a playoff game since the 2005 season. And Gruden, the longest-tenured Redskins head coach since Norv Turner two decades earlier, will almost certainly see his job security threatened if there isn't solid improvement from 2018. This reality will color every decision the team makes heading into Week 1 — including, and especially, the choice of a starting quarterback.
The schedule, at least, is in Washington's favor, as their 2019 opponents had a combined .469 winning percentage in 2018, the lowest of any team in the NFL.
The Redskins' defense should give them a chance to win most weeks, but in an increasingly high-flying, quarterback-driven league, a defense-first approach is a rare strategy. There is every reason, in other words, to expect another middling seven- to nine-win season, with the potential to be much better, or much worse, depending on how things break. And given the misery, strife and misfortune of the past couple of seasons, the odds, if nothing else, will be in Washington's favor.
Prediction: 4th in NFC East
(Top photo by Garrett Campbell/Washington Redskins, courtesy of www.redskins.com)