Washington eager for fresh start under new head coach Ron Rivera
Welcome to the new Washington football franchise. There's a new head coach (Ron Rivera), new coordinators (Jack Del Rio on defense, Scott Turner on offense), a new defensive scheme (4-3), a new player personnel chief (Kyle Smith), a new organizational model (with Rivera holding full power over personnel matters), a new culture (basically, anything but the old one), and there will be a new name at some point. For now, the team will go by the name "Washington Football Team" until the new one is finalized and adopted.
Washington certainly has nowhere to go but up following 2019's 3-13 disaster, which featured nine double-digit losses. Rivera's putting-the-band-back-together act — this is largely the same brain trust that produced four playoff appearances from 2013-17 in Carolina — extended to his vision for the roster in Year One. After a restrained free agent signing period that emphasized versatility and defensive strength, the team used the No. 2 overall pick in the draft to take Chase Young, whom the team thinks could be Panthers legend Julius Peppers reincarnated.
But while the defense could be an emerging beast, Washington's offense is full of question marks, the biggest of which is whether Dwayne Haskins Jr. is still the quarterback of the future. Not even the team seems to know for sure.
The offseason saw rampant speculation over Washington's quarterback situation, running all the way to the doorstep of the draft, when the team was said to be considering Tua Tagovailoa with the second overall pick. In the end, though, Washington made just one move here, trading a fifth-round pick to the Panthers to get Kyle Allen, a third-year pro (and 2019 starter in place of an injured Cam Newton) who will give Haskins some training camp competition and who has the advantage of familiarity with the system Turner is importing from Carolina. As for Haskins, this reality amounts to neither a vote of confidence nor a vote of non-confidence; Washington didn't acquire his replacement, but the team did bring in a credible Plan B.
Haskins' play in 2020 will determine his future with the franchise. There are reasons to be optimistic: Haskins didn't become the starter until Week 9 of 2019, and he seemed to get better every week — passing for 564 yards and five TDs with only one interception over his final 10 quarters. But his overall body of work is limited. If things go south, Washington may maneuver for one of the marquee QBs (Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields) in next year's draft.
But the other massive question confronting Haskins (or Allen) is whether the team has amassed enough weapons around him for him to succeed. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin, a third-round pick last year, turned into one of the steals of the 2019 draft, pulling in 58 receptions and establishing himself as a franchise cornerstone as a rookie. But Washington is still light on complementary pieces at the other wide receiver spots — where the candidates include Steven Sims Jr., Dontrelle Inman, 2020 fourth-round pick Antonio Gandy-Golden, and undrafted rookie Isaiah Wright — and at tight end (Logan Thomas, Jeremy Sprinkle, Marcus Baugh). Kelvin Harmon was expected to get his chances but he tore his ACL in mid-June and is out for the season.
There also are questions aplenty at running back following the release of Derrius Guice (on Aug. 7 following his arrest on felony domestic violence-related charges) and Adrian Peterson (on Sept. 4 because the team wanted to go younger at the position). Third-round pick Antonio Gibson — who primarily was used as a receiver and kick return specialist at Memphis — is expected to lead the way with free-agent pickups J.D. McKissic and Peyton Barber, as well as 2019 fourth-round pick Bryce Love rounding out the backfield. McKissic was signed to replace Chris Thompson as the third-down back and the team is hoping Love is ready to contribute after missing all of last season following surgery to repair the torn ACL that ended his college career at Stanford.
Yet another critical question comes at left tackle, with both Trent Williams and Ereck Flowers now gone. Fourth-round draftee Saahdiq Charles will battle holdover Geron Christian Sr. and free-agent pickup Cornelius Lucas in what could be one of the top competitions of training camp — with Charles also a candidate to shift to guard, opposite franchise-tagged right guard Brandon Scherff.
The 49ers, after taking pass-rush phenom Nick Bosa at No. 2 overall, zoomed from 4-12 in 2018 to 13-3 and a Super Bowl berth, and Washington is hoping for a similar turnaround in 2020. Young, whom Bosa mentored at Ohio State, was taken in the same slot — No. 2 overall — and becomes the fifth first-round pick on the team's defensive line. He registered 16.5 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss in 12 games with the Buckeyes in 2019, and he'll join former first-rounders Ryan Kerrigan (2011) and Montez Sweat (2019) in a three-man rotation as edge-rushers, though Young's well-documented ability to drop back in coverage presents unique opportunities to package all three at once. The interior is likewise solid behind former first-rounders Jonathan Allen (2017) and Daron Payne (2018). Washington hasn't had a top-10 defense, in either points or yards allowed, since 2009, but if it manages it in 2020, this talented front will be the main reason.
Washington also revamped the secondary, picking up slot cornerback Kendall Fuller (whom they drafted in 2016) fellow corner Ronald Darby and free safety Sean Davis in free agency and cutting loose 2019 starters Josh Norman, Quinton Dunbar and Montae Nicholson. This unit was picked apart on third-down conversions in 2019 (NFL-worst 48.9 percent), and the talent wasn't greatly upgraded, but Washington believes there is room for a major improvement in 2020, simply based on Young's influence on the pass rush. Davis didn't make the final roster after 2018 fourth-round pick Troy Apke outplayed him during training camp.
The switch to a 4-3 alters the team's dynamic and needs at linebacker, but it was a mild surprise Washington didn't do much to upgrade here, other than signing veteran Thomas Davis Sr. and using a fifth-round pick on Michigan's Khaleke Hudson. The team was hopeful that Reuben Foster would be ready to return from knee surgery, but he was placed on injured reserve prior to final cuts, so he will miss another season. This defense will probably play mostly nickel coverage anyway, with a slot cornerback and only two true linebackers.
Del Rio saw his unit finish in the top three in the NFL in total defense in three of his last four seasons in the coordinator role, but while the talent level in Washington is trending up, getting this group to that echelon would be a surprise.
Kicker Dustin Hopkins will be in his sixth year with the team, punter Tress Way in his seventh (and coming off a Pro Bowl nod in 2019) and long-snapper Nick Sundberg in his 11th. Free-agent signee Kevin Pierre-Louis is a special teams ace who could see a big role here, and Washington added other potential contributors via the draft.
Washington also may have landed their 2020 kick and punt returner in Gibson, a versatile receiver/running back hybrid who averaged 28 yards per kickoff return for Memphis in 2019 and who has game-changing speed (a 4.39-second time in the 40-yard dash at the combine). The team will be looking for opportunities to get him the ball with room to maneuver, but an increased role on offense may result in fewer opportunities to return kicks.
Rivera accomplished his major offseason roster-related objectives, making a safe but smart draft pick (Young) at No. 2 overall, shedding himself of Williams' ample baggage, boosting the depth and versatility of the roster and providing some clarity — if a tad tenuous — at quarterback. Having last posted a 10-win season in 2012 and with just one playoff victory this century, Washington has eroded the trust of the fans, and winning them back won't be easy. But Washington is now a young and hungry team — two adjectives that haven't been used around this franchise in ages. Washington still has its work cut out to get out of the NFC East cellar — the Cowboys and Giants both appear to have gotten better this offseason, and the Eagles appear to have gotten no worse. But with a little luck and a lot of patience, 2020 could see Washington not only undergo a major identity change off of the field, but also make a major leap forward on it.