The Update: Washington Redskins 2017 Preview

Justis Mosqueda

In an effort to break the two-paragraph preview trend of national writers, Setting the Edge has dedicated themselves to previewing all 32 teams in the NFL in a series called “The Update” which will focus on 1) where a team stands from a decision-maker standpoint, 2) where teams were efficient and inefficient last year by using percentile radar charts, 3) who the moving parts between the 2016 and 2017 seasons were and 4) where a team is trending heading into the 2017 regular season. Justis Mosqueda will be writing the team previews while Charles McDonald posts film breakdowns based on the writing. After posts on entire divisions are finished, they will discuss teams on division-specific Setting the Edge podcasts which you can find on SoundCloud and iTunes. Five stars only. Tell a friend.

What do we think of Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden going into 2017? As we’ve mentioned before over this series, it’s factually correct that winning one-score games is unsustainable. Teams that win a lot of close games are 1) rare and 2) lose an average of four more games per season the next year. The same is true for the reverse of that, teams win about four games more the season following an outlier season of a lot of close game losses.

With that in mind, we should be judging coaches off of their abilities to get teams into multi-score wins and out of multi-score losses, instead of focusing on how one bounce of the ball impacted the fairly random outcome of one-score games. Here’s the split between single-score games and multi-score games for every NFL head coach in their current stint in the NFL, with “%” signifying the expected win percentage of each head coach, if you treat close games as ties. (You should.)

The bad news is that among veteran head coaches, Gruden has the third-worst expected win percentage in the NFL, behind Hue Jackson (going into his second year in Cleveland after earning the first overall pick) and John Fox (who is on the hot seat in Chicago). Those numbers are a bit disingenuous though, since Gruden’s team went 4-12 in his first year as a head coach. Below is every NFL team that hasn’t won more multi-score games than they’ve lost over the last two seasons.

Highlighted in pink are teams that have changed head coaches since Gruden took over as the Redskins’ head coach. The only veteran coaches who have lost more multi-score games over the last two seasons than Gruden and have kept their job are Sean Payton, Jim Caldwell (who faced each other in Super Bowl XLIV) and Chuck Pagano.

It doesn’t seem like the media is calling for the firing of Gruden, likely because they focused most of their offseason on the general manager drama in Washington, but it certainly seems like the possibility of the Redskins hiring a new head coach next offseason isn’t out of the question based on the NFL’s recent history. All of this very well might fall on the shoulders of starting quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Editor’s Note: Jay Gruden signed a two year extension in March of this offseason. His job security is safe.

Offense:

Backs: There is no bigger question in the NFL than the long-term outlook of Cousins. The Redskins finished 4th in completion percentage, 4th in sack percentage, 5th in yards per completion and 12th in interception percentage last year with Cousins almost exclusively under center for the team. Now, you can argue that there were passes that Cousins threw which could have easily been intercepted, but if you believe that those numbers generally average themselves out, then we should see evidence of that this season. You can argue that a lot of those numbers had to do with the loaded receiver unit that Washington had last season, but two of the team’s top four targets left this offseason.

Whatever side of the Cousins debate that you’re on, we should get legitimate answers this season to many of the questions that we’ve had for the duration of his NFL career. The passing game was obviously the team’s strength in 2016 though. Cousins, who has been tagged in back-to-back seasons, is backed up by Colt McCoy and 2016 sixth-round pick Nate Sudfeld. If Cousins walks, there’s not really a starting-caliber passer ready to take over the team in 2018.

In the ground game, Washington finished 9th in yards per carry, 10th in TFL percentage, 24th in fumble percentage and 25th in run percentage. They were a team that ran the ball well, but not often, and they put the ball on the ground too frequently. Those fumble numbers aren’t a true reflection of the backfield though.

The significant Redskins running backs last year were Rob Kelley (168 carries, 4.2 yards per carry), Matt Jones (99 carries, 4.6 yards per carry) and Chris Thompson (68 carries, 5.2 yards per carry). They combined for just five fumbles last season while Cousins had nine.

The team was quietly good on the ground last season, and the addition of fourth-round pick Samaje Perine of Oklahoma should make the backfield a five-horse race with the inclusion of 2016 seventh-round pick Keith Marshall. The Redskins offense was above average in every efficiency statistic in our radar charts other than 1) how often they ran the ball and 2) how often they fumbled, and the entire backfield returns this season.

Pass-Catchers: If you’re going to build up one of those disaster scenarios that could lead to Gruden being pushed out of the door, the opening scene of movie begins with a regression in the receiving unit. Six players caught a significant amount of balls last season in receiver Pierre Garcon (79 receptions, 13.2 yards per reception), receiver Jamison Crowder (67 receptions, 12.6 yards per reception), tight end Jordan Reed (66 receptions, 10.4 yards per reception), receiver DeSean Jackson (56 receptions, 17.9 yards per reception), Thompson (49 receptions, 7.1 yards per reception) and tight end Vernon Davis (44 receptions, 13.3 yards per reception).

Jackson signed a three-year, $33.5 million deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason. The contract ranks first among free agent receivers in average salary according to Spotrac. Garcon signed a five-year, $47.5 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers this offseason. The contract ranks second among free agent receivers in average salary according to Spotrac. Free agency is the marketplace where NFL teams tangibly tell you how much they value a player. You learn much more from their movements in free agency then you do asking their head coaches or general managers questions with a hot mic in their face. The league says that no team lost more receiver talent than the Redskins did this offseason.

The cautious optimism you can lean on for this situation is that the team signed converted quarterback Terrelle Pryor (77 receptions, 13.1 yards per reception) on a one-year, $6 million deal while 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson tries to get on the field consistently. That, along with the volatility of the tight ends, could mean that the receiver unit could either tread water or massively regress this upcoming season.

Reed has missed 18 games over the last four years, and there are legitimate questions about him playing through a second contract in the NFL. Davis looked like he was five years younger in 2016, but that came after two straight seasons of less than 500 yards receiving. Over the last three seasons, with three different teams, Davis has recorded just four touchdown receptions combined. In the five years prior to that straight, Davis was averaging 6.8 touchdown receptions per season. If he can bounce back into significancy, there’s certainly room for him to bounce back out, as a 33-year-old. If anyone tells you they now how this unit will unfold this year, they’re lying. The only thing you can expect is a wide range of outcomes.

Linemen: Last year, Brandon Scherff, Morgan Moses, Shawn Lauvao, Spencer Long, Trent Williams and Ty Nsekhe all played a significant amount of snaps on an offensive line that finished 4th in sack percentage and 10th in TFL percentage. Every single one of those names return. No team’s third tackle is as talented as Nsekhe is sitting behind Williams and Moses. This line, built by Bill Callahan, is one of the best in the league.

Defense:

Line of Scrimmage: For a 3-4 team, the defensive line’s efficiency is usually only going to manifest itself in TFL percentage and yards per carry average. The Redskins finished 17th and 27th in those numbers in 2016. Four of their defensive linemen played a significant amount of snaps last season: Chris Baker, Ziggy Hood, Ricky Jean-Francois and Cullen Jenkins. Only one of those players, Hood, returns this year.

Baker is going to be a big loss for the team after he signed a three-year, $13.5 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason. The team did attack the position by signing two defensive linemen in Terrell McClain (four-year, $21 million) and Stacy McGee (five-year, $25 million deal) in free agency. Neither are truly starting-caliber locks though. The Redskins then went back to the well and drafted Jonathan Allen of Alabama, who received the most first-place Heisman Trophy votes for a defender last season, in the first round.

Jean-Francois signed a low-level deal with the Green Bay Packer, and Jenkins is still looking for work. Washington clearly knew the unit was an issue, and they brought in three serviceable bodies, even if they let go of their best defensive lineman.

At outside linebacker, the team’s biggest contributors were Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and Trent Murphy. That combo helped the team finish 7th in fumble percentage and 10th in sack percentage last season. Murphy is a flexible player who could easily play as a 3-4 defensive end, but the loss of Junior Galette, who hasn’t played since he recorded 22 sacks over his 2013-2014 seasons with the New Orleans Saints, pushed Murphy’s projection from end to linebacker. Galette is back, and Murphy is now going to serve a four-game PED suspension to start the 2017 season.

The Kerrigan-Smith combo isn’t a poor duo to start out the season with (Smith’s production at his age suggests future Pro Bowl status), but the assumption that Galette can play quality football after almost three full years since his last football game, or that Murphy will look the same coming off of his suspension, is a bit shaky. Luckily, the team drafted Ryan Anderson of Alabama in the second round to join in on the pass-rushing competition. He’s more of an effort pass-rusher than one who lives and dies off of talent on a down-to-down basis.

Allen replacing Baker will probably play itself out as a positive long-term, but don’t expect a lot of improvement out of this front line unit, outside of run stopping, in 2017.

Backs: One of the weaknesses of the team was their running game. On top of their defensive linemen needing to take that next step, that also falls on the shoulders of the Redskins’ inside linebackers.

The team played two linebackers last year in Will Compton and Mason Foster. They both return this season. They also signed Zach Brown on a one-year, $2.3 million contract. Brown was a 2016 Pro Bowler in Buffalo. The linebacker that Washington has invested the most in might not even actually be a linebacker though.

Su’a Cravens was a safety-linebacker at USC that really made you have to think about what his position was going to be in the NFL. He was drafted in the second round by the team last season, but he never really saw the field enough to make heads or tails of him. No matter what anyone says in a press conference, his future will be established based on where he stands out on the field. He’s a question mark at both linebacker and safety in a time where there have never been more blurred lines in terms of positional splits.

The secondary lost Duke Ihenacho to the New York Giants, and Donte Whitner is still a free agent, but they return cornerback Josh Norman, cornerback Bashaud Breeland, safety Will Blackmon and cornerback Kendall Fuller from last season. Long-time cornerback DeAngelo Hall was supposed to make the safety transition last season, but the now 33-year-old only played in three games due to an ACL tear.

Safety is clearly a need for the team, just in terms of playing time, but the advancement of Cravens, the return of Hall, the three-year, $13.5 million signing of D.J. Swearinger and the drafting of fourth-round pick Montae Nicholson of Michigan State is a massive overhaul of the unit from last season. Fabian Moreau of UCLA was also drafted in the third round and projects best to cornerback.

New faces and competition is exactly what the team needed. Last year, the Redskins finished 16th in interception percentage, 17th in yards per completion and 28th in completion percentage. When you exclude how often the team was able to get after the quarterback, their pass defense was by far their biggest weakness last season. That’s a reflection of the secondary.

2017 Prediction: What will the passing offense look like with the losses of Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson? What about uncertainty of tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis? Will the run defense actually get better after the Redskins let Chris Baker walk? Will the young defensive backs step up for Washington immediately? How safe are Kirk Cousins and Jay Gruden moving forward?

There are a lot of questions surrounding this team that we simply don’t have answers to. We know that they have a great offensive line and a quietly efficient backfield, but everything else is in question. We’re 14 previews into this series, and I’m not sure we’ve covered a team more volatile than the projection of the Redskins at the moment.

No one should be surprised if this squad makes it to the playoffs as a wild card team, or if Gruden and Cousins are both out next year. In a very competitive NFC East, Vegas opened Washington’s season total at 7.5 wins. That sounds about right. This is an “expect the worst, but pray for the best” type of situation.

Video Breakdown: Washington’s Pass Rush by Charles McDonald