Balanced roster gives Redskins shot at NFC East championship repeat
Only one of four NFC East teams finished with a winning record in 2015. A myriad of injuries undermined the Cowboys’ run at the division, the Eagles imploded internally with Chip Kelly in charge of personnel, and the Giants suffered such a poor season that they fired their head coach of a decade. Nine wins were enough for Washington to take the title—but can the Redskins repeat in 2016?
For years, Washington was associated with financial irresponsibility under owner Dan Snyder. New GM Scott McCloughan has taken steps to alter the approach, becoming much more circumspect with available investments. The salary cap has been more evenly distributed across the roster, leaving the team with few weaknesses.
Only two Washington players made Sam Monson’s 101 list last week, and Josh Norman was only added this offseason. Norman is an exception to McCloughan’s frugal approach, but instantly converted a major weakness into a strength. Washington lacks a ton of star quality, but have good players throughout the roster. The only negatively-graded players scheduled to start in 2016 play running back, nose tackle, and inside linebacker.
The backfield remains a concern, especially after Matt Jones’ poor rookie season (four fumbles). Behind him, Chris Thompson did not fare much better (58.8 overall grade). Washington will hope one of its young running backs takes major strides in 2016.
As for the nose tackle position, long-term veteran Kedric Golston seems most likely to start. Golston has played a decade in the NFL, but has earned a -76.5 cumulative grade since 2007 (when PFF began grading). In a career-low 19.2 percent of snaps last season, he managed only a 52.3 overall grade. Golston is a step down from Terrence Knighton, but he is unlikely to see the field as frequently. Washington played base on only around a third of snaps a year ago, reducing Golston’s expected workload. Jay Gruden recently discussed the devaluation of the position, which applies league-wide. Alternatively, Washington could use the much more effective Chris Baker over the nose.
The biggest concern might be at linebacker, where Will Compton and Perry Riley are penciled in to start. Neither player performed adequately in 2015, and defending the run was a particular issue. Compton graded 73rd amongst linebackers against the ground game, while Riley finished 78th. Mason Foster will be an upgrade at one spot if he wins a job, and don’t sleep on rookie seventh-round pick Steven Daniels (top-graded FBS linebacker, Boston College). He might be exactly the kind of physical presence Washington need on the interior. Otherwise, second-round pick Su’a Cravens (USC) could likely play the position in the nickel.
While far from ideal, their deficiencies are unlikely to prove crippling. Washington is in a better position to cope than the Cowboys with their depleted defensive line, the Eagles with a receiving corps that leaves a lot to be desired and the Giants with a pair of turnstile tackles. While their division rivals have more star quality, Washington has fewer weaknesses top to bottom.
McCloughan has also done an outstanding job at accumulating depth at key positions. Washington have an embarrassment of riches at defensive end, outside linebacker, and wide receiver. The riches consist of more silver than gold—the players are more good than great—but together they are worth a high value.
Depth is especially important on the defensive line, where there is a greater requirement for fresh bodies. While the nose tackle position has been relatively neglected, the defensive end position has seen significant investment, at least in terms of quantity, of personnel. The aforementioned Chris Baker is the standout. He ranked 11th amongst 3-4 defensive ends a year ago. Stephen Paea (75.8) and Ricky Jean-Francois (76.8), made positive contributions in their first seasons in Washington. Matt Ioannidis (Temple) meanwhile, was incredible value in the fifth round of this year’s draft. Kendall Reyes (46.2) and Ziggy Hood (45.2) represent less inspiring additions, but have the pedigree to turn their careers around.
McCloughan also sought to add a plethora of pass-rushers at outside linebacker. In his last full season (2014), Junior Galette earned the third-highest pass-rushing grade among edge defenders. Galette is nothing but a potential bonus for a unit already featuring Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy, and Preston Smith. Kerrigan recorded 59 combined pressures a year ago, finishing with a 77.3 pass-rush grade. Fellow starter Murphy, meanwhile, managed 30 pressures and a 76.9 grade. Neither player was outstanding, but both made valuable contributions. As a rookie a year ago, Preston Smith was inconsistent (36 combined pressures, 69.2 grade), but he looks primed to take a step forward in year two.
Finally, the depth at receiver is impressive. Washington was obviously planning for the long-term with the selection of Josh Docton (TCU) at 22nd overall. He may well force his way onto the field as a rookie, but he’ll have to earn his playing time behind Pierre Garçon, DeSean Jackson, and Jamison Crowder. Again, although none of the trio graded amongst the top 30 receivers, all ranked inside the top 50. Each also offers a unique threat. Jackson is the big-play receiver, Garçon is more of a possession guy, and Crowder is the shifty slot wideout. Docton’s combination of size and ball skills adds another element to the unit.
The NFC East should be tight again in 2016. Each team has a chance of taking the division. Washington, however, have the strongest claim on the favorite’s label because of their roster’s ideal blend of balance and depth. With few weaknesses, and the bodies to rotate when necessary, they may well repeat as NFC East champs next season.