We close out the NFC East portion of our 2018 Regular Season Preview in our Nation’s Capital, as the Washington Redskins look towards starting a new chapter with a new leading man under Center, while closing the door on back-to-back disappointing seasons which saw them miss out on the Playoffs. Despite a lukewarm 3-2 start to 2017, the Redskins were wildly inconsistent a year ago, prompting some serious changes on both sides of the football this past Offseason, most notably the departure of Pro Bowl Quarterback Kirk Cousins, whom the Franchise ultimately decided to pass on re-signing due to his ever-escalating price tag in lieu of Free Agency. In his wake, Jay Gruden and Co. rebounded quite nicely in trading for former Chiefs’ Quarterback Alex Smith, who despite coming off a career campaign in Kansas City was to be fazed out in favor of a younger model. The rest of the roster received quite a makeover as well, particularly a Defense which started off strongly last year, but crumbled after a slew of injuries. And at the end of the day, a lot of what this team will be able to do this year will be up to their relative health, for few teams were ravaged in such a manner as Washington, who were hit heavily on the Offensive and Defensive Lines, and not to mention in the Receiving Corps. So with that said, let’s take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately decide if the Redskins pick themselves up off the mat in 2018, or continue to be lost in the ever-challenging NFC East.
Playing it Safe
The writing was on the wall for a few years that the Redskins weren’t going to be retaining the services of Kirk Cousins, no matter how many impressive performances that the now Minnesota Viking may have authored. The on-again off-again negotiations always seemed to be so inconclusive, while the repeated Franchise Tags placed upon him did nothing more than create more and more distance between the team and their soon to be former leading man. In a league in which Quarterbacks are making ridiculous money, Washington ultimately decided to opt to travel the more frugal route, letting Cousins walk in Free Agency, and before they could be roasted by the Media, quickly put together a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs for Alex Smith, in exchange for a Third-Round Pick and Cornerback Kendall Fuller. Needless to say, this move assuaged many of the negative feelings from the Fan Base, as Smith was coming off arguably his most impressive season in which he established a slew of career-bests including Passing Yards (4,042), Passing Touchdowns (26), Net Yards per Attempt (7.10), and Passer Rating (104.7), which he led the league in. While the Thirteenth-Year Veteran turned 34-Years Old in May, there is reason to believe that he has plenty of gas left in the tank, particularly given his showing a year ago. And if the Redskins’ Faithful still isn’t convinced at this point, consider the fact that the only Quarterback to sport a higher Win Percentage than this guy since 2011 is a certain MVP in New England, as Smith has gone 69-31-1 over the past seven terms for a Percentage of .683. Furthermore, he’s one of the most efficient players at his position in the history of the league, throwing 132 Touchdowns in comparison to Forty-Three Interceptions over that same period of time. The most Interceptions he’s tossed in a single season since 2011 is Eight, which is at least three fewer than Cousins has thrown in any of his past three years in the Capital. Also, in signing him to a Four-Year Extension, Smith affords Gruden some more time to rebuild on the fly, and possibly even look towards selecting a future Franchise Quarterback in next year’s Draft, which would be nothing new to the Three-Time Pro Bowler, for he has been ushered out of town by a promising younger Signal-Caller twice now in his career.
As we touched upon earlier, few teams were as ravaged by injuries as the Redskins, who sustained heavy losses on both sides of the football, and were ultimately unable to overcome the void left by so many notable players. Offensively, the Line was by far and away hit the hardest, where Tackles Trent Williams and Morgan Moses were beset with ailments throughout the term, with the former missing Six Games with a Right Knee Injury, and the latter gutting his was through Sixteen Games with torn ligaments in his ankle. Both behemoths underwent surgery in the Offseason, and missed most of the team’s Summer Workouts as a result, leaving many in the Capital wondering just what shape this unit will be in come the Season Opener in Arizona. Pass-Catching Specialist Chris Thompson (39 REC, 510 YDS, 4 TD in 2017) was very effective in the short passing game early in the season, but broke his Right Leg on a fluke play in Week 11, while former Pro Bowl Tight End Jordan Reed (27 REC, 211 YDS, 2 TD in 2017) was relegated to just Six Games in 2017 due to concussions. It wasn’t much better defensively, where again they were hit hard in the trenches; Rookie Defensive End Jonathan Allen (10 TKL, 1.0 SK in 2017) impressed greatly before his season ended with a foot malady after five games, while Nose Tackle Phil Taylor Jr tore his Thigh Muscle in Training Camp and was lost for the term. Oh, and veteran Linebacker Mason Foster (30 TKL, 0.5 SK, 1 INT, 1 PD, 1 FR in 2017) only lased five games as well before bowing out with an ailment to his Right Shoulder. The bottom line is that Gruden needs his charges to remain healthy, otherwise they simply won’t be able to keep up with what is sure to be a competitive NFC this season. Unfortunately, things aren’t getting off to a great start on the Injury Front for the Redskins, who lost promising Rookie Tailback Derrius Guice, whom they selected in the Second Round, to a torn ACL in the first week of the Preseason. After really struggling to run the ball last year, they were counting on Guice to help establish some semblance of balance to an Offense that has lacked it for years now, averaging just 90.5 Rushing Yards (27th Overall) on 3.6 Yards per Carry (30th Overall) in 2017.
Defending a Nation
Despite getting off to a promising start, a major reason as to why Washington faltered midway through the season was due to the utter collapse of their Defense, which as we outlined earlier, was wrecked by injuries. Depth was a sizable concern heading into 2017, and it looks like it will once again in 2018, with a number of question marks to be found on all three levels of this unit. While we previously named a number of notable contributors earlier, the truly disappointing thig about this group’s ledger a year ago is the fact that they have shown very clear signs of being a much better Defense. Case in point; through the fist four games of the season, the Redskins allowed a respectable 22.5 Points on 311.3 Total Yards, while proving dominant against the run, permitting a scant 88.6 Yards per Game. Furthermore, they were among the league’s best on Third Down, yielding passage on just 32.4% of their opponents’ attempts (9th Overall), thanks in large part to a solid Pass-Rush that totaled Forty-Two Sacks ( Overall). Ryan Kerrigan (46 TKL, 13.0 SK, 1 INT, 1 TD, 1 PD, 3 FF in 2017) continues to be one of the more underappreciated Edge Rushers in the NFL (71.5 Career Sacks), while Zach Brown (127 TKL, 2.5 SK, 2 PD in 2017) earned a Pro Bowl nod after signing a One-Year Deal late in Free Agency. Oh, and we can’t forget about Josh Norman (64 TKL, 9 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR in 2017), who despite registering Zero Interceptions, is oftentimes avoided like the plague by opposing Quarterbacks. D.J. Swearinger (79 TKL, 0.5 SK, 4 INT, 10 PD, 1 FF in 2017) was also a solid addition at Safety, brining a physically imposing presence to the Secondary. Unfortunately, these playmakers simply couldn’t overcome the loss of so many of their teammates, for after their Bye Week, Washington crumbled on this side of the ball, particularly against the run; in their seven losses after the Bye, the Redskins were torched for an average of 32.1 Points on a whopping 394.7 Total Yards, with 167.7 of that figure coming against the Run. If that wasn’t bad enough, Jay Gruden helplessly watched as his charges were steamrolled for 260 Rushing Yards against the New York Giants in the Season Finale, the very same Giants who finished Twenty-Sixth Overall in Rushing last year. Simply put, Washington MUST improve upon this area this season, otherwise we have a very hard time seeing this unit getting any better.
2018 Outlook: 6-10
After a pair of disappointing seasons which culminated in the departure of what was supposed to be their Franchise Quarterback, Washington did a solid job of righting the ship and acquiring Alex Smith, who should at the very least provide a steady hand in leading a team in dire need of one. Smith is a bonafide winner, whose professionalism and experience should have a calming effect on the Offense. However, we’re not necessarily convinced that he’s a great fit for Jay Gruden’s scheme and the personnel surrounding him. Up until last year, the veteran routinely exhibited a reluctance to push the ball vertically, and given the health concerns in the Backfield and along the Offensive Line (which BTW will also be featuring a pair of new Starters), it’s unlikely that he’ll be afforded the requisite protection to allow for those deeper pass plays to materialize, no matter his mobility. And with Guice’s unfortunate season-ending injury, we also have a hard time seeing the Running Game improving, which means this should be a fairly one-dimensional attack… again. Even if the Redskins do improve defensively, which could very well happen given their emphasis on this side of the ball in the Draft, we doubt it’s going to be enough to return them to the Postseason, let alone ahead of their neighbors in the hellish NFC East. There needs to be a greater plan in mind with this team, who need to be looking towards the future (and possibly a Quarterback) while Smith is available in the present. After all, the only thing he does better than managing games is managing the relationship with the younger understudy destined to usurp his position as the Starting Quarterback.