Coming off an 8-7-1 2016 campaign, and a 9-7 2015 season, Coach Jay Gruden and his players will attempt to accomplish an extremely rare feat for the franchise: posting winning records in three consecutive seasons.
Last year marked the first time since 1997 that Washington had won in back-to-back seasons. And the Redskins haven’t strung together three straight winning seasons since 1992, which capped a run of four consecutive winning campaigns.
But before any of that can happen, Gruden and company have some things to address. Here are five key story lines to follow during training camp and the preseason.
The defense has been rebuilt: After this unit struggled mightily last season, Redskins officials aimed for improvement this offseason, firing defensive coordinator Joe Barry and promoting outside linebackers coach Manusky to replace him, and signing potential starters in defensive linemen Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain, linebacker Zach Brown and safety D.J. Swearinger. The Redskins also drafted defensive players with four of their first five picks, including first-round lineman Jonathan Allen, and coaches have moved 2016 second-rounder Su’a Cravens from inside linebacker to strong safety.
Washington has to do better against the run after yielding 119 yards per game, and on third downs (the team allowed a league-high 46.6 percent success rate). It’s hard to say how quickly it’ll all come together for this unit, but facing the likelihood of seven new starters could mean some growing pains.
The receiving corps has been overhauled: Cousins returns for another season, and he still has two of his favorite targets: tight end Jordan Reed and slot receiver Jamison Crowder. But gone are reliable veterans Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, who were the team’s two most targeted pass-catchers last season.
Crowder is expected to start at one of the outside positions and then move inside to the slot in three-receiver sets. Terrelle Pryor, a free agent pickup from Cleveland who signed a one-year contract after a 1,000-yard season with the Browns, seems like a lock to start on the other side. 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson — finally healthy after a rookie season lost to Achilles’ tendon injuries — will vie for the third spot.
The area that the big-target tandem of Pryor and Doctson can probably help the most? The red zone, where last season the Redskins managed just 14 touchdowns on 83 pass attempts inside the 20-yard-line. Coaches believe fourth-year pro Ryan Grant, used primarily to give Jackson and Garcon breathers the last three seasons, is now ready to take on a larger role. He’s “the best pure route-runner” on the team, according to receivers coach Ike Hilliard. Can he indeed break out as Hilliard and Gruden believe he can? Coaches also need to identify a new deep threat, with Jackson now in Tampa Bay.
The rookies could earn significant roles: Top two draft picks Allen and Ryan Anderson have a chance to earn key roles on defense during training camp. Allen should land a starting job on the line. Anderson (second rounder) will likely compete for either the starting outside linebacker job opposite Ryan Kerrigan, or at the least, a key rotational role.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how quickly third-round cornerback Fabian Moreau (torn pectoral muscle) and fourth-round safety Montae Nicholson (shoulder surgery) can join the action after rehabbing all offseason. Fourth-rounder Samaje Perine could push Rob Kelley for playing time at running back. It’ll be interesting to see if fifth-round tight end Jeremy Sprinkle and sixth-rounders Chase Roullier (center) and Robert Davis (wide receiver) have a chance at beating out veterans for roster spots.
Several key players are recovering from injury: The Redskins have a number of veteran players returning from injury that have a chance to make an impact this year. Outside linebacker Junior Galette signed with Washington two years ago with the intention of significantly upgrading the team’s pass rush. But two straight seasons lost to Achilles’ tendon tears have kept him from playing in a single game. Now healthy, Galette could make a lot of noise if he regains his double-digit sack form from 2013 and 2014.
Niles Paul missed a chunk of last season with shoulder surgery, and he will contribute both as a blocking and receiving tight end, and as a fullback and special teams ace. DeAngelo Hall aims to return to the secondary after missing 13 games with a torn anterior cruciate ligament last season. Swearinger and Su’a Cravens are set to start, but if healthy, Hall will likely work his way onto the field in various situations.
Cousins will again have to deal with contract scrutiny: He has dealt with the pressure of playing at a high level without a long-term contract in each of the last two seasons, and he expects to do well again this year. But that doesn’t mean that everything he says and does will not draw loads of scrutiny.
Team president Bruce Allen’s decision to put out the rejected numbers of the Cousins contract negotiations proved curious. He essentially was trying to make the franchise look better while lowering public perception of Cousins. The quarterback shrugged off Allen’s attempt — at least publicly — but it’s hard to imagine the move having a positive impact, at least on future negotiations.
Will the events of this offseason affect Cousins mentally on the field? He may or may not be committed to this franchise and officials for the long-term, but he does remain committed to his teammates. It’ll be interesting to see how Cousins develops chemistry with his new receivers, and how he relates to his other teammates during training camp and beyond.
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