The Washington Redskins have now been back on the field for four weeks. Two weeks of training camp and two preseason games have taken place. We’re starting to learn some things about this team, but questions remain.
In today’s mailbag, we tackle some of the most pressing questions: MIA free agent signings, run game struggles, Kirk Cousins’s play. … It’s a good week in the Mailbag.
Thanks, as always, for taking part. Keep those questions coming. Email me at Mike.Jones@washpost.com with the subject line of “Mailbag question,” and we’ll do it all over again next week.
But first, the best of this week’s submissions:
I’ve not heard much about Terrell McClain and Stacy McGee, which I take is not a great sign but not an awful one either (like the bad news that emanated from the preseason practice and play of free agent defensive linemen bust signings Stephen Paea and Kendall Reyes). Still, a more significant investment has been made in McClain (four years, $21 million) and McGee (five years, $25 million) and so my expectations are higher. Are these two projecting to be solid, impact contributors for the next two to three seasons? What should we expect in terms of their abilities to command double teams, produce tackles, sacks and hurries, minimize penalties or contribute in other ways?
— Tim Foisie, Westport, Conn.
You haven’t heard much about them because neither has really moved the needle. McGee has been the better of the two. As of late, he has looked more impactful. Neither have been staples on the starting units. McGee has been a rotational player. McClain has made a cameo here and there. Both started for the first time Saturday night, but it was nothing to write home about. McGee has made a little noise against the run, and has generated some pressure in nickel packages. But I like Matt Ioannidis and Jonathan Allen better in the base package, and Allen and Anthony Lanier better in the nickel. From what I can gather, people are still encouraged by the recent strides they are seeing from McGee. But they want/need to see a lot more from McClain.
I don’t think there’s any realistic chance McClain gets cut this year (though I agree with your take in this morning’s 53-man projection that he hasn’t impressed at all). According to Over the Cap, McClain got a $5 million bonus, and his $2.25 million salary this year is fully guaranteed, so he gets paid exactly the same amount (and has the same cap hit) whether he’s on the team or not this year. He would have to be shockingly bad for it to make sense to cut him.
— Jon Romberg
Yeah, I didn’t say it definitely would happen. I’ve just been told by multiple people in the organization that he really needs to make up some ground. It’d really be a shame for him to eat up that cap space ($7.25 million dead cap hit, as you said) and not be on the team. But if he’s not going to be able to get on the field, what good does that do the team? The Redskins have nine guys who play the same 3-4 end/4-3 tackle position as McClain. Five of them (Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis, Ziggy Hood, McGee and Anthony Lanier) have all looked better. Joey Mbu and A.J. Francis have looked about the same. That’s not good.
I’m not understanding the reasoning behind going straight from 90 players to 53 instead of the previous format of 90 to 75, and 75 to 53. Doesn’t it make more sense to weed out the players you know are not going to keep so that you can get a better look at the guys that are on the fence? And also, don’t you want to give those players that are cut first an earlier opportunity to find a spot on another team?
— Tammi Armstrong
This rule, which took effect this year, was actually proposed by the Redskins. One of the arguments for this new format involved the desire to protect roster locks from the injury risk of playing in that fourth preseason game. Last year, the Redskins had so many injuries after trimming the roster from 90 to 75 that they had to play some of their veterans in the fourth preseason game. Another benefit: This gives those bubble and long-shot players one last chance to audition and potentially change the minds of team officials, or at the least showcase their skills to future teams. So, while this new rule benefits the coaches, who would rather not play their top players, the drawback of this is that cutdown day is more hectic for the front office.
I understand the argument that the first round of cuts gives players a head start. But many times, I’ve seen players sign with another team, really not get enough time to learn the system, and thus, have little to show for following that fourth preseason game, and they wind up getting cut anyway. With longtime players, you sometimes hear teams cut them early so they can give them a head start, sort of as a thank you. But they don’t care about doing the bottom-rung players many favors. They’d rather keep them and protect their key guys.
I know the saying goes, “It’s not always as bad as it looks,” as far as preseason goes. But we have a lot to be concerned about. A new receiving corps, new play-caller and cadence in Jay Gruden, as well as a new defensive coordinator. The passing game will be better improved if we can run the ball. Is there a bigger focus on balance this season?
— T.J. Settles
It appears that it will take a little more time for Kirk Cousins to develop the rhythm with his new receivers Terrelle Pryor Sr. and Josh Doctson. This places a higher importance on the Redskins hammering out the kinks in the run game. You’re right to be concerned, but also keep in mind it’s not just a Redskins rushing attack that can start slow.
I recall Mike Shanahan saying that it doesn’t matter if you’re getting just one, two or three yards a carry early in games. You have to stay committed throughout the game, because eventually, you start wearing the defense down, and those carries turn to three, four and five yards a pop. It also keeps the defense honest. The Redskins haven’t played a full game with the starters and had the opportunity to do this. But yes, Gruden says he does want more balance on offense. He wants more of a physical rushing attack to help ease the pressure on the passing game. The team has the quality linemen and promising running backs. Taking the track record of the linemen, coach Bill Callahan and the running backs into account, Gruden says he’s not concerned. Frustrated is more like it. But they’ll continue to try to chip away at this thing.
How many OLBs do you think we keep, and who is fighting for spots? With Trent Murphy’s injury, I see Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith, Junior Galette and Ryan Anderson as locks. So are Lynden Trail and Chris Carter fighting for the last one or can both make it?
— Felix Trammell, Brandywine, Md.
I just did a second 53-man roster projection this morning, and I’ve got five making the cut, for now. Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith, Junior Galette, Ryan Anderson and Chris Carter. I really like Lynden Trail and think he has potential both as an edge rusher and special teams contributor. But it’s hard to find a spot for him. Carter has had a good preseason, proving he’s more than just a special teams guy, so I give him the edge. Trail still has practice squad eligibility, so it’d be good to keep him around and allow him to continue to develop. Pete Robertson has worked both at outside and inside linebacker, but he seems like a practice squad candidate. Ron Thompson Jr. is another outside linebacker, but he is behind the others.
Mike, when will you admit what your eyes see? Ever since Gruden became coach, the running game has been below average and under achieved. He had to try to distance himself from Shanahan’s scheme, and only he knows why. I am tired of hearing coach speak: It’s everybody’s fault. No, it’s the offensive line’s fault, specifically Shawn Lauvao and Spencer Long. They get no push off of the line. The scheme is a bad fit for the players they have. Unfortunately, I watch a lot of preseason football and the Redskins running game is pathetic compared to other teams.
— Steve Weaver
Yes, it’s true that Washington’s rushing attack under Jay Gruden isn’t as prolific as it was under Mike Shanahan. But Gruden has never been a run-first guy. Even during his time in Cincinnati, his units ranked in the bottom half of the league in yards per attempt.
Gruden does indeed want improvement here, and it’s possible to have a strong rushing attack without running Mike Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme. Every coach has a different way of doing things, and Gruden identified Callahan as the offensive line coach that he believes will help get the rushing attack to the level it needs to be. Callahan is indeed helping do just this. The transition year (2015) was a little rocky. Washington averaged just 3.7 yards per carry (30th in the league) and 97.9 yards per game (20th). The Redskins had only nine rushing touchdowns (also 20th).
But Year 2 of the Gruden-Callahan partnership produced improved results: 4.5 yards per carry (ninth-most in the NFL), 106 yards per game (21st), 17 rushing touchdowns (tied for sixth). Those are solid numbers. But everyone involved wants better. That’s what they’re working toward.
It’s funny that you say the scheme is a bad fit for these players. But really, only one remaining offensive lineman was drafted by Shanahan. The other four starters were acquired or drafted with this blocking scheme in mind, and they’re doing pretty well. Would everyone like to see better output this preseason? Absolutely. But as I mentioned above, it’s hard to completely evaluate a rushing attack just going off a quarter or a half.
As Trent Williams said after the most recent preseason game, “You’re not going to open a game just gashing people. Running a ball especially. It’s like pounding a rock. You don’t crack it on your first try. You have to continue to hit, continue to hit, learn and make your sideline adjustments and try to make stuff pop a little more. It’s kind of hard to do that in one half or the first couple drives.”
He does indeed have a point. Let’s wait and see. If we’re in Week 3 and 4 seeing the same struggles, then you can go Code Red on the rushing attack.
I was trying to pay particular attention to where Cousins was looking during the game Saturday and I didn’t notice him, even once, looking off the defense. I’ve noticed this throughout his tenure and had hoped that with experience, it would be something he finally learned, but I still don’t see it. Even when he completes passes, the fact that he tends to stare down his receivers, which was a claim made by New York Giants players last year, he draws the defense to the player catching the ball and severely cuts down on YAC. Are they trying to address this in practice?
— Bob Lasher, Clearwater, Fla.
Yeah, Cousins looked really uncomfortable on Saturday; even Gruden and his quarterback acknowledged that. There are indeed times when Cousins does a good job of looking off defenders, but it seems that when he’s under pressure, he resorts to his old habit of staring down receivers. I do know he’s been working on this. He has burned teammates in practice doing just this. D.J. Swearinger has had to just laugh and tip the hat to Cousins for throwing him off. So, he does have the ability. It’s just a matter of carrying all this over into games. It’s part of the maturation process.
Nico Marley seems to be making a strong case to make the roster in some capacity. Will the coaching staff be giving him looks at strong safety with Su’a Cravens out? Have they abandoned the safety-linebacker hybrid experiment that Cravens filled with mixed results in 2016? If not, could Marley fill that role?
— Patrick Madden
I’m not so sure about Marley’s chances of making the 53-man roster. He has some ability. But he’s rather small for an inside linebacker. You see him making plays here and there. But he gets stonewalled a fair amount as well. You’ve gotta love his persistence and determination, though, because he just keeps coming back and trying again and again.
The problem with safety is, he’s not exactly fast and rangy enough for that position. He could possibly contribute on special teams. But it’s hard to take a special-teams player who doesn’t have the capability to do anything else.
The Redskins haven’t scrapped that hybrid role. They drafted Josh Harvey-Clemons to groom as a similar kind of player. He was a safety in college, and is being used as an inside linebacker that covers backs and tight ends. He’s still a project guy though. The addition of Zach Brown in free agency gives the team that ultra-athletic pass-coverage linebacker that the Redskins have sought.
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