Any NFL team that goes 7-9 two years in a row is going to have holes to fill in its roster. No team is perfect, after all. But when that 7-9 team is the Washington Redskins things are, of course, complicated.
Many football experts don’t believe the Redskins are far from being a playoff team. Their offseason needs aren’t major, and the team has something many contenders do not: solid lines on both offense and defense. In a normal offseason, Washington’s biggest priorities would be finding a No. 1 receiver, at least one safety, a middle linebacker and a top cornerback.
And yet the uncertainty about quarterback Alex Smith’s broken leg makes it difficult to assess the Redskins’ needs over the next few months.
Smith or the massive question about his health can’t be anywhere but first on a list of Redskins offseason priorities. He has undergone several surgeries to remove infections after suffering a fracture of his right tibia and fibula that broke through his skin during a Nov. 18 loss to the Houston Texans. While Washington Coach Jay Gruden has said he hopes Smith will be able to play again, the team is privately preparing for the real possibility that he won’t.
So no matter what moves Redskins owner Daniel Snyder makes in the coming weeks — in the front office or with Gruden — the team’s decision-makers will have to figure out what to do about quarterback. Opinions on this subject are mixed, and it’s the biggest roster question facing the team as the offseason begins.
Who will play QB?
“I’d say it’s Colt McCoy and Josh Johnson, and then the Redskins have to go get one,” says Joe Theismann, the team’s all-time leading passer who stays in close contact with Redskins coaches and executives.
McCoy, the team’s longtime backup, knows Gruden’s offense and is well respected in the locker room. But his two chances to start in Washington have ended in injury, the latest a freak break of his fibula in a Dec. 3 loss to Philadelphia that ended his season less than two full games following Smith’s broken leg. Most experts agree the Redskins will have to find a likely starter either in free agency, with a trade or the draft.
Former Redskins safety and ESPN analyst Matt Bowen sees the Redskins going into next season with McCoy as the starter and drafting a quarterback who could take over by the end of the year.
“I don’t think it’s a developmental league anymore [for quarterbacks],” Bowen said. “The biggest reason I say that is there were what, eight coaches let go? [Philadelphia’s] Doug Pederson is the only coach left who was hired in 2016? You don’t have time to develop young quarterbacks years down the road. If he’s a first-round pick, you draft him to play.”
But the Redskins, who pick 15th in the first round, might not have a high enough selection to take a top-rated passer. Not that they might want to. Most draft analysts see this as a weak quarterback class.
Free agency is an option, but that presents a financial question, as Smith’s salary is guaranteed even if he can’t play because of injury. New Orleans’s Teddy Bridgewater is expected to be the top free agent quarterback available. NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, the former Redskins and Texans general manager, says he liked what he saw of Bridgewater in the preseason, but wonders if the Redskins “have money to sign” him. The Redskins enter the offseason with just a projected $17.7 million in cap space according to Spotrac.com.
Other veterans who could be available are Philadelphia’s Nick Foles, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Cleveland’s Tyrod Taylor, but Foles and Flacco will likely fetch high-priced salaries, and Taylor would likely simply be a game manager for Washington.
Can they find a top receiver?
No matter who Washington’s quarterback is next season, he will need to throw to better receivers than the team has. Everyone agrees the Redskins playmakers were not good enough last season. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder is a free agent, and while Gruden loves his potential, injuries held him to nine games this past season. Tight end Jordan Reed gives the Redskins mismatches but he too has missed time with injuries in recent years, and he doesn’t appear to have the same level of explosiveness he did earlier in his career. Wide receiver Josh Doctson, the experts say, has not showed he can be more than a complimentary piece.
Watching tape of Washington’s games this year in preparation for the NFL Matchup show he does on ESPN, Bowen was struck by the Redskins' lack of what he calls “explosive plays.”
“What they need is a guy who can take the top off a defense,” Bowen says.
“You need to have someone [the other team] needs to defend,” adds Casserly, who notes that the team needs a wideout who can create separation, which is a difficult quality to scout in college prospects, given the coverages they face.
Finding that top receiver will be hard, because the free agent class at the position is thin and this draft class is not loaded at the top with skilled pass catchers. The Redskins might have to hope Doctson can continue to develop and Paul Richardson Jr. can return from shoulder surgery, and then either re-sign Crowder or uncover a gem in the draft.
Can the running game carry them?
Most experts believe the Redskins also must re-sign running back Adrian Peterson, taking advantage of the fact there won’t be a huge market for a back who will be 34 in March. They also don’t see a problem with Washington going into next season with three backs who will need the ball in Peterson, Derrius Guice and Chris Thompson. Given that Guice missed all of last year with a torn ACL and injuries limited Thompson to just 10 games, there’s a chance all three could be needed.
The Washington Post’s contributing NFL columnist John Clayton cited the Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans as teams the Redskins could try to emulate by building a ball-control, run-heavy offense and pairing it with a shutdown defense. Whether Guice is the running back who can carry that type of offense, however, remains to be seen.
“The Redskins may have that dynamic running back with Guice, but like the Alex Smith situation, they need him to be healthy next year,” Clayton said, adding the team “should consider using a middle-round pick for a back as insurance.”
What about the defense?
Washington’s needs aren’t limited to the offensive side of the ball, and there are several question marks on defense as well, starting at linebacker.
The team hopes inside linebacker Reuben Foster, claimed on waivers in November two days after the San Francisco 49ers cut him following his second domestic violence charge in 2018, eventually will be cleared by the league. And while no one assessing the team wants to talk much about whether he belongs on the team, they acknowledge his massive potential as a player, agreeing he could be an immediate impact at a position that was a weakness for the Redskins last season.
Some, like Casserly, feel the team could use a pass rusher opposite outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, especially with Preston Smith a free agent.
But everyone agrees Washington has to get safeties and cornerbacks.
“They made a big decision when they let [safety] D.J. Swearinger go,” Bowen said.
That loss could be mitigated if the team re-signs Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the safety who came in the deadline trade with the Packers but never fully fit in. Bowen said Clinton-Dix played well in Green Bay and wonders if the adjustment of coming to a team midseason affected his play.
One of the biggest questions of all is whether the team cut star cornerback Josh Norman, who carries the roster’s third-biggest cap hit but has lost some of his old speed.
“He’s a zone corner. If you keep it in front of him he’s all right,” Casserly said.
“A solid cornerback,” says Bowen.
Still, most believe the Redskins must find someone who can be a No. 1 cornerback, especially with Quinton Dunbar coming off a season-ending nerve injury and Fabian Moreau moving between the outside and slot corner positions. The need will be exacerbated if the team chooses to take the salary-cap savings by releasing Norman with two years left on the five-year, $75 million contract he signed in 2016.
“Washington’s biggest problems are in the passing game — on both sides of the ball,” Pro Football Focus analyst Sam Monson said.
That is no small concern in today’s NFL, and why it is essential for a Redskins team with only five draft choices (and the possibility of more compensatory picks) and little cap room to make wise choices in an important offseason.
More Redskins coverage: