Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo hopes to put up big sack numbers this season. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Their plan finally seems sound. This really could work. The Washington Redskins’ smarter approach to roster building should result in renewed success for a franchise once accustomed to on-field success.

Just don’t expect everything to come together overnight. Understand that they’re only getting started. Although the Redskins’ strategy, focusing on building through the draft and shopping wisely in free agency, might not initially appear fruitful, the process shouldn’t be judged quickly.

Coach Mike Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen are doing their jobs. They triumphed where others failed at Redskins Park, convincing owner Daniel Snyder to follow their lead in trying a traditional style for a change.

Through just two draft cycles, the roster has been essentially overhauled. Washington’s core group is younger and more talented than the overrated, overpaid bunch Shanahan and Allen inherited. We’re sure of that much after the preseason.

The men responsible for the project have improved the product. Without a doubt, Washington is better.

Quantifying improvement in victories, though, isn’t what it’s about in 2011. The bottom line is only part of the evolving story. There are better ways to evaluate progress at the start.

Let’s look for weekly improvement from rookie linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. We’ll see if left tackle Trent Williams is ready to lead in his second season. And if Shanahan’s plans at quarterback work out, then watch out, because that’s the wild card. An upgrade at quarterback would lift the entire team. The whole program would benefit from a boost at the game’s most important position.

For the Redskins, the key is continued development from the people expected to rise. If Washington hopes to add to Joe Gibbs’s trophy collection, it has to take this route.

The draft stance is simple: Identify many talented young people and give them the opportunity to get some experience. The free agency philosophy works: Pay just enough money to lure proven guys who are still on their way up.

Shanahan and Allen understood the situation. They realized it was past time to scrap Snyder’s unsuccessful star system. And now it’s the dawn of a new day.

But another sub-.500 season wouldn’t be shocking. Washington’s playoff drought likely will extend to a fourth season.

In the past 10 seasons, the Redskins have won at least half their games just four times. Since 1993, Washington has just three playoff appearances, with one NFC East title.

It takes time to move boulders.

Three years is not that long to overcome more than a decade of systemic roster damage, and that was the length of Shanahan’s rebuilding proposal. He figured he could untangle Snyder’s mess in 36 months, and to hear Redskins people tell it, nothing has altered his outlook.

In fact, they say Shanahan is growing increasingly confident about what he’s building. He has added the right players. He sees his vision taking shape. The Redskins, Shanahan believes, are ready to help him rebound from last season’s failings.

Inspired by their leader, players also believe anything is possible. Granted, the positive chatter coming from the team’s Ashburn training complex is like much of the happy talk around the league at this time of the year.

Players on the league’s 31 other teams are excited about their situations as well. Many teams have playoff aspirations.

To this point, nothing has happened to temper expectations.

Something will. It always does when the regular season begins and the best-laid plans of coaches are not enough to overcome an opponent’s superior talent.

Washington’s top-line performers should enable it to compete better this season. Lack of quality depth is a problem.

Elite NFL teams usually are deepeer than the Redskins. Even if depth is lacking on good teams, the guys at the top of the roster are so gifted, they simply shoulder more when needed.

The Redskins aren’t there yet.

Some day soon, Brian Orakpo may be second to none at linebacker. LaRon Landry was closing fast at safety before his injury problems.

Having few upper-tier guys and little depth is not a formula for double-digit victories. The difference between 8-8 and 10-6 isn’t only two games. There’s a lot that separates playoff teams from the pack, and the Redskins haven’t pulled even with the leaders, though they can at least see them now.

In Shanahan’s first year, the Redskins had a drama-filled 6-10 season. But all 6-10 seasons are not created equal.     

A year ago, Shanahan got it wrong on the quarterback. He erred in his approach to changing the defensive scheme.

If Shanahan’s assessment of the new quarterback is correct, and many newcomers on defense deliver, the season will be good regardless of the Redskins’ record. They’ll have something on which to build.

Shanahan has a five-year contract. Allen has his dream job. Snyder has no Plan B. They’re all in on what figures to be an interesting ride. The Redskins hope it will end in a much better place than where it began.