As Week 2 of the National Football League’s (NFL) free agency period continues, team and front office personnel continue their search to find players who can shift the balance of power for their respective ball clubs. The draft is a month away and organizations that have resisted the urge to overspend in free agency will be looking to find key pieces to the puzzle with prized rookies.
The Washington Redskins have stayed in the group that has resisted huge free agent spending and this is a new approach not seen in D.C. over the past two decades.
General Manager Scot McCloughan, Head Coach Jay Gruden — and to some extent owner Dan Snyder and Vice President Bruce Allen — will collectively look to the draft in hopes of bettering a team that went 9-7 and won the NFC East division last season.
Two teams in their division — the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles — have been active participants during free agency and have all but assured their talent pool will be greater than last season’s.
The lone remaining division team and the Burgundy and Gold’s nemesis, the Dallas Cowboys, have taken the same approach as Washington during free agency with both teams having made it a point to re-sign their own players.
Which approach of the two will win out in 2016?
This remains to be seen and will be determined once the regular season starts. One thing is for certain, however… the Redskins have some positions of need that should be addressed before the 2016 opening kickoff.
Washington was a team that won last year despite being besieged with injuries more than any other team in the NFL. They also won despite a youthful roster of first-year and young players who had breakout seasons.
When going over the roster there are some positions that could be addressed via more bodies but it could also be that case that the coaching staff might feel comfortable with the players currently slated to those roles.
The running back position is one in which an upgrade could be needed unless McCloughan and Gruden feel second-year player Matt Jones will shed the fumbling issues and injury bug that haunted an otherwise successful rookie campaign.
Is RB Chris Thompson the team’s true answer as a third down specialist?
Some might feel that the answer is “no” on both fronts.
But going back and looking at tape of the two young backs shows that good things happened when their numbers were called. Perhaps in Gruden’s pass-first system the two rushers are exactly what the Redskins need. Collectively they possess power, speed; and more importantly, the ability to catch passes out of the backfield.
Former starter and current free agent Alfred Morris was a down-field runner who excelled in a zone blocking scheme. Unfortunately, one cannot say that his best attributes were his ability to catch out of the backfield. This is where Jones and Thompson could actually add to Gruden’s system and open up the offense even more. Their presence could add a dimension that would mean defenses will no longer be able to determine if plays are run or pass simply by looking across the line of scrimmage at player-personnel packages.
Based on some opposing players’ comments in the recent past, the Redskins’ offensive schemes were, at times, predictable because of the players on the field in certain game situations.
The Redskins could use help or upgrades along the defensive line as well. While Washington’s defensive front got better as the year went along, there still was no true disrupter to opposing teams’ pockets.
This year’s draft has several potential impact players along the defensive line that the Burgundy and Gold could use their first- or second-round picks to acquire.
Pairing a draft pick up with returning starters Chris Baker, Ricky Jean-Francois, Kedric Golston, Stephen Paea, Preston Smith, newly acquired Kendall Reyes and Ziggy Hood (to name a few) seems like the obvious choice for the team’s first-round selection at this year’s event.
With the release of and/or not re-signing of players such as Jason Hatcher, Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton and Frank Kearse; it would almost be a no-brainer that the team will look to draft and develop a top interior defensive lineman.
Last season on the other side of the ball, the team took major strides in orchestrating a unit that could be a strength for years to come.
Offensive guard Brandon Scherff was every bit the first-round pick at which he was selected. Tackle Morgan Moses anchored down the right side of the line and was a welcome surprise back in last year’s training camp. His talent continued to show itself throughout the season.
On the left side of the line, Pro Bowler Trent Williams remained the anchor and perhaps the team’s best overall talent. The left guard spot was a bit less settled as Spencer Long filled in for incumbent starter Shawn Lauvao who was injured and lost for the season early into the 2015 campaign. Long played well at times however.
Could Lauvao or Long be the long-term answer at the position?
Maybe the team selects another guard in the draft to solidly solidify the spot or perhaps it feels like it has two adequate players who can give them starting ability and depth.
Is the center position another that needs an upgrade?
Kory Lichtensteiger has manned that spot for the past several seasons and has done about as well a job as possible considering he is undersized for many of his match ups. His ability to snap under center and pull out toss plays is something a lot of centers in the National Football League are simply not able to do.
Lichtensteiger is also a consummate professional and this is something that locker rooms need when building success. He is getting older and has a lot of miles on his body, however. Could Josh LeRibeus — who filled in admirably when Lichtensteiger was hurt and who was also recently re-signed — be the team’s center of the future? The former Southern Methodist University star was a third-round pick in the 2012 draft (71st overall). He started the final 11 games of last season and played through a myriad of injuries.
LeRibeus and Lichtensteiger could solidify the center position from a starting and depth standpoint like the aforementioned left guard position. Or, the team could look to draft a sure-fire starter for years to come that it can groom alongside Williams, Scherff and Moses.
Another position-of-need may be at cornerback. Last year’s unit was hit with multiple injuries but even then a few surprise players emerged.
The recently re-signed Will Blackmon gives the team another solid professional on the field as well as in the locker room. He is also an insurance player in case starting CB Chris Culliver is slow to return from the knee injuries (ACL and MCL) he sustained last season.
Blackmon, a 10-year veteran out of Boston College, is 31 years of age and looks to be a mentor to the younger players at his position.
One of those young players could be Quinton Dunbar. The second-year player out of the University of Florida possesses good size at 6’2”, 200 lbs. A converted wide receiver, he began to come into his own as the season progressed. With the upcoming offseason work and another training camp, Dunbar could be a real find for McCloughan & Co.
Returning starter Bashaud Breeland (out of Clemson) anchors down the other side of the field and looks to have star power if his play continues to develop.
Could the team draft a corner with a high selection to pair with Breeland, forming a young aggressive tandem for years to come?
If so, this year’s draft class has several high-impact corners that could be available when the Redskins go to the podium to make their selections, especially in Rounds 1-3.
A player who could be available when the team picks in the second or third round is University of Miami cornerback Artie Burns.
Burns led the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in interceptions this past season with six. He is a physical corner who grabs and holds similar to Breeland’s style. At 6’1”, 197 lbs., he could be in line to have his name called and be an instant starter or contributor.
Another player who could be available at corner would be Eli Apple out of Ohio State. Apple is another long and rangy player listed at 6’1’ and 200 lbs. He could give Washington a big corner to match up against the likes of divisional wide outs Dez Bryant (Dallas) and Jordan Matthews (Philadelphia).
Regardless of the aforementioned scenarios, the team must continue to improve in order to defend their division crown and stave off the NFC East competition that is sure to be better this upcoming season than it was in 2015.
This year’s draft class will need to be as good — if not better — than last year’s… a group of players that contributed in a major way for the Burgundy and Gold. It could be argued that last year’s draft class was the best batch of rookies Washington has had in the past 20 years.
If this year’s 2016 draft class can equal that of last year’s in production on the field; then the Redskins should have no problem putting themselves in position to defend their crown and perhaps expand their portfolio to include being a serious player come playoff time.
Will the team upgrade the positions mentioned or do they feel they have the pieces already in place?
Does Washington’s brain trust just feel that all that’s needed is depth for competition’s sake in practices and in case injuries creep up?
It will be interesting to see how the personnel department continues to shape the roster for the upcoming 2016 season. One thing is for sure… it has already been a quiet — though nonetheless interesting — offseason so far out at Redskins Park.