Behind Enemy Lines: NFC East Offseason Review- Washington Football Team
The defending NFC East champion Washington Football Team sits 2nd in Las Vegas odds to capture back-to-back division titles (+260), trailing only the Cowboys (+125). And as a non-biased Eagles reporter (ha), I give the nod to the Football Team on repeating as division champs this season, after the Birds, of course.
Washington’s front office seems to be reviving the 1990s Minnesota Vikings approach. Minnesota finished with a Top 15 defense for almost a decade behind rookie head coach Dennis Green and a carousel of veteran quarterbacks.
After the turbulent situation with 1987 fourth-round pick Rich Gannon ended in 1993, the Vikings went all-in on veteran quarterbacks. Led by Jim McMahon (34), Warren Moon (38-39), Brad Johnson (37-38), Randall Cunningham (35), and Jeff George (32), the Vikings made the playoffs seven out of ten years in the 90s, but only reached the NFC Conference Championship in 1998.
Sound familiar? An uncommitted relationship to a young quarterback, like Kirk Cousins, and a new coaching regime is leaning on veterans to manage this young team. General Manager Martin Mayhew looks to piece together a dangerous defensive unit for years to come and essentially punt on a quarterback until “that guy” lands in their lap. Besides the addition of 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick to lead the helm, here’s what else the Football Team was up to over the offseason.
RG Brandon Scherff (29): Franchise Tag- $18M
C Chase Roullier (27): 4-year, $40.5M
QB Taylor Heinicke (28): 2-year, $4.75M
K Dustin Hopkins (30): 1-year, $2.5M
Washington’s Key Departures
CB Ronald Darby (27)- DEN: 3-year, $30M
cut LT Morgan Moses (30)- NYJ: 1-year, $3.6M
DE Ryan Kerrigan (32)- PHI: 1-year, $2.5M
LB Kevin Pierre-Louis (29)- HOU: 2-year, $8M
OLB Ryan Anderson (26)- NYG: 1-year, $1.13
QB Alex Smith (37)- Retired
LB Thomas Davis Sr (38)- Retired
Washington’s Key Free Agents/Trades
CB William Jackson III (28, CIN): 3-year, $40.5M
WR Curtis Samuel (24, CAR): 3-year, $34.5M
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (38, MIA): 1-year, $10M
LT Charles Leno Jr (29, CHI): 1-year, $4M
WR Adam Humphries (28, TEN): 1-year, $1.2M
CB Darryl Roberts (30, DET): 1-year, $1.6M
LB David Mayo (27, NYG): 1-year, $990K
Trade For: LG Ereck Flowers (27) + Pick #258- WR Dax Milne, BYU
To Miami: Pick #244- RB Gerrid Davis, Cincy
Washington’s Notable Draft Picks
Rd.1 (#19) LB Jamin Davis, Kentucky
Rd.2 (#51) OT Samuel Cosmi, Texas
Rd.3 (#74) CB Benjamin St-Juste, Minnesota
Rd.3 (#82) WR Dynami Brown, UNC
Rd.4 (#124) TE John Bates, Boise St
Washington’s defensive line is one of the dominant forces in the NFL. Their offensive line is not.
Washington’s offensive line surprised many experts finishing 2020 as PFF’s 6th best unit. However, they did not build upon that momentum with their offseason moves. They released RT Morgan Moses after seven years with the team in a somewhat shocking move. Ron Rivera talked about learning from his past mistakes, which was not letting his teams get too old too fast.
Still, Moses finished with the 11th best run-blocking grade in the NFL last season (85.9). He did allow five sacks (2nd most on the team), 14 QB Hits, and 22 QB Hurries (both most on then team). Riverboat Ron may be on the right side of a veteran player declining, but his approximately $8M cap hit isn’t a burden for a proven tackle.
To fill in for Moses, Washington signed Charles Leno Jr, who’s entering his eighth NFL season. He’s a solid tackle who’s graded at 70.0 or above in four of the past five seasons. One awful stat is that from 2018-2020, he led the Bears in sacks allowed, QB Hits, and QB Hurries each year. I don’t see this as much of an upgrade.
From there, the right tackle position most likely will be rookie Samuel Cosmi’s to lose. The 6-7, 309 pound former Longhorn will face a baptism by fire as a true rookie against some elite defensive lines if he does start Week One. The other lineman Washington depends on is reliable swing tackle, Cornelius Lucas. In 608 snaps last season, the 6-9 behemoth registered a 78.9 offensive grade, 23rd amongst tackles in the NFL.
The anchors of the Football Team’s line remain RG Brandon Scherff and newly minted C Chase Roullier. At 29-years old, Scherff returns on the franchise tag that will pay him over $18M this season. The former 5th overall draft pick in 2015 went through a slew of injuries, including an MCL sprain in 2020. Regardless, he remains a tier-one guard in the 97th percentile for pass-blocking grades on true pass sets over the past three seasons.
2017 sixth-round pick out of Wyoming, Chase Roullier, has exceeded every expectation for Washington. He’s improved his offensive grade from 65.0 in 2018 to 69.3 in 2019 to 76.4 in 2020. In 1,908 pass-blocking snaps since 2018, Roullier has allowed only five sacks with just eight QB Hits.
One of their final moves to improve the offensive line came during the 2021 NFL Draft. The Dolphins agreed to send OL Ereck Flowers back to Washington in addition to a seventh-round pick swap. Again, Ereck Flowers does not inspire much confidence as a starting guard on any offensive line.
On the opposite trenches, the Washington Football Team may present the most intimidating defensive line in the entire league. The front office has invested four first-round picks into this unit, resulting in a dominant force up front. Last year, Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Da’Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen, and Temple’s own Matthew Ioannidis (in 3 games) combined for nearly 52% of the team’s total sack production (27), 72% of all QB Hits (39), and over 68% of all QB Hurries.
The problem with having a stud group of 1st-round picks is that they eventually have to be paid. After this season, Jonathan Allen is a free agent, Matthew Ioannnidis and Da’Ron Payne in 2023, and down the line Montez Sweat in 2024 and Chase Young in 2025, who will demand a hefty price.
But those are future Football Team problems as their defensive line is stacked for 2021. The offensive line, however, may be a liability with a 38-year old semi-immobile quarterback. This grade is based solely on Washington’s offseason moves to better their team and not on their current defensive line (just read above).
Trench Grade: B
Ryan Fitzpatrick in the NFC East absolutely terrifies me
Right when the report dropped that Fitzmagic would be entering the NFC East, so did my heart. This guy may go down as a Top 3 Eagles killer of this era. Here are his stats in 7 games against the Birds, one being as a rookie in 2005 for the Rams.
64.3 completion %
14 TD to 8 INT
90.3 passer rating
To further my anxiety, Terry McLaurin, is becoming one of the most sure-handed and explosive targets at wide receiver. With Alex Smith, Dwayne Haskins, and Kyle Allen throwing to him last year, he still managed to put up monster numbers in only his second season.
135 targets (T-11th in NFL)
1,118 yards (13th in NFL)
20+ yard catches (14th in NFL)
87 catches (17th in NFL)
3.3 drop % (17th in NFL)
Add breakout slot wide receiver Curtis Samuel, third-round rookie Dynami Brown as well as reliable Adam Humphries, and you have quite the promising receiving core.
Dynami Brown adds another vertical threat on the outside while Samuel and Humphries remain reliable slot targets underneath. On top of that, Logan Thomas is coming off his best season to date, catching 72 passes for 670 yards and a team-high six touchdowns.
However, I do not believe Curtis Samuel to be that reliable threat he was last season. I also don’t think either a rookie in Dynami Brown, Kelvin Harmon coming off an ACL tear or Cam Sims, who dropped five of 44 catchable passes last season, can fill that void. Lastly, Logan Thomas is a free agent next offseason, while Terry McLaurin is a free agent in 2023, just another cap hurdle for Washington to navigate.
Washington’s backfield remain the same dynamic duo from 2020. Second-year back, Antonio Gibson, finished his rookie campaign with an 85.3 run grade, which tied Derrick Henry for third in the NFL. Dual-threat JD McKissic spells and complements the explosive running back out of Memphis exceptionally well.
McKissic, a 2016 undrafted free agent, ended last season with the 2nd most receptions (80) and 3rd most receiving yards (589) on the team. If you’ve had him in a Fantasy PPR league, you know that this guy is a beast when it comes to targets and pass-catching.
In the end, I still have nightmares about Ryan Fitzpatrick’s games against the Eagles while playing with the Bucs and Dolphins. He bumps this grade up, but Curtis Samuel and Dynami Brown do not have me convinced they are “the guys” to play besides McLaurin.
QB and Weapons Grade: B
There is a ton of pressure on rookie Jamin Davis in front of an excellent secondary unit
The Football Team needed a spark to their linebacker unit after a down year from Jon Bostic, Ryan Anderson defecting to the Giants, and Ryan Kerrigan defecting to Philly. In the first round with the 19th pick, Washington brought in LB Jamin Davis. At 6-4, 234 pounds, the highly touted prospect out of Kentucky is looking to join a young and hungry defense unit.
Cole Holcomb held down the other outside linebacker spot and had a much-improved 2020 season. A 2019 fifth-round selection out UNC, Holcomb had the 6th highest defensive grade on the team (72.0) and the 10th highest tackling grade (70.6).
On the other hand, Jon Bostic’s play continues to decline. The seventh-year vet finished 33rd out of 36 teammates in defensive grading (52.7), 33rd out of 35 in run defense grading (43.9), and tied for 2nd most missed tackles (11). Washington did poach LB David Mayo from the Giants, but if Bostic continues to play poorly, it might be up to some inexperienced linebackers to get the job done.
If they can’t figure it out, their secondary should be able to help. Washington’s coverage units ranked sixth in team coverage grades for 2020. Safety Landon Collins inked a six-year, $85M contract in 2019, but his 2020 campaign was cut short after tearing his Achilles in Week 7. That’s a complex injury to return from, but Collins has superstar potential, leading the NFL with the most run stops (46) since 2016.
Across from him, Washington found a gem in the seventh round of last year’s draft in Kamren Curl. He led the team in solo tackles (63), snagged the 2nd most interceptions (3), and finished with Washington’s 8th best coverage grade (69.6). The former Arkansas Razorback looks to improve upon his remarkable rookie year and has Troy Apke entering his fourth year as a reliable spell/role player.
At cornerback, the Football Team upgraded in a big way on the outside. William Jackson III replaces Ronald Darby and provides a lockdown tandem between him and Kendall Fuller. Since 2017, Jackson’s 80.0 coverage grade in man-to-man concepts is over 15 points higher than Ronald Darby’s 64.3 grade in the same subset of plays. The former Bengal joins Kendall Fuller, who led the team in interceptions (4), broke up the 2nd most passes (8), and had the 2nd lowest Passer Rating when targeted at a lowly 72.6.
Another seventh-round gem for Washington in 2019, Jimmy Moreland, will lock down the slot for a third straight season. Since entering the NFL, Moreland has given up only one touchdown in 719 coverage snaps but has tackling issues posting an 18.6% missed tackle rate during that span.
LB and Secondary Grade: A-
Honestly (and this truly pains me to say), but I like the strategy Washington is pulling off here. Build a strong youthful foundation on defense mixed with game-changing weapons while not sinking your entire franchise into an unproven quarterback.
The Minnesota Vikings never made it to the Super Bowl in the 1990s with this strategy. Still, it seems like Washington is just buying time until their savior quarterback comes along, which many teams can’t comprehend and pounce at the hottest name in the current draft class.
If their starting quarterback were anyone other than Ryan Fitzpatrick heading into this season, I wouldn’t be that scared. But here we are, and somehow, The Football Team looks like a frightening opponent.