Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. We now move on to the Redskins. The surprising 2015 NFC East champs have to figure out what they really need vs. what they want when it comes to the in-house talent they keep around next season. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
CB Will Blackmon, LB Will Compton (RFA), QB Kirk Cousins, LB Mason Foster, OLB Junior Galette, DT Kedric Golston, DT Terrance Knighton, C Josh LeRibeus, RB Alfred Morris, LB Keenan Robinson, FB Darrel Young
Player(s) that must be re-signed
Cousins, Knighton, some combo of Compton/Foster/Robinson: Washington presents the best example yet in our Off-season Outlooks of the difference between need vs. want when it comes to in-house talent. The Redskins have 16 players who are on the verge of becoming unrestricted free agents, including a handful of fixtures from the starting lineup.
They no doubt would like to bring several of those players back, if the price fits—Young, Golston, maybe even QB Colt McCoy. But how many of those names need to be on the roster next season if Washington wants to challenge for the NFC East title again? Any? The ones who do fall under that heading for various reasons are Cousins, Knighton and the trio of linebackers.
Cousins’s case easily will be the most high-profile. He was a surprise leader (not to mention a fan favorite) on a division winner. Cousins completed a league-best 69.8% of his passes for 29 touchdowns and nearly 4,200 yards.
The mystery is if he can do it again, and how much the Redskins are willing to pay to find out. Andy Dalton has a contract worth an average of $16 million per season, Alex Smith is at $17 million, Ryan Tannehill at $19.25 million. Those numbers would be steep to commit to off one solid season. Instead, expect Cousins to receive the franchise tag at just shy of $20 million, with an extension or free agency to follow the next summer.
Knighton might be out because of price and production. But with Golston a free agent and shoddy depth behind him, Washington would have to find a nose tackle somewhere. Adding to the confusion is that fellow defensive lineman Jason Hatcher could call it quits.
The likelihood of Compton, Foster and Robinson returning probably runs in that order—Compton’s status as a restricted free agent gives Washington a path to keep him. He did a nice job last year when pressed into action, too. Ditto for Mason Foster. Losing all three guys would send Washington back to the drawing board aside from Perry Riley, who could be released himself due to his contract.
Most important position(s) to improve
Defensive line: Washington’s D-line depth chart is overflowing—Ourlads has them with 15 players spread between two DE and one NT spot, counting recent addition Ziggy Hood. Quantity does not equal quality, though, as evidenced by the whopping 4.8 yards per carry Washington allowed last season, better than only the Saints. That number could be used as evidence should Washington pass on re-signing Knighton.
Talking Hatcher into another season and getting Stephen Paea back from the toe injury that ended his 2015 both would be significant steps, but merely keeping the band together would do little to fix the problems up front.
Hatcher and Chris Baker were the only defensive linemen to play more than 50% of Washington's snaps (playoffs included); Knighton and Ricky Jean-Francois both fell around 35%. While there is nothing wrong with rotating bodies, the Redskins mixed and matched as much out of desperation to find a viable grouping as anything else.
Other positions to improve
Center, cornerback, linebacker, quarterback: It would take a stunning turn of events for Cousins to be in another uniform next season and Washington seems comfortable with McCoy as a backup. That’s all well and good ... unless it doesn’t work in 2016 with Cousins on a franchise tag, because then the Redskins could head into ’17 without a starter or a backup. They should be looking to draft someone in the later rounds—a dart throw on a developmental prospect.
The center position was a mess all last season, with Kory Lichtensteiger struggling (and then injuring his neck in Week 5) and Josh LeRibeus hardly faring any better. Washington could save $2.9 million by cutting Lichtensteiger, who turns 31 in March. This is another position the draft could help, as well.
Discussed above the potential for changes at inside linebacker. Could Washington live with what it has there, if a couple of players re-sign? Sure. But it shouldn’t feel great about the situation.
A wild card at outside linebacker is Junior Galette, who signed with Washington off a messy exit from New Orleans, then tore his Achilles. We’ll see when he even is ready to play again, let alone which team signs him. He’s also facing a two-game suspension when he can hit the field. Elsewhere, Washington has Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and Trent Murphy. Finding at least one more playmaker will be on the docket if Galette leaves.
Injuries dismantled the Redskins’ secondary late, hence the signing of Cary Williams off the street. He will be a free agent next month, as will veteran Will Blackmon (11 starts in 2015). Blackmon’s presence could be valuable again with Chris Culliver trying to get back from an ACL tear. Depth is a must.
Overall priority this offseason
Get better in the trenches: Teams that finish in the bottom half of the league on both sides of the run game don’t usually last into the postseason. Washington pulled it off, thanks to its passing game and the crummy NFC East. But that formula is not a sustainable one.
Yes, Cousins’s future is of the utmost importance, to 2016 and many seasons to come. He and the rest of the roster will have a very hard time replicating its 2015 success if teams continue to push the Redskins around up front.
Center and nose tackle are the respective fulcrums, and each is in limbo right now.
Matt Jones, Chris Thompson and possibly impending free agent Pierre Thomas—a late-season add—could thrive as a backfield trio on offense, but only if the blocking improves. Flip to the other side and it’s possible a front comprised of Baker, Knighton, Hatcher, Jean-Francois and Paea can hold its own, but last season offered little evidence toward that conclusion.