Playing in one of the NFL’s best-designed offenses makes it hard to properly assess the franchise-tagged quarterback
1. Washington has one of the four best-designed offenses in the NFL. (The other three, in no particular order: New England, Kansas City and New Orleans.) Washington’s features a wide array of formations that consistently set up both run and pass concepts—plus mixtures of both, as its play-action game is the best in the league. So many of the plays start out looking the same, and the deception slows down defenders.
2. Because this offense is so well designed, it’s difficult to pinpoint a value for franchise-tagged quarterback Kirk Cousins. Many of Cousins’s reads are defined. He doesn’t make plays, he conducts plays that the system makes. Maybe that changes in 2016. Cousins is coming off his first full regular season and offseason of starting experience. As he gets more comfortable, he’ll become more instinctive. That’s when a player can maximize his physical capabilities. Cousins, physically, has looked fairly mediocre in his first four professional seasons. His arm strength is so-so and, due to mild footwork inconsistencies, his accuracy can be sporadic. But if he continues to build on the comfort that he showed down the stretch last season, we could see Washington expand its system to include more multi-read deep-intermediate routes and aggressive calls on third down.
3. Washington’s most important player is Jordan Reed. He’s by far the best route running tight end in football. No linebacker or safety can guard him. And so Reed has become the fulcrum of Washington’s aerial designs. Where he lines up—slot, out wide or next to the offensive tackle—dictates where the mismatches are.
4. Besides Reed, another reason Washington’s passing attack is so well orchestrated is that Washington’s wide receivers complement each other extremely well. DeSean Jackson, the ultimate vertical threat, is vital to the deep play-action game. The thicker-bodied Pierre Garçon is an excellent in-breaking route runner—things like slants, posts and digs. Those are great to run in conjunction with Jackson’s “go” routes because they and the in-breakers often attack and out-leverage the same safety.
5. If Matt Jones matures on schedule, Washington’s ground game will be markedly better than the one that ranked 30th in yards per attempt last year. Jones, with a unique combination of size and burst, can get to the perimeter. That’s what you want behind a zone-blocking front five. It’s a front five that expects to be better at right guard, where last year’s No. 5 overall pick Brandon Scherff has improved steadily. At center, mobile veteran Kory Lichtensteiger is back. And at left tackle, the uber-athletic Trent Williams is in the heart of his prime.
6. Washington’s D and $50 million cornerback Josh Norman are a great fit for each other. Washington plays straight zone coverage as much as any team in the league. Norman thrived under this approach in Carolina. He’s not twitchy or fast, but he has a keen understanding of route concepts, body mechanics and short-area angles. All of that is conducive to winning one-on-one outside and playing smartly to your help inside.
7. Washington has flexibility at safety, the value of which can’t be overstated in today’s NFL. DeAngelo Hall, a longtime corner, is capable of playing centerfield or matching up to tight ends down low. Free-agent pickup David Bruton was impressive as a dime linebacker/safety hybrid player in Denver last year. Plus there’s second-round rookie Su’a Cravens joining the mix. In him Washington could have a nickel/dime linebacker who plays the run, blitzes and covers. That will greatly expand the disguise tactics that coordinator Joe Barry presumably wants to employ. (Barry came over from San Diego, where he worked under coordinator John Pagano, one of the game’s preeminent disguise artists.)
8. Cravens is also valuable simply because if he is on the field, it means one fewer Washington linebacker is. It’s not a bad linebacking corps, just a very average one. The best of the bunch is Will Compton, an undrafted fourth-year pro who became a starter midway through last season. Expect him to play in the dime packages ahead of Mason Foster (the likely No. 2 starter) and Perry Riley, who seems to be falling out of favor.
9. The Junior Galette Achilles injury hurts. Washington really doesn’t have an imposing pass rusher opposite Ryan Kerrigan. The hope is that last year’s second-rounder Preston Smith can now blossom into the No. 2 edge rusher. Smith improved late in his rookie season but has not looked overly dynamic.
10. Washington will miss nose tackle Terrance Knighton, who signed with New England. True, Washington ranked 31st in rushing yards allowed per attempt, with Knighton starting 15 games last year. But his absence, in theory, means this defense is now at risk of ranking 32nd. Knighton has outstanding footwork for a man big enough to warrant his own zip code. He can also penetrate. No surefire replacement for him was brought in, which means 33-year-old Kedric Golston will compete with ex-Texan Jerrell Powe—and maybe former Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood—for snaps.
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