After 2013's dismal 3-13 season, the Washington Redskins have nowhere to go but up. New coach Jay Gruden, new receiver DeSean Jackson and a revitalized Robert Griffin III will see to it that the 2014 season is better than 2013.
Safe to say, the season that transpired for the Washington Redskins in 2013 was not at all the one expected. After a 10-6 showing in 2012 and the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2007, not to mention the electrifying rookie campaign of Robert Griffin III, the wheels came off a year ago in Mike Shanahan's final season with the team. The offense regressed in all areas, and the reaggravated knee injury that ended Griffin's and the Redskins' season in 2012 came back to roost when it took Griffin the entire preseason to get any serious reps.
Then, Shanahan and son Kyle, the team's offensive coordinator, put Griffin in an impossible situation by calling so many pass plays that Griffin had the highest increase in NFL history in attempts from a player's first season to his second -- from 442 in 2012 to 611 in 2013. With his knee still recovering and his receiver corps depleted, Griffin saw his efficiency drop severely -- from 11th to 32nd in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics for qualifying quarterbacks. Defensive regression was also a factor, and the Redskins fell from 10-6 to 3-13.
Owner Dan Snyder, taking a break from angering pretty much everyone in the free world over his takes on the franchise's nickname, made the inevitable change when he fired the Shanahans on Dec. 30 and replaced them with former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden on Jan. 9. Gruden has vowed to merge the Griffin who can drive defenses crazy with his mobility and the Griffin who should be able to stay in the pocket and make stick throws under pressure. Griffin will have a new main target in former Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, and the defense gets a new force in highly underrated tackle Jason Hatcher, formerly of the Cowboys.
Will raiding talent from around the NFC East and putting a new coaching philosophy in place be enough to turn this spiky team around? One thing's for sure -- after 2013, there's nowhere to go but up.
Best acquisition: DeSean Jackson, WR
In 2013, Pierre Garcon led the NFL with a whopping 181 targets. And no offense to Mr. Garcon, but when he's seeing close to 200 passes in a season, something's not right with your offense. Injuries and roster attrition hurt the Redskins' aerial attack pretty heavily last season, and for all his opportunities, Garcon finished 45th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics among qualifying receivers -- behind an injured Reggie Wayne, and just ahead of the Jets' Jeremy Kerley.
When you throw the ball as much as the Redskins seem to want to do, more is required. That's why Washington took a shot on Jackson, the mercurial receiver who can take the hat off any coverage with his ridiculous speed. Having Jackson split wide will open up more single coverage for Garcon and tight end Jordan Reed (who's high on everybody's buzz lists right now), and force safeties to play the pass more than the run. Jackson finished sixth in those same efficiency metrics in 2013, and that was in a system where he didn't entirely fit -- Eagles head coach Chip Kelly prefers receivers who can beat man coverage right away, and that's never been Jackson's game. But he'll catch a lot of deep balls from Griffin, and even if his catch totals aren't enormous, his ability to draw coverage will add serious value to a passing game that was far too simple in 2013.
Biggest loss: London Fletcher, ILB
Fletcher had not been playing at his formerly dominant level over the last few seasons, which can be expected after 16 years in the NFL. But even when he slowed down, there were few linebackers more aware of opposing offenses, and better able to take angles to make plays. The veteran technically retired after a 2013 season in which he still amassed 63 solo tackles and two sacks. But he's still reportedly open to playing in limited reps for a Super Bowl contender. He'll probably have to wait until training camps are in full swing before that happens, if at all.
In the meantime, the Redskins will hand the interior of their defense over to Perry Riley, who put up 72 solo tackles in each of the last two seasons, but isn't consistently great as a run-stopper at 6-feet and 238 pounds. Riley signed a three-year, $13 million contract in March, and the pressure will be on him to replace one of the greatest undrafted free agents of all time, and a future Hall of Famer.
Underrated draft pick: Bashaud Breeland, CB, Clemson (fourth round, 102nd overall pick)
I remember talking with Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup about the cornerbacks in the 2014 draft class, and he was the first to mention to me that Breeland could be a real sleeper based on his coverage abilities. And in an NFL where aggressive press coverage is more prized than perhaps ever before, the 5-11, 197-pound Breeland certainly fits that profile. He played a lot of off coverage for the Tigers, but he projects well as a defender who will play closer to the line of scrimmage -- either outside or in the slot. He's a willing run defender who needs to learn to take better angles; basically he's a bit of a raw player at this point, but he could definitely improve into a starting-caliber cornerback over time.
One thing he'll really have to watch in the NFL is his tendency to get grabby downfield -- NFL officials are obviously more prone to throw flags these days.
"There's a fine line there and we're going to have referees out here throughout training camp and they're going to police it and we'll continue to coach him up," Gruden said of Breeland in May. "When he's at the line of scrimmage, one of his strengths is playing bump and run. He's got the long arms. He's very physical. We've just got to make sure he just watches the holding and all that, but I'm very impressed with the way he handled the mental aspect of the game, the coverages, and also the physical [game] with his technique."
Looming question for training camp: Can Jim Haslett's defense turn things around?
The Redskins ranked 21st in FO's defensive metrics last year, and they were particularly porous against the pass, allowing 29 touchdowns and 204 first downs through the air -- both stats were in the NFL's bottom 10. The front should be pretty good if Hatcher combines with healthy versions of pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, but the secondary is still a challenge for Haslett and secondary coach Raheem Morris, both of whom were retained by Gruden.
Lead cornerback DeAngelo Hall has always been a feast-or-famine player, but the Redskins decided to pony up once again, re-signing him to a four-year, $17 million contract with $5 million guaranteed. That deal lets the team off the hook in a financial sense if Hall's game drops off again, but there isn't much behind Hall in an elite coverage sense. Second-year man David Amerson, who picked off two passes in his rookie campaign, has the Redskins thinking that he's an Aqib Talib-style player. He'll replace Josh Wilson as a starter this season, and a growth spurt from him would really help that secondary. At safety, Haslett and Morris will likely start veterans Brandon Meriwether and Ryan Clark while waiting for Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas to learn the ropes.