Following a completely forgettable 2014 season in Washington, new GM Scot McCloughan and second-year coach Jay Gruden have been handed the huge task of turning this franchise around.
To call Washington's 2014 season a disaster would be an insult to disasters everywhere. While the team earned one more win in coach Jay Gruden's first season than they did in 2013 under Mike Shanahan, they slipped from 23rd to 26th in the NFL in points scored and rose just one place—30th to 29th—in points allowed. Mistakes made by the front office over the last few years came home to roost and the defense fell apart completely; Gruden engaged in a public feud with quarterback Robert Griffin III and owner Dan Snyder became even more hated—if that's possible—due to the franchise's refusal to bend on a nickname which many find offensive.
This off-season, changes were not made to the team's brand, but many other things have a different look now. To take care of business from a personnel angle, the Redskins hired Scot McCloughan to be their new general manager. In San Francisco from 2005 from '09 and in Seattle from '10 through '13, McCloughan used his keen eye for talent to help build the last two great NFC teams. Now, he'll be tasked with helping a Redskins team with some Pro Bowl talent but little cohesiveness hit that same mark. Personal issues have slowed McCloughan's rise to the top, but there's little doubt he's one of the league's best at what he does. Offensive line coach Bill Callahan was hired away from the Cowboys to try and re-build Washington's line in the same image, and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was jettisoned in favor of Joe Barry.
McCloughan's first draft played to type—Washington's newest players are built from the bigger/faster/stronger model typical of his personnel hauls. The Redskins selected Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff with the fifth overall pick, and they'll flip him to right tackle so that he can bookend Trent Williams and give Gruden a blocking consistency that was rarely seen last season. Second-round end Preston Smith was one of the more underrated defenders in the 2015 draft class, capable of lining up everywhere from outside the tackles to over the center. Third-round running back Matt Jones could provide power in the backfield, and fourth-round receiver Jamison Crowder from Duke has the route awareness that Gruden demands in his offense.
In free agency, the Redskins added valuable and underrated players like former 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver (who picked off four passes and allowed a 66.5 opponent quarterback rating in 2014) and ex-Broncos nose tackle Terrance Knighton, who was a consistent disruptive presence for Denver over the last two seasons. Adding former Bears tackle Stephen Paea should certainly solidify Washington's interior defense.
How will it all play out? It may take more than a season to turn the Redskins' problems around, but for the first time in a few years, they seem to be moving in the right direction.
Best acquisition: Chris Culliver, CB
The Redskins knew they had to do something about their vulnerable secondary, and signing Culliver to a four-year, $32 million contract with $26 million guaranteed was a good play. Culliver turned himself into a great defender in Vic Fangio's defense in 2014, allowing just 37 catches on 73 targets for 468 yards. He'll replace David Amerson on the right side, which is a good thing—last season, Amerson allowed the highest opponent passer rating of any cornerback who played in at least 25% of his team's snaps (140.2), while allowing 67 catches on 91 targets for 877 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. If Culliver lives up to that level of play in 2015, and Bashaud Breeland continues to develop, Barry and new secondary coach Perry Fewell will have far better shutdown guys than their predecessors did.
Biggest loss: Brian Orakpo, OLB
For the third time in his six-year NFL career, Orakpo suffered a torn pectoral in 2014, limiting him to just seven games. In those games. he proved to be a better-than-average run defender with some pass-rush ability, but sadly, injuries have negated some of the positive aspects of his game. Trent Murphy filled in when Orakpo was hurt, and with Orakpo now in Tennessee, it's likely that Murphy will start at right outside linebacker in the 2015 season. Like Orakpo, he's a better run stopper than a pure pass rusher, leaving left outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan to be the team's true quarterback disrupter. It's a shame that Orakpo, who put up double-digit sacks in 2009 and 2013, wasn't able to do more with the Redskins.
Underrated draft pick: Tevin Mitchel, CB, Arkansas (round 6, pick No. 182)
During four full seasons as a starter for the Razorbacks, Mitchel amassed four interceptions, 19 passes defensed, 90 solo tackles and six tackles for loss. At times, the 6'0", 183-pound Mitchel looks to have the potential to be a lockdown corner—he has great trail speed, maintains inside position, and his recovery speed is excellent. He'll need to develop more functional strength and bulk up at the next level, but with some finishing work, Mitchel might break into the starting rotation in a year or two. Based on pure athletic potential, he's definitely one to watch.
Looming question for training camp: Can RGIII find his way again?
In a move that surprised a lot of people, the Redskins picked up Griffin's fifth-year option, which allows the team to cut him loose without a cap hit if it so chooses. However, the $16.155 million on that option is fully guaranteed for injury—and given Griffin's injury history, it's a big risk. That option would vest on the first day of the 2016 league year, which means that Griffin has one season to prove his ability to work within Gruden's system. Last season, he proved no such thing; in fact, there were times when he seemed to have absolutely no idea what he was doing on the field. A frustrated Griffin voiced his opinions about needing his teammates to step up after a particularly awful performance against the Buccaneers, and Gruden responded by laying into Griffin's attention to fundamentals.
Now, everyone's saying all the right things. Gruden believes that Griffin is in for an uptick as he acclimates to the new offensive system. Griffin is happy with his growth, comparing himself to a still-sprouting Chinese bamboo tree. But if things go south again, you can expect Gruden to bench him fairly quickly—he's shown absolutely no remorse about doing so in the past. Whether he's taken it too far and too publicly at times is a worthy topic to debate, but it's safe to say that anything but a huge step forward for RGIII will result in the end of his time in the nation's capital.