The Redskins' push for an NFC East repeat dovetails nicely with a critical contract year for Kirk Cousins.
He’s playing on the franchise tag, but Kirk Cousins returns after a strong end to last season. Now, he’s got one year to earn a long-term deal. Cousins is the big story, but the unlikely arrival of star cornerback Josh Norman has Washington thinking it can win the NFC East again after its unlikely division title last year.
The ’Skins were widely expected to select a defensive tackle in the first round after struggling to defend the run last season, but general manager Scot McCloughan instead took the player most considered to be the best available in wide receiver Josh Doctson. With both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon entering the final year of their contracts, Doctson should emerge as an integral part of the offense in his first season. Add freshly paid tight end Jordan Reed and emerging slot guy Jamison Crowder, and Cousins has the receiving weapons to help get that long-term deal he’s seeking.
The problem is that he may not have a running back. Washington decided to part with Alfred Morris (he signed with the rival Cowboys) after four loyal seasons, the last of which was a stark decline from his first three. The depth chart is now topped by Matt Jones, a burly runner who impressed for much of his rookie season but fumbled five times and lost four of them. The backup will likely be Chris Thompson, a former seventh-round pick who has shown strong short-burst ability but remains barely tested.
So long as he gets adequate protection (Washington’s offensive line was one of the most improved units in the NFL last year), Cousins should have enough to earn that long-term deal. That is, if he doesn’t revert back to his form from the first half of last season.
The Rookie: McCloughan found a second-round gem in 2015 by drafting a hybrid linebacker/defensive end in Mississippi State’s Preston Smith. He may have found the next Kam Chancellor or Deone Bucannon in this year’s second-round pick, USC’s Su’a Cravens. Cravens started at USC as a safety, finished as a linebacker and can play both at the next level. He’s one of the most versatile defenders of the draft and should see plenty of action this season.
Position Battle Spoilers: By signing Josh Norman to pair with 2015 revelation Bashaud Breeland, Washington has now solidified its cornerbacks. DeAngelo Hall will hold down free safety; strong safety is probably the biggest question mark as camp begins. The two top candidates are free-agent signee David Bruton and last year’s starter out of camp, Duke Ihenacho. A wrist fracture cost Ihenacho most of the season while Bruton is a veteran at the position, something the ’Skins have lacked for years. The darkhorse in the race is Will Blackmon, who played well in spurts as a cornerback last season.
The Stat: 3, the number of interceptions Cousins threw in his final 315 pass attempts of the season. If he even approaches that kind of efficiency this season, the ’Skins may lock him up before the season ends.
Preseason Watchability Guide: The offensive line was terrible in last year’s preseason and then surprisingly effective during the season. With Morgan Moses and Brandon Scherff needing progress to vault the ’Skins into the NFC’s upper echelon, it’ll be important to see how they fare against two staunch defensive lines in the Bills and Jets.