The Washington Redskins’ defense has been nothing short of a mess in recent years. In the 2016 season, a number of players performed strongly, such as rookie safety/linebacker Su’a Cravens, edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan, and free agent addition cornerback Josh Norman. Despite being paid a contract with $50 million guaranteed, Norman alone could not provide enough help to carry the team’s defense to new heights.
The Redskins front seven was ranked 21st in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, and they allowed a horrendous 4.5 yards per carry, which ranked 27th in the league, per ESPN. This came despite strong seasons from edge defenders Kerrigan, who finished the season with 11 sacks, and Trent Murphy, who broke out with 9 sacks in his third NFL season.
The 2016 season saw the Redskins defense held back by its pathetic defensive line. This should not have been surprising given the utter lack of focus paid to the defensive line in the offseason. The front office brought in defensive end Kendall Reyes, formerly of the San Diego Chargers, who lasted an underwhelming four games, two of which he missed due to injury. Additionally, the team added Defensive End/Nose Tackle Matt Ioannidis from Temple in the 5th round. He did not show much, finishing the year with only 8 tackles, but he could become a contributor in the future as he bulks up in order to become a rotational nose tackle for the Redskins.
Chris Baker, one of the few bright spots along the interior in recent years, was not offered a contract as an unrestricted free agent and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Redskins replaced Baker with Terrell McClain and Stacey McGee, formerly of the Cowboys and Raiders, respectively. Both played as defensive tackles in the 4-3 schemes their teams ran. It remains to be seen whether they will be used primarily as 3-4 defensive ends or if one of them will be asked to play as a nose tackle in base defense. Questions have been raised about these two’s ability to contribute passing downs, but they should certainly improve the Redskins ability to stop the run.
The Redskins also resigned DE/NT Ziggy Hood. Hood, as well as second year DE Anthony Lanier and free agent NT Phil Taylor, are expected to be a part of the rotation when the regular season begins. I fully expect the team to spend at least one draft pick in the first four rounds on a versatile defensive lineman to help improve this lackluster position group.
As a whole, the Redskins linebacker group could be seen as one of the strengths of the team. Mason Foster and Will Compton each had over 100 tackles in their first full season as the starting ILBs. Su’a Cravens, who provided a boost as an athletic ILB as a rookie, is moving to strong safety for 2017. It is likely that Cravens will spend a fair amount of time in the box as a de facto linebacker. The Redskins should look to add another athletic, young inside backer in the draft, particularly as Cravens moves to play more safety.
The edge rushing trio of Kerrigan, Murphy, and Preston Smith combined for 24.5 sacks in 2016. Junior Galette was expected to contribute as a pass rusher, but he tore his Achilles tendon in the preseason for the second consecutive year. Galette has re-signed with the team but it is unclear how much of his quickness and explosion that made him so dangerous with the Saints will remain after two major injuries in as many years. Many analysts thought Preston Smith was on the verge of a breakout season, but his performance in 2016 did not live up to the lofty expectations set by his dominance to close out the 2015 season. Questions also surround the status of Trent Murphy, as he reportedly faces a four game suspension by the league for PEDs. Hopefully the combination of Galette, Murphy, and Smith can provide consistent pass rush opposite Kerrigan and free him up from double teams.
The Redskins made a number of moves to bolster their lackluster secondary prior to 2016. As a result of injuries and incompetence, the two safety positions became a revolving door of sorts as the season went on. The Redskins saw their intended starters, FS DeAngelo Hall and SS David Bruton Jr., injured early on in the season. Bruton was ultimately released off of injured reserve; much like Jeron Johnson a season before him, Bruton was an example of a reserve player and special teams ace from a contender who did not pan out in a larger defensive role for the Redskins and was ultimately let go. The team rotated converted corner WIll Blackmon and special teams thumper Deshazor Everett at FS, while Duke Ihenacho and late addition Donte Whitner split time at SS.
Going into 2017, the safety position for the Redskins looks very different. Gone are Bruton, Ihenacho, and Whitner. Su’a Cravens, previously a linebacker, is the expected starter at Strong Safety. Free agent addition D.J. Swearinger, who last played for the Arizona Cardinals, is expected to start at Free Safety. Swearinger emerged as a dependable coverage option for the Cardinals in 2016, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can consistently control the deep middle third of the field that is required of the FS in the Redskins’ cover 3 heavy scheme. In a perfect world, the team could bring in a third safety on passing downs to play the deep middle, moving Swearinger to a robber or underneath coverage role and pushing Cravens down as coverage linebacker. DeAngelo Hall could be used in a role like that, but he is not a certainty to remain with the team as a result of his large cap number, age, and history of injuries.
The cornerback play for Washington has been an issue for longer than many care to remember. As a result, it was music to the ears of Redskins fans when All Pro corner Josh Norman fell into the team’s lap. He has lived up to the hype and massive paycheck. The starter opposite Norman, Bashaud Breeland, struggled in 2016. His confidence was shaken early after getting burned repeatedly by the likes of Antonio Brown and Dez Bryant. Breeland never really bounced back, seeming out of sorts the rest of the year. A bounce back year for the former Clemson Tiger is likely in order. The Redskins nickel personnel changed often as the season went on, with Kendall Fuller, Dashaun Phillips, Greg Toler, and Quinton Dunbar all spending time as the third corner. Dunbar and Fuller seem most likely to split the role in 2017. The length of Dunbar, who is a converted wide receiver, makes him better suited as an outside corner, which would push Breeland into the slot, a role in which he seems comfortable. At this point it is unclear whether Fuller is best on the outside or in the slot, as he never seemed fully comfortable in his rookie campaign. There has been some talk amongst fans about Breeland moving to a hybrid free safety/corner hybrid, but I anticipate the cornerback group to remain largely the same going into the year. The team may look to draft a corner in the middle rounds, but picking one early seems unlikely.
It is hard to fully judge this team before the draft, as it is reasonable to expect the Redskins to use at least 3 of their first 4 picks on defensive prospects. In free agency, the team tried to address their most glaring weakness by bringing in two big run stuffing defensive lineman. There are a number of keepers on this team, but the front office needs to continue to add young talent in order to create a competent and competitive defense for years to come.