There is no way to go but up
That will be the common consensus surrounding the Washington Football Team. A new Head Coach with complete control over personnel decisions should signal a change of direction and an usher in an overhaul of the organisational culture that has clouded the reputation of the much-maligned franchise from D.C.
This preview forecasts only a slight improvement in win/loss record to four wins and may appear pessimistic at first glance but committed readers will certainly feel the warming light at the end of the tunnel after digesting what lies herein.
Some would argue that the addition of Ron Rivera and a solid draft should call for a more generous prediction than a mere quartet of wins for Washington — they might be right.
Riverboat Ron is confident
So much so, that he has proclaimed to the media that the turnaround in his side’s fortunes could happen sooner than most expect. If so, the NFL schedule makers will be kicking themselves as Washington have zero prime-time games this year — for the first time in 38 years!
Rivera refuses to be browbeat by his recent diagnosis with a form of skin cancer. He intends to carry on in his role as Head Coach and describes himself as feeling in the best health he has ever been in. This inner strength and resilience are precisely what Washington needs.
Washington’s faithful will love Rivera’s optimism and whilst there are many reasons to be positive, the roster remains incomplete and they are very clearly a notch below the two contenders in the division: annual foes the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys.
Chase Young: franchise cornerstone and true building block for Washington
Positives include the NFL Draft. The franchise came away from the draft with a strong haul including the top player in the nation, Ohio State defensive end Chase Young.
Young had an outstanding collegiate career at Ohio State and comfortably graded out as the best player in the 2020 NFL Draft class. His rating remained stable throughout the entire year and was a no brainer pick for the team, who sat at number two overall. His almost unparalleled athletic ability projects him as an instant starter and difference maker on what is already a strong D-line.
Young is able to attack the QB in a multitude of different ways thanks to myriad pass-rushing moves in his arsenal. Speed, lightning hands, polished technique, and sheer strength: Young has it all. This is the kind of blue-chip prospect who does not need NFL combine testing numbers. He passes the eye test every time.
D-line is top 5 in the NFL
As stated, the defensive line was already a strength of the team even before Young joined. In the long run he may become a replacement for Ryan Kerrigan but immediately acts as a compliment to Kerrigan, Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat and the criminally underrated Matt Ioannidis.
This combination projects as one of the league’s best and are perfectly suited for the 4-3 defense that Rivera will introduce. They will notch a win or two by themselves and there could be two double-digit sack artists in the group.
Allen became a member of the team in 2017 as a marquee draft choice and has 14 sacks in his first two years in the league. He has also been excellent against the run and provides an inside-out threat that is invaluable alongside Ioannidis.
Da’Ron Payne, Ryan Anderson (could stay as a linebacker in the 4-3) and Tim Settle are a trio who round out a formidable group after Caleb Brantley opted out of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Can Del Rio ensure a seamless transition to the 4-3 Defense?
It will be interesting to see how the linebackers adapt to the new 4-3 scheme that Rivera and new Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio will look to install. 16th year veteran and new signing Thomas Davis Sr., will man the weak-side spot with ease having played under Rivera for years in Carolina and will provide a terrific role model for new fifth round draft pick Khaleke Hudson as well as depth piece Shaun Dion-Hamilton. Josh Harvey-Clemons has opted out due to COVID-19 and Davis Sr. will likely be backed up by Kevin Pierre-Louis.
Despite being a fifth rounder, Hudson could take the opportunity to start right out of the gate at SAM. Hudson played the strong-side position at Michigan and the existing linebackers may take time to find their place in the new system. Having said that, Reuben Foster is the leading candidate for that role at present. Jon Bostic and Cole Holcomb will compete for the starting middle-linebacker spot.
Inconsistent and underwhelming secondary
Washington’s main problem on defense lies at cornerback due to the turnover they have experienced to their starters this off season. Fabian Moreau will be trusted as the number one corner in a system that saw Quinton Dunbar, PFF’s 2nd graded cornerback in 2019, leave for pastures new.
The declining Josh Norman has also departed. He will be replaced by the returning Kendall Fuller who will man multiple spots if necessary, but grades out highest in the slot. The inconsistent Ronald Darby is another new signing who will likely play outside.
Haskins is “the guy” in D.C.
Offensively, Dwayne Haskins is embracing being “the guy” in D.C. Ron Rivera has brought in Kyle Allen to be a familiar and reliable backup from Carolina in case Haskins falters but early signs this off season sound promising that Haskins is working hard to ensure that is not the case.
Alex Smith looks to have completed a remarkable comeback from a horrific, career threatening leg injury and will compete with Allen for QB2 duties. Smith’s passion for the game and determination to make the team will provide invaluable experience within the QB room to both Haskins and Allen with regards to their development.
Rivera did appear unsure of Haskins at first but has assured the second year QB of his importance to the franchise and has complimented Haskins’ poise and leadership since his initial assessment. Rivera has pointed to Haskins’ performance last season in a comeback win against Detroit in interviews and the fact that Rivera took Chase Young over Tua Tagovailoa should further fortify Haskins’ confidence.
The Two Antonios to spearhead the Offense?
Haskins has reason to be excited thanks to the new toys from the draft he has been given to play with: the ‘Two Antonios’. Antonio Gibson is a fifth-round draft pick and a Swiss-army knife threat as a runner, returner and receiver and Antonio Gandy-Golden who could be a fourth-round steal out of Liberty with a pterodactyl-like wingspan.
Terry McLaurin and Kelvin Harmon would have been the perimeter receivers before Harmon tore his ACL early in camp. Dontrell Inman has been brought in as a replacement, but it is McLaurin who will be looking to build on a highly promising rookie season, with the under-the-radar talented Steven Sims being given the chance to man the slot.
Overall, youth and versatility are in abundance for Haskins and new Offensive Coordinator Scott Turner as they look to form an effective aerial attack.
Will protection breakdowns stifle Haskins in year 2?
Unfortunately, a massive weakness that could haunt Haskins is at tackle. Long-time franchise cornerstone Trent Williams has been traded to San Francisco for pennies on the dollar and fellow key lineman Brandon Scherff appears less-than content. He has been franchise tagged and it is likely that he will treat this as a ‘prove it’ year to earn a long-term contract either in Washington or elsewhere.
The best way for Scherff to do this may be to move to right tackle and replace the underwhelming Morgan Moses. Scherff was drafted at number 5 overall in 2015 originally to play the tackle position and appears to be looking for tackle money. This may be the best way for him to assert his case.
Wes Martin could replace Scherff at RG and Moses would remain as swing tackle. The center position is set in stone thanks to the highly competent Chase Roullier, who is also in a contract year. Wes Schweitzer has come from the Falcons and will likely play left guard.
An interesting camp battle could have formed on the blindside. Another steal in the draft for Rivera was Saahdiq Charles. Charles has had his off-field concerns but has the talent to become the left tackle of the future for Washington. However, Charles has picked up a calf injury in camp and it may mean that Geron Christian beats him to the spot due to a lack of reps. This is unless veteran Cornelius Lucas surprises everyone and steals the job. Whichever way it plays out, the position is a high-risk, high-reward question mark right now.
Washington a promising work in progress
Rivera’s Washington team are a work in progress and the home opener to Philly will be a yardstick as to where they stand. Can Haskins deliver? Is it conceivable for Alex Smith to play at some point if Haskins does struggle? Is Kyle Allen of the requisite standard if Smith cannot go?
Adrian Peterson is past his prime and has been cut, and legal issues have resulted in the same fate for injury-prone runner Derrius Guice. If Antonio Gibson can turn into Washington’s version of Christian McCaffrey (comparisons have been made by Rivera himself), then it will take some pressure off the young passer Haskins in his quest to be the franchise QB in D.C.
Unfortunately, that is a massive if as the running back is a rookie who has not seen any pre-season work in what is a unique year. Hopefully for the team they can also finally find out what they have in the explosive Bryce Love who missed his entire rookie year due to a torn ACL prior to the 2019 NFL Draft.
Ron Rivera will welcome his former team, the Carolina Panthers to FedExField in Week 16. It will be an emotional affair for Riverboat Ron but unfortunately it will come too late in the season for it to mean much other than premium draft position for both sides.
2021-22 will be the season where we start to see the true potential of the newly and appropriately named Washington Football Team.