As the old saying goes, the Washington Football Team has one foot in the penthouse and the other in the outhouse. Their defense ranked third in the NFL in the 2020 season, according to Football Outsiders. With Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young spearheading one of the NFL’s most fearsome pass rushes, it’s easy to imagine the Washington Football Team leaping to Super Bowl contention during the 2021 offseason if they replace Alex Smith with a QB who wasn’t reconstructed from post-consumer recyclables.
Winning the NFC East left Washington with the 19th overall draft pick, likely placing them out of range of the Trevor Lawrence/Justin Fields/Zach Wilson class of prospects. And even if they pull off a blockbuster to acquire a veteran or move up in the draft, Washington still must upgrade one of the NFL’s weakest skill-position corps. Worst of all, there are no guarantees that Washington’s defense will remain among the league’s best in 2021.
Put it all together, and upgrading Washington is much harder than it may look. But darn it, we’re gonna try.
Washington Offseason 2021: The perils of building around a great defense
Washington cannot simply continue down their current roster development path. Building an outstanding defense and hoping that the offense will figure something out each year is a great way to become the Chicago Bears at best and the Denver Broncos at worst.
Defensive success varies from year to year much more widely than offense does. This is because no one defensive player has as much on-field impact as even an “ordinary” veteran quarterback. Keeping a top-10 offense intact often boils down to paying the QB, hoping there’s money for the supporting cast.
Keeping a top-10 defense intact means paying players at several key positions and hoping that the shutdown cornerback doesn’t decline suddenly after a handful of dominant seasons (they often do), the mammoth defensive tackle doesn’t quickly wear down (again, they often do), and the edge rusher isn’t consigned to a life of constant double-teams (see J.J. Watt).
How good is the Washington defense, and how might the defensive roster change?
What looks like an outstanding defense also sometimes turns out to merely be a pretty good defense that faced more than its share of weak opponents.
The NFC East was almost historically terrible last year. Washington also faced some down-and-out opponents like the Cincinnati Bengals in 2020. In fairness, their defense looked solid against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks. The Washington defense is certainly solid and loaded with young players, but it’s not the 1985 Bears or the Legion of Boom.
Assuming their Young/Montez Sweat-led defense really was as good as advertised in 2020, Washington still has some decisions to make during the 2021 offseason.
Cornerback Ronald Darby is a free agent coming off a solid season, but Darby battled injuries and inconsistency over his previous three seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. Darby also had a rough playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s a high-risk option for a long-term deal, but the Washington secondary will be depleted without him.
Kendall Fuller and Jimmy Moreland looked pretty good for most of last season, but coverage is much easier when Andy Dalton and The Ghost of Carson Wentz are running for their lives.
Dak Prescott alone is likely to make Washington’s defense look slightly weaker in 2021 than it did last year. That said, it’s a unit that should hold the average offense around 20 points per game. Now, Washington must figure out a way to score more than 20 points per game.
QB solutions for the Washington Football Team
Let’s explore the ups and downs of two possible Washington Football Team QB plans — the Splashy Splurge and the Game Manager Gambit.
The Splashy Splurge
Washington bundles whatever it can to move up about 10-12 spots in the draft to select a top rookie prospect, or the team enters the Disgruntled Veteran Sweepstakes in search of whichever big-name superstar (Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger) allegedly has a case of the feels this week.
If Washington pursues a veteran, they almost certainly bid farewell to Comeback Player of the Year Alex Smith, clearing about $15 million in cap space. If they pursue a rookie, Smith probably sticks around to lean on a cane and dispense advice and inspirational wisdom.
Pros of the Splashy Splurge:
- Washington would be prohibitive favorites to win the NFC East and likely Super Bowl contenders if they acquired a top-tier veteran.
- The acquisition of some second-tier top prospects like North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance or Florida’s Kyle Trask could potentially solve the franchise’s quarterback problems for the next decade. A rookie could enjoy some early success managing victories by 16-13 final scores.
Cons of the Splashy Splurge:
- The Disgruntled Veteran Sweepstakes probably isn’t actually a real thing.
- Washington doesn’t have many tradable commodities to throw around. If teams start stacking chips for a Deshaun Watson trade (or to convince the Cincinnati Bengals or Los Angeles Chargers to trade down), Washington doesn’t have much to stack.
- If they do trade a bouquet of first-rounders for a quarterback, Washington will be left with few options for upgrading their meager receiving corps. That could stymie a rookie’s development or convince any veteran they are pursuing to use his leverage to nix a trade before it happens.
The Game Manager Gambit
Washington keeps RoboSmith and re-signed playoff try-hard Taylor Heinicke, then searches for a third option on the aftermarket. Perhaps they trade for Marcus Mariota, add a journeyman like Jacoby Brissett or Nick Mullens, or reach deeper into the draft pool for someone like Wake Forest-and-theoretically-Georgia’s Jamie Newman.
Pros of the Game Manager Gambit:
- Washington can win the NFC East again with a three-headed quarterback rotation. Heck, they could win it in 2021 with Antonio Gibson in the Wildcat on every snap. The Eagles are a catastrophe, the Giants are spinning their wheels, and the Cowboys remain much more dangerous to themselves than others.
- Seeking affordable quarterback solutions will allow Washington to spend their draft picks and cap space at the skill positions.
- Washington could still find a long-term quarterback solution this way by resurrecting the career of someone like Mariota or Jameis Winston or unearthing an overlooked prospect.
Cons of the Game Manager Gambit
- I mean, the possibility of Taylor Heinicke starting is baked right into this plan.
There’s one middle-ground possibility worth exploring: Teddy Bridgewater, who is more than a game manager but is not particularly splashy. Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule sounds eager to trade Bridgewater so he can acquire “his guy.”
Washington vice president of player personnel Marty Hurney was in the Panthers’ front office last year. Everyone knows each other’s phone numbers. Bridgewater is basically a younger Alex Smith, right down to the injury history that sounds like a superhero origin story. A modest trade for Bridgewater would be a fine solution for Washington. He’d be a reliable veteran who is relatively easy on the budget and still has some upside.
It almost makes too much sense to happen.
Three free agents who can QB-proof the Washington Football Team’s offense
None of the quarterback solutions listed above is optimal. That’s why Washington’s top priority in the 2021 offseason should be QB-proofing their offense. They need to build an offense with so much skill-position talent that even a Heinicke can operate it effectively. That will put them in position to compete in 2021 while possibly nurturing a mid-tier prospect, rehabilitating a young veteran, or just making sure no more Mortal Kombat stuff happens to Smith.
Washington possesses about $39 million in paper cap space entering the 2021 offseason. Some of that will be earmarked for guard Brandon Scherff and possibly Darby. Yet, Washington also has a few ways of freeing up a few more bucks without cutting Smith. So, they can be active in free agency. The trick will be acquiring players who can help inexperienced, beaten-up, or generally terrible quarterbacks look better.
And we aren’t gonna rope Allen Robinson into this; he’s served his time in Hell.
Curtis Samuel, WR
Samuel played for head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner in Carolina, of course. Rhule’s Panthers used Samuel as a slot receiver/running back last year, allowing him to exploit mismatches when running routes out of the backfield. Samuel and Gibson could line up all over the formation catching swing passes and shallow drags, allowing their quarterback to feast off the YAC they provide.
To borrow a phrase from the Tennessee Titans of the late 2010s, it wouldn’t be dink-and-dunk — it would be EXOTIC dink-and-dunk.
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR/KR
Why not double down on the all-purpose rusher/receivers? Patterson is also the best kickoff returner in the NFL. Every team with a great defense and scuffling offense can use someone to bring a return past midfield every once in a while. Patterson is also a relatively affordable upgrade.
Imagine Patterson, Samuel, and Gibson bunched on the left side of the field; the opposing defense will be so worried about receiver-screen tomfoolery that Terry McLaurin will enjoy single coverage on the right side!
Hunter Henry, TE
Henry will cost beaucoup bucks on the free-agent market, and incumbent Washington tight end Logan Thomas is pretty good. However, settling for “pretty good” on offense is a great way to both waste a fine defense and hinder a young quarterback’s progress.
Washington used 12 personnel on just 16% of offensive snaps in 2020 (per Sharp Football), one of the lowest rates in the league. If they increase the frequency of their double-TE sets, they can improve their pass protection and be less predictable on offense. Imagine Washington’s offense with more play-action and rollouts and with Henry and Thomas working underneath.
It may not look like the Greatest Show on Turf. Yet, it could sustain drives, making life easier for both the quarterback and defense.
Washington must build for the long haul
Last year’s fluky playoff appearance cannot fool Rivera and the Washington franchise. Unless they pull a heist for someone like Watson, the Washington Football Team is still two years and a legitimate QB away from being Super Bowl contenders. The 2021 offseason should be about adding pieces. This is why bundling draft picks in pursuit of a quarterback could leave Washington treading water in an all-too-familiar way.
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The bad news in Washington is that the Football Team was too successful for its own good in 2020. The good news is that the franchise appears to be completely run by Rivera and his staff of professionals, not owner Dan Snyder and whomever he authorized to use the corporate credit card.
Rivera knows what he has and doesn’t have right now. Washington can have a successful offseason by avoiding quick fixes and bidding wars, even if that means not finding an obvious long-term quarterback solution.
Washington can afford to take their time. After all, the NFC East will probably still stink come 2022.
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