Former Redskins Defensive coordinator Joe Barry was relieved of his duties at the end of the season by head coach Jay Gruden and GM Scot McCloughan. The Redskins are now in the middle of the arduous task of replacing the underwhelming Barry. So many names have popped up over the last two week. Some are older, more proven candidates, while others are young, energetic, in-your-face types.
No no matter who the hire is, the biggest question on the minds of many fans, is will, or should the Redskins go back to a 4-3 base defense, and who will we bring in this offseason to fill positions of need. These specific topics have been debated on HogsHaven for the last two months. Now that change is inevitable, the fan base gets a real chance to dream of "what if".
Tearing down the walls:
No matter who the hire, or what scheme they bring in, the Redskins need to start fresh on defense. Unlike the offense, the defense has very few young core players to build around. Outside linebacker/defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, Bashaud Breeland, Josh Norman(although he's 29) Su'a Cravens and Kendall Fuller are the guys you could begin your re-build around. Cravens and Fuller are still unproven talents, and Breeland is set to become a free agent in 2018, and coming off a down year, his future is up in the air. We do have some young defensive ends in Trent Murphy and Preston Smith who have shown some potential, but the former has been bounced around a bit in his time in Washington, while the latter is streaky to say the least.
Chris Baker is a player who is set to become a free agent this year. He's not a spring chicken, but he is the best interior defensive linemen we have. Re-signing him should be a priority, but I would not consider him a building block for the future. Aside from Baker, it's tough to make a case to bring back anyone else. Fellow defense tackles Ziggy Hood and Cullen Jenkins did not play well in 2016, and should not be re-signed. Safeties Duke Ihenacho, Will Blackmon and Donte Whitner were awful, and should be free to explore other options. Then you have restricted free agent Will Compton. Now, this is a tough one, but I would like to see him tendered for depth. It's clear he's not a starting inside linebacker in the NFL, but he may have to remain for another season, as the options may be limited.
Counting the players who will be expected starters in 2017, we have six(this is not including Baker or Compton). So, it can be argued that we need five new starters on defense in 2017. I will put the numbers at two new defensive tackles, two new linebackers, and a new starting free safety...at minimum.
Building a new identity:
There is no doubt for a unit with no identity, a new one absolutely needs to be built. Where to start, and what type of focus to put on each group, is the question. In my opinion, everything starts in the trenches. My immediate focus would be to improve the defensive line. The problem is, will we be a 3-4 front, requiring a true nose tackle, or will it be an even front with more slashing, penetrating linemen. Re-signing Baker would be a great start, as he can play in any scheme. After that is done, there are some very interesting free agents on the market who can help immediately. At a minimum, one impact free agent defensive tackle should be brought in. Focus then should turn to the draft, so we can get a young, impact defender to develop and build around for the future.
At linebacker, we have another dilemma. Compton and Mason Foster showed they are below-average NFL starters. If both return, it should be as reserves. Foster is entering the final year of a two-tear deal he signed in 2016, and his dead money is just $175K, so cutting him prior to the start of the season won't be an issue. The key here is, where do we go to re-build this unit? The draft has some very intriguing options, and hopefully we are able to address at least one spot in the first two rounds. Free agency is a bit weak, but there are a few plug-and-play guys who can help improve the unit. Again, scheme will dictate a lot of what we do, so we need to keep a close eye on our new hire at DC.
Safety can be a key factor in helping to build the identity of a defense. We need an enforcer and a safety net on the back end. We had neither last season, and we paid dearly for that. This has to be a top priority of GM Scot McCloughan's this offseason.
3-4 or 4-3:
Ah...the question that is on everyone's mind.
It is my opinion that we have better core players to fit into a 4-3 defense. Even since Mike Shanahan brought the 3-4 defense in, I thought it was a mistake. We never had a true nose tackle, pure 3-4 outside linebackers, or middle linebackers capable of playing sideline-to-sideline and in coverage. What we do have is three former outstanding college 7-technique defensive ends - Kerrigan, Murphy and Smith. At least two of these players are seen as guys we can build around, so the 4-3 makes some sense for them.
As for defensive tackle, I will argue, especially as we are seeing college defensive linemen getting smaller and faster, that it is easier to find 4-3 linemen than it is 3-4. Also, 4-3 defensive linemen tend to be more versatile, usually being capable of playing all three downs, versus the bigger "space eaters" often seen in a 3-4 who need to be subbed out on passing downs. If we are building around just one potential defensive linemen(Baker), I would rather see us move to an even front and take advantage of quickness over pure mass.
At inside linebacker, we need a complete overhaul of the unit regardless of what defensive scheme we employ. The linebackers we will see early in the 2017 NFL draft are pretty scheme diverse, with the exception of Cunningham, so it wouldn't make a huge difference on selection. What could be interesting however, is what to do with Su'a Cravens. He tweeted out towards the end of the season that he will be making the move to safety next year. If we do go to a base 4-3, I think he's a perfect fit as a 4-3 WILL backer. I could even live with Compton another year as our MIKE if we drafted a kid like Foster(Alabama) or McMillian(Ohio St.) to play along side him, and opposite Cravens. Regardless, this unit needs an infusion of talent, and hopefully one player can be a drafted young difference maker we can build around for the future.
On the back end, we need desperate help at safety. If Cravens is moved to SS, we absolutely need a true free safety to play deep. Hall has hinted he wants to return, and if heathy, he could be a factor on the back end, but he's not a player you build around. The Redskins have not had a true free safety since Sean Taylor(who played both safety positions), so one is desperately needed. As for scheme, in a 4-3, I am a fan of an agressive man-under Robber scheme. To play this defense you MUST have a free safety with great instincts and range. I would love to see us make a run at Malik Hooker from Ohio St. in the first round of the NFL draft. Hooker possesses the size, athleticism and instincts to play the position at a very high level. Another interesting prospect is LSU's Jamal Adams. Adams is know as a viscous hitter, but he can play both as a single high, and box safety, and his diversity would be a welcome addition to any defense. Another suggestion I made is transitioning the 6'2" 203 pound Quinton Dunbar to safety. His size, speed and ball skills could be a great asset on the back end.
So, as you can see, this defense needs a lot of help this offseason. It will be up to Jay Gruden and Scot McCloughan to make a great defensive coordinator hire, then give this man the pieces he needs to make this defense respectable once again. I know changes don't happen overnight, but for a team with an offense ready to compete right now, the defense can't catch up soon enough!