These questions were put to the folks over at Football Outsiders a few weeks ago. We appreciate the work they do and I encourage anyone interested in learning more about the different kinds of products they put out to visit here.
Hogs Haven: The Redskins offensive red zone efficiency in 2016 was...subpar. How much of a positive impact should Redskins fans expect to see there based on the substantially larger wide receivers Washington will be deploying this season?
FO: Terrelle Pryor should have an impact, though it is hard to tell from last year’s Browns totals because the team was almost never in goal-to-go situations. I wouldn’t look to the size of the receivers as a major variable in the team’s red zone and goal-to-go performance. I would instead look to: a) consistency at running back, where the subtraction of Matt Jones is a natural addition; b) the health of Jordan Reed, which is always a worry; and c) Kirk Cousins finally learning not to try to force hero throws over the middle in goal line situations.
Hogs Haven: Trent Williams, Washington’s starting left tackle, has praised new defensive line coach Jim Tomsula for the way he is coaching up the defensive linemen. What is a realistic expectation for the performance of this defensive line group in 2017 (basically three-out-of-three new starters), and how much can be reasonably expected of them?
FO: The Redskins finished 26th in Power Success and 25th in Stuffed Rank last year. Translation: they were pretty soft in short yardage situations and didn’t make a lot of rushing tackles in the backfield. I think part of that was schematic, and part of it was the personnel at inside linebacker. But upgrades on the defensive line should result in more stout run defense. And I think that added depth will be a big factor. In a two-gap scheme, you have to rotate those linemen, especially when teams like the Cowboys are trying to run the ball on you 40 times per game.
Hogs Haven: The Redskins have not been exceptionally strong at safety since...well, since Sean Taylor. What does D.J. Swearinger do that will start to turn that around, and will the raw second-year Su’a Cravens at safety do enough to complement that or will the growing pains cost Washington games?
FO: I hope we see Cravens healthy this year. Ideally, he’s your nickel safety in the box, someone who can cover the Witten/Ertz types without sacrificing run defense (and screen defense against the Eagles). Swearinger is a quality all-around pro. You get that immediate upgrade over Donte Whitner, who was a pure liability in man coverage last year. I would like to see Greg Manusky find a pure deep safety, whether it’s a youngster or Zombie D’Angelo Hall, so that they can keep Cravens in the box even if they are going to a two-deep shell in nickel or dime personnel.
In summary, I don’t worry much about growing pains because I think there were more “growing pains” last year, with Whitner, few good options in the nickel-dime and of course Norman starting the season on one half of the field. What the Redskins have isn’t the Legion of Boom, but it’s solid enough and should be fine coming out of the gate.
Hogs Haven: Some in the Redskins fanbase can’t shake the notion that, while Zach Brown represents an upgrade in the middle of Washington’s defense, it is troubling he didn’t get picked up by someone else for a bigger contract. Is there any underlying statistical explanation for why he failed to do better than the short-term deal he got from the Redskins late into free agency? Is it fair to suggest he stands to be an above average performer for the Redskins, and further, that he could be one of the key answers to the team’s extraordinary inability to get off the field on third downs last year?
FO: Brown should be a significant upgrade. Fans may be overthinking things a bit. As a 3-4 inside backer, he doesn’t fit some systems and plays a position that most teams try to fill via the draft inexpensively. That made his market value relatively low.
Hogs Haven: I can’t let you go without a Kirk Cousins question. Assuming he continues to improve as a pro, in what key areas do you see him improving this season? Put differently, in what statistical categories do you think he can improve that would elevate him even further up the ranking of active quarterbacks in the league?
FO: His red zone performance needs to improve.
But to come at this from another angle … Cousins needs to demonstrate some EXCEPTIONAL quality. I think he’s shown that he is a B or B-plus quarterback in many categories, from arm and accuracy to decision making and mobility. I don’t see any real on-the-field A-plus characteristics, and I don’t think the team sees them either, hence the contractual hemming and hawing.
If you look at the current weapons and strength of the offensive line, you should see an offense that only needs a little bit of “elevation” by the quarterback to have a season like the Falcons had last year on offense. Cousins needs to have that elevation year which results in the Skins dropping 38 points on opponents week after week. If he doesn’t have that year, well, he has a ton to offer as a starter. But I think the 49ers will be much more eager to pay for what he offers than the Skins will.