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The 5 O'Clock Club: For the record, I’m all in for building a killer defense and starting a veteran quarterback

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

I posted an article recently in which I argued that the Redskins are poised to build a great defense if they re-sign a couple of veteran free agents and commit heavily to defense at the top of the draft.

I’ve had a bit of a personal epiphany — I’ve decided that it’s more realistic to win consistently by fielding a strong defense paired with a capable quarterback than it is to look for one golden boy (à la Aaron Rodgers) who can elevate the team to playoff contention year in and year out.

I plan to push this point of view all off season.

I very much want to have Kirk Cousins back (and I was encouraged by his comments in his recent media event) but I’m content to see the Redskins take the field in September with Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, AJ McCarron, Alex Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Ryan Tannehill under center IF Kirk leaves, as long as the defense is bolstered with excellent young talent at ILB, Safety and DL. I’d even understand it if the team had to open up week 1 with Colt McCoy under center — he knows the system and has a certain level of competence.

This ‘great defense, non-elite quarterback’ concept is by no means an innovative idea. I’ve heard the saying “Defense wins championships” since I was a boy, and lots of teams have had a lot of success by putting the burden on the defense to win games, allowing a quarterback who is merely good (not great) to do enough to win. We can look back to the ‘91 Redskins defense, who allowed the second-lowest points scored and had an +18 turnover ratio, giving quarterback Mark Rypien lots of chances to score points.

A more recent example would be the Minnesota Vikings, whose top ranked defense has allowed the Vikings to reach the playoffs despite starting a hobbled Sam Bradford early in the season, and career backup Case Keenum for the balance. The Houston Texans won a couple of AFC South titles with stifling defense and bad quarterback play in recent seasons.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are another team that has finally reached the playoffs behind their defense, with a quarterback in Blake Bortles that many fans and analysts feel is only a marginal NFL starter.

OverTheCap recently published an article that examined the Jaguars team-building strategy.

[T]here are two distinctly different styles of constructing a championship roster. The first roster construction strategy is the obvious one, investing in a top tier quarterback, which means over 10% of the cap, and thus creating, by default, a quarterback-centric roster due to the large investment. This is the most used strategy in the NFL with 15 teams with quarterbacks over 10% of this year’s $167 million salary cap.

The second strategy is to invest in a rookie contract quarterback and build a complete roster around him with the hopes that the rookie contract quarterback will perform at a reasonably efficient level to help guide that team to a Super Bowl.

So, OTC says there are basically two models of roster building under discussion.

The main blueprint that teams may be following for a quarterback-centric team model is the 2006 Colts team that had 10.36% invested in Peyton Manning, then 16.25% of the cap invested in their starting offensive line with 6.77% consumed by left tackle Tarik Glenn and 4.71% in right tackle Ryan Diem. This team also had 6.27%, 5.00%, and 3.39% invested in their top three receivers of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokley with the investment in the line and pass catchers intended to help the team win shoot outs with a sub-par defense.

To me, this sounds like the Redskins roster strategy since at least 2012. The team has invested more and more heavily at quarterback, and has invested heavily in the offensive line. From 2012 to 2016 the team invested heavily in the receiving corps, though that changed in 2017.

The blueprint [for] teams using the rookie contract strategy is the 2013 Seahawks who had just 4.49% of the cap invested in their quarterback position with 0.55% invested in second-year quarterback Russell Wilson and Matt Flynn consuming 3.25% of the cap with his dead money cap hit.

The key of that Seahawks team was their ability to run the football with an elite defense that excelled against the pass. With the savings at quarterback, as well as an elite cornerback group on rookie contracts consuming just 3.70% of the cap, they also invested heavily in their defensive line to the tune of a Super Bowl record 28.18% of the cap. With shut down defensive backs, this created a defense that gave up a league leading 172 passing yards per game and 4.8 net yards per pass attempt.

It feels like the Redskins, with the signing of Josh Norman in 2016 and a heavily defensive draft in 2017, have started moving in this direction.

Working under the premise that quarterback is the most important position on the field, the goal of these teams is to create a defense that decreases the opponent’s quarterback to the point where your “lesser” quarterback can outperform that elite quarterback you’re facing in the playoffs.

Because OTC is a website that writes about the salary cap, their focus is on the use of free agency to construct a roster rather than focusing on the draft.

I’d like to adapt the OTC thinking. But, instead of focusing on the dollars spent to build the defense, I’d like to focus on draft resources. What I mean is that the Redskins are in a position to finish building a top-10 defense this season by repeating the kind of draft strategy that they used a year ago, and I detailed my ideas on this in a recent article. This would be both effective on the field of play, and effective in terms of salary cap management.

Let me just repeat the key idea from the OTC article:

“The goal of these teams is to create a defense that decreases the opponent’s quarterback to the point where your “lesser” quarterback can outperform that elite quarterback you’re facing in the playoffs.”

But, really, doesn’t the Redskin defense kind of suck now?

The ‘Skins defense finished the year with a pretty low ranking. But the defense started out the year looking like a fast, ferocious, hard-hitting defense. The loss of Jon Allen for the season seemed to be the pivotal loss, but the team also saw Ioann Mann break his hand, Josh Norman break his ribs, and they sent two ILBs and Montae Nicholson to IR. Throw in Phil Taylor, Trent Murphy, Chris Carter, and Arthur Jones, and you can see that the team was just running out of warm bodies in the second half of the year.

Ziggy Hood, Martrell Spaight and Deshazor Everett were starting by the end of the season. Those are the three positions (DL, ILB, FS) that the Redskins need to draft for in order to improve the roster talent to take the next step.

Look at where the defense is now, and where it will remain if the team merely re-signs three of its current free agents (shown in parentheses):

Safety: DJ Swearinger, Montae Nicholson, Deshazor Everett (need a talented free safety as backup or starter)

Cornerback: Josh Norman, Kendall Fuller, Quinton Dunbar, Fabian Moreau (need a developmental backup)

OLB: Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith, (Junior Galette), (Trent Murphy), Ryan Anderson

ILB: (Zach Brown), Zach Vigil, Martrell Spaight, (need a starting ILB with speed & pass coverage skills)

DL: Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis, Stacey McGee, Anthony Lanier, Terrell McClain (need one starter-quality DL that can stuff the run)

** Su’a Cravens remains a wildcard who may be on the roster in 2018.

What I’m suggesting is that 19 key players from the Redskins 2017 defense need to return in 2018, and the team needs to draft four defensive players in the first 5 rounds:

  • starters needed: ILB, DL
  • developmental backups needed: CB, FS

This still leaves room for a couple of players who primarily get special teams snaps — guys like JH-C and Josh Holsey.

More talent than reputation on the defense

Honestly, although there’s not a lot of ‘name value’ on that Redskin defensive roster beyond Josh Norman, the fact is, there’s actually a lot of talent. With the additions of Allen, Brown and Swearinger last year the Redskins became a faster, stronger defense, and with coaching changes the defense appears to be more motivated and disciplined.

Washington, with Norman, Fuller, Dunbar and perhaps Moreau, has a top flight set of cornerbacks that can defend against any set of receivers in the league.

The pass rush, with Kerrigan, Smith, Galette and Murphy might be short on national name recognition, but strong on results.

The key remaining weakness in this defense can be fixed with the addition of two top flight players — an inside linebacker to pair with Zach Brown (hello Roquan Smith), and a talented defensive lineman.

I’m thinking that the Redskins use two of the top three draft picks to get these players, and I believe that it will have impressive results.

Shouldn’t we go quarterback in the first round?

1. First of all, I’m hoping that the Redskins re-sign Kirk Cousins.

If he is re-signed, then using draft picks to build the defense is an even higher priority, since the defense needs to be improved, and the draft helps get talented players without using a lot of cap room. The team will probably eat a lot of cap space if they sign Kirk to a long-term deal.

2. If the team doesn’t re-sign Cousins, shouldn’t they draft a QB in the 1st round?

If the Redskins were far from contention (see: Redskins, 2012) then I might sign onto this way of thinking, but the Redskins actually have a pretty strong roster with good depth right now. Drafting a rookie quarterback means starting over, or — at the very least — probably writing off at least one year of competing for a playoff spot. Sure, an NFL team occasionally hits on a guy who wins in year one (Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson), but the odds are long against that.

Meanwhile, identifying and drafting an impact linebacker at the 13th pick is a much surer bet.

Finishing the work of building a top-10 defense is a surer route to success, and will allow the team to continue to improve the roster year-by-year for the next several years.

3. The team needs to take advantage of, and reward, a number of players who are approaching 30 years of age (in other words, they need to ‘win now’)

I’m thinking of the key positions of LT, OLB and CB where the Redskins feature Trent Williams (29), Ryan Kerrigan (29), and Josh Norman (30).

Along with the quarterback, these three positions make up the key players the team has to have to win. The Redskins might be able to keep the band together until 2020, but probably not beyond that. This means that the Redskins need to get to the playoffs in the next three seasons to make the investment in these three players pay off.

Drafting and starting a rookie signal caller isn’t consistent with that. A strong defense allows the team to move forward with a veteran free agent, competing for division titles along the way; something a draft pick isn’t likely to achieve immediately.

4. If Gruden doesn’t win & survive next season, a strong defense gives a new head coach something to lean on in 2019, while a newly drafted quarterback would mean a full reset for the franchise, and a new ‘five year plan’.

5. This plan will help set up the defense to be replenished by the draft year after year going into the future.

The Redskins currently have a pretty good (not perfect) succession plan in place for most key defensive positions. This year’s cornerback situation — extending Quinton Dunbar while apparently letting Breeland walk — is an example of the kind of long-term roster planning that is possible when the team relies on the draft instead of free agency for its supply of new players. The Redskins added a ‘generation’ of new players to the defense last season; adding another generation this season will solidify the youth & strength of the defense, and improve the succession planning for the future.

What about the offensive needs?

The Redskin offense is actually fairly young and fairly complete. The holes on offense can be filled primarily in free agency, and for the most part — fairly cheaply.

OL -- The team probably has enough players already to put a good offensive line on the field, but a free agent Left Guard could be signed to improve the unit, and it shouldn’t cost a ton of cap space.

TE - The team needs to look beyond 2018, and needs protection against continued Jordan Reed injuries. A free agent TE who can block and catch passes as a backup would, again, not kill the cap. This guy needs to be a strong special teams contributor to justify using a 4th roster spot on the position group.

RB - As Gruden said recently, the Redskins have “about 30” running backs on the roster, yet they don’t have the ‘bell cow’ back that could really improve the running game. A player like Isaiah Crowell, for example, could dramatically improve the running game. Alternatively, the Redskins could probably find a RB in the 2nd or 3rd round of the draft who could come in and compete for the starting job.

WR - Clearly, the weakest position group on the Redskins team is at wide receiver. Drafting an early-round receiver is nearly as much of a crap-shoot as drafting a quarterback. The Skins — if they want to meaningfully improve the receiver corps — probably need to add a veteran free agent. This is the only position that is likely to really take a bite out of the salary cap. Jarvis Landry — whom the Dolphins can’t afford to pay — has been frequently mentioned on Hogs Haven, but other possibilities include the Redksins own Terrelle Pryor & Brian Quick, as well as Sammy Watkins, Dontrelle Inman, Kamar Aiken, Kendall Wright, Albert Wilson, Charles Johnson, Jaron Brown, Cody Latimer or John Brown. And that’s not even a comprehensive list of possibilities. Obviously, some of these players will stay with their current team, but somebody will be available.

So, what’s the plan, again?

Let’s take the focus off of the quarterback for a moment. Kirk will be here, or someone else will be here.

Either way, I propose that the Redskins should focus on finishing what they started last year, and create a top-10 defense by focusing on that side of the ball in the first 5 rounds of the draft.

The offense needs attention, too, but I think that the Skins can get by with only one early draft pick on offense together with three or four key free agent offensive signings.

With a dominant defense, anything is possible.


What is your preference for the Redskins’ first round pick this year?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    (51 votes)
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  • 33%
    (286 votes)
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844 votes total Vote Now

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