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Is the Redskins’ offensive line really that big a concern in 2020?

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Detroit Lions v Washington Redskins Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Last year, before the season began and when it was clear that Trent Williams would be out for at least several weeks, there was a tremendous amount of hand wringing about how terrible the team’s offensive line was going to be. How could (former Pro Bowler) Donald Penn be any good now that he was 36? How could the “terrible” Ereck Flowers salvage his career and become a solid option at guard? For some, these proved intractable questions. For others - those who took a deep breath, stepped back and looked at the possibilities - the future appeared less disconcerting.

Looking back, Penn stayed healthy, playing in all 16 games and starting 15 of them. Flowers played so well that the Dolphins gave him a 3-year $30M deal after the season. And - even without it’s best offensive lineman - the Redskins offensive line finished in the top half of the league, number 13, in offensive line rankings during the 2019 season. Was there room for improvement? Of course, though Dwayne Haskins’ early tendency to hold onto the ball a bit too long didn’t help their apparent performance. But, as the season wore on, he improved there as well. The primary point is, the offensive line wasn’t anywhere near the disaster that many were predicting it to be before the season began.

That doesn’t seem to have slowed the folks who were badly mistaken last year from holding forth and predicting collapse once again this year. According to some, besides Chase Roullier, there is no one on the line who can be counted on in 2020 (I assume the notion is that if Brandon Scherff can’t be signed to a long-term deal, there’s a belief he would be traded before the season). To me, that perspective neglects a great deal of information that actually points to the possibility that the Redskins’ line could even be better in 2020 than it was last year.

NFL: DEC 24 Broncos at Redskins

The Sure Things

Center, Chase Roullier, is in the fourth year of his rookie deal, and has been an amazing value for the team since his selection in the 6th round of the 2017 draft. He has started 30 games for the team over the past two years and has just been steady and reliable. There’s no reason to expect anything but more of the same in 2020. Put Roullier down in sharpie.

Brandon Scherff and the Redskins have been going back and forth over contract terms for at least the past year, in the lead up to him playing 2019 under the 5th year option of his rookie deal. Just this off-season, the Redskins franchise tagged Scherff in the hopes of working out a long-term deal with him in advance of the July deadline. In the meantime, Scherff continues to say all the right things:

“I want to sign a long-term deal with them, too. I love it there, and I’ve always said I wanted to be a Redskin for the rest of my career,” Scherff said. “So, hopefully we can work towards that.”

Regardless of the contract talk outcomes, it seems virtually certain that Scherff will be playing right guard for the Redskins in 2020. And, that situation could hardly be any better. Scherff - a three time Pro Bowler - was the Redskins’ highest rated offensive lineman last year, even after wrapping up his season a bit early to have shoulder surgery in December.

Scherff should come back fully healed up and ready to roll as the 2020 season begins, either playing under a new, long term contract, or entering a “prove it” year under the franchise tag.

Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Redskins Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Highly Likely

Right tackle, Morgan Moses, has become something of a lightning rod in Redskins’ circles over the course of the past couple of years. A year after a stellar 2016, Moses was signed to a 5-year deal taking him through 2022 at an average value of $7.7M/year. Moses has, impressively, started all 16 games for the Redskins for the last 5 years straight, even though he’s been playing through injury at times. He’s had repeated issues with his ankles, having surgery after the 2018 season.

Moses also seemed to take Trent Williams’ absence from the locker room particularly personally last year. With additional time to recuperate this offseason and with the Williams’ situation resolved, there’s hope that Moses can once again turn his attention to being a reliable protector for the team’s young signal caller.

Might Moses face some competition at right tackle in the pre-season? Nominally, I think that’s quite possible. In reality though, a healthy Moses, with his extensive NFL experience, has got to remain the odds-on favorite to start the season bookending the line next to Scherff.

Detroit Lions v Washington Redskins Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Let the Competition Begin

The left side of the line is far less certain at this point, and I think many fans equate that uncertainty about who will start with certainty that whoever does will be terrible. I’m excited by the possibilities. I see it as an opportunity for growth and improvement.

Left Guard

At the left guard position, my sense is that Wes Martin, who filled in for Scherff at RG after his injury last year, is the odds-on favorite. Martin was a sneaky solid pick by the Redskins in the 4th round of the 2019 draft, and was one of the best guards in the country in 2017. By no means do I think he’ll be handed the position, but he’s essentially in competition with a couple of free agent guards, Wes Schweitzer and Jeremy Vujnovich, this offseason. Their respective PFF grades for 2019 are below:

Wes Martin: 51.6 (9 games played; 5 starts at right guard)

Wes Schweitzer: 56.4 (15 games played; 7 starts at left guard)

Jeremy Vujnovich: N/A (No games played in 2019; 5 games played, 2 started in 2018).

While Schweitzer graded out a bit more favorably than Martin in 2019, he also had considerably more playing time. Entering his 4th year in the league, we’ve also likely seen his ceiling, which was described by Falcons’ fans earlier this year as “a good backup that can start in a pinch.” That sounds to me like a good depth signing, but a guy who could be very vulnerable to a promising young riser with a much higher ceiling.

My suspicion is the Wes’s battle it out in training camp, with Martin taking the starting role, and Schweitzer potentially making the roster as depth. Vujnovich is likely a camp body, unlikely to remain after cutdowns, unless injury strikes.

Left Tackle

Here’s where things get interesting. Not having to worry about the position for most of the decade leading up to 2019, the absence of Trent Williams - for some very legitimate reasons - has been at the root of much of the consternation about the Redskins’ offensive line for the past two years. Though Penn performed ably last year, we can safely assume - that at least for the games he would have been healthy - Williams would have been a better blindside protector for Haskins last year. Now, without Penn or Williams, the absence of clarity at left tackle is enough to instill a sense of dread in the minds of many fans. My contention: Things are actually looking up.

The Redskins’ most experienced option at the position is free agent Cornelius Lucas, signed to a 2-year, $3.8M deal in the offseason. Here’s how Lucas stacked up (per PFF) against our starting tackles last season:

Morgan Moses: 65.2 (16 games played; 16 started at right tackle)

Donald Penn: 64.1 (16 games played; 15 started at left tackle)

Cornelius Lucas: 72.2 (16 games played; 8 starts at right tackle)

So, Lucas outplayed - in something of a relief role - both of our starting tackles last year. That’s consistent with the assessment from one of the Bears’ beat reporters earlier this year:

“While he wasn’t fantastic, he was pretty good,” Biggs concedes. “He put together some decent tape and I think you felt by the end of the season that Lucas was a guy that took that a minimum salary one-year deal and earned himself some money in free-agency.”

That sounds a lot like Ty Nsekhe before he got his deal with the Bills. Is Lucas the long-term solution at left tackle? Almost certainly not, but that’s ok, there are a host of other options that could be (and that could put pressure on Moses at the RT spot). Those include:

Saahdiq Charles: Taken in the 4th round of this years draft - Charles ranges from first round to third round on the talent scale, depending on whom you’re talking with - only falling into the 4th as a result of some lingering character concerns. Charles is quite young - he’ll be 21 when the season begins - having left college as a junior. He also possesses the capacity to play either guard or tackle in the NFL. There’s certainly a chance he could be the Redskins’ starting left guard at some point during the 2020 season, but he would be well-served by getting any time that he can to continue to hone his craft.

Geron Christian: Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2018 draft, Christian is entering his third season, having only played in 16 games and started 2. When he was taken, it was well established that - while promising - he was going to need a year or two to improve his upper body strength in order to be successful in the pros. Recognized as a great athlete with very poor technique, there remains some hope that with two years under Bill Callahan and an offseason with John Matsko, Christian is prepared - at a minimum - to compete for the swing tackle role, if not the starting left tackle position.

Timon Parris: Parris was an undrafted free agent out of Stonybrook picked up in 2018. He spent most of the past two years on the Redskins practice squad, though he was actually elevated to the 53-man roster late last season after the Colts attempted to poach him. Parris broke his right leg in 2017, hurting his draft stock in 2018, but was well-regarded enough to get an invite to the Senior Bowl. Parris can play either guard or tackle, and it seems like he’ll absolutely get a shot to make the 53 man roster in 2020.

Washington Redskins v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Depth Options

In the 5th round of both the 2019 and 2020 drafts the Redskins took interior offensive line depth, selecting Ross Pierschbacher and Keith Ismael, respectively. Both players offer guard/center versatility. Pierschbacher only played in 5 games last year, exclusively taking snaps on special teams. I expect both players to serve as swing guard/center depth this year, with the possibility of competing for a starting role in 2021.

Final Thoughts

Between free agents, recent draft picks, and depth groomed over the past couple of years, I actually think the Redskins are in a very solid position at offensive line going into the 2020 season. Would I object to signing Jason Peters to a one year deal? Maybe, but primarily because it would mean we could be putting young talent at risk by placing them on the practice squad.

Currently, if the starting 5 are Lucas, Martin, Roullier, Scherff, and Moses, with the expanded roster in 2020, that leaves perhaps 5 more spaces for OL depth. Let’s say those spots are occupied by Charles, Christian, Parris, Pierschbacher, and Ismael. That leaves off Schweitzer, who I think could make the team. Add Peters to that mix and who else are we demoting?

Much has recently been made of the Redskins’ youth, and the reality is that the anticipated transformation of that youth from potential into performance is hardly more evident than on the Redskins’ offensive line. Prepare to enjoy the fruits of that patience in 2020.