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Assessing PFF’s 2020 season preview of the Burgundy & Gold

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New York Giants v Washington Redskins Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Players are arriving for camp and it’s the time of year when season preview articles abound. Pro Football Focus recently published their assessment of the 32 NFL teams and their outlooks for 2020. I thought I’d take a few minutes to assess what PFF had to say about the The Washington Football Team.

Quarterback

Probably more than any other national media outlet, I have found PFF this off-season to be surprisingly bullish on Dwayne Haskins. Like many Washington fans, myself included, PFF has focused on the things that Haskins did well as a rookie, and the growth he showed as the 2019 season progressed, discounting some of his struggles that most other national commentators have focused on.

[In 2019] He did a nice job of taking care of the ball, ranking among the league leaders in avoiding turnover-worthy plays, and he was on the wrong end of some bad luck on multiple interceptions. Haskins must improve pocket presence, though, as he took too many sacks — many of which could have been avoided. While he performed better than expected on plays outside the pocket, Haskins will take the next step when he cleans up his work in more classic dropback situations.

2020 will be a crucial year in his development. He must show the same short and intermediate accuracy that made him a first-round pick last season.

The new coaching staff will be eager for him to play a tick faster, and they’ll no doubt be looking to find another playmaker for Haskins to trust outside of his former college teammate and future star, wide receiver Terry McLaurin.

No consideration was given to any other QB on the roster. Remember in late May when the team traded a 5th round pick for Kyle Allen? There was a lot of speculation and concern that the coaching staff could go with Allen over Haskins. We haven’t heard that in the past six weeks or so... just a lot of talk about how much work Dwayne has put in this off-season. And then a few days ago, a spate of articles and comments cropped up in the national media in the wake of the announcement that Alex Smith’s surgical team had cleared him for football activities; he could, many of them said, challenge for the starting QB spot this season. The local beat reporters tamped that down quickly.

This will be the Dwayne Haskins show unless he gets injured or proves that he can’t handle the job. Haskins is both the present and the future of the franchise. Kyle Allen is here to be a backup, and Alex Smith is here to complete his own journey and help mentor the young guys. My impression is that Steven Montez is just here for a cup of coffee.

I think Dwayne is going to have a good year for himself, setting the franchise up to surround him with talent next off-season.

Running back

Here’s what PFF had to say:

The situation at running back will be determined by how much Adrian Peterson has left at age 35. He carried a heavy workload last season, totaling 211 carries and earning a 69.7 rushing grade to go along with a 4.3 yards per carry average. He’s still an effective runner, but he’s not the same dynamic big-play threat that he was earlier in his career.

Former second-rounder Derrius Guice showed the flashes that made him a home-run threat coming out of LSU, as he averaged 5.8 yards per carry on his 42 rushes. He’s battled injuries in his first two years in the league, but he should steal more touches if he’s healthy in 2020.

The wild card is third-round pick Antonio Gibson, a running back/wide receiver hybrid who could become one of the team’s best playmakers. Gibson averaged a ridiculous 11.2 yards per carry and 19.3 yards per reception in his hybrid role at Memphis last year.

I have only minor quibbles with what PFF said here, though I am a bit surprised that there was no mention of Bryce Love at all, even if it had been merely an acknowledgement that Love missed last year injured and was uncertain for the 2020 season,

In this week’s spate of announcements, we learned that Jeremy Vujnovich was cut, WR Emanuel Hall was waived with an injury designation (meaning he can go to IR if unclaimed), Caleb Brantley opted out of the 2020 season, Reuben Foster & Alex Smith were placed on the PUP list, and Derrius Guice said he’d been cleared to play.

No news appears to be good news for Bryce Love, who was an incredibly explosive running back in college. After being injured in the final game of his college career, he was drafted by a Redskins team that knew he would almost certainly miss his entire rookie year. I woulda thought PFF would have talked about him. If both Guide and Love are healthy, I suspect that Peterson will end up seeing a sharp reduction in workload compared to his first two seasons in Washington.

The real story for the Washington Football Team at the running back position is the incredible depth and range of talent, with Adrian Peterson, Derrius Guice, Bryce Love, Antonio Gibson, JD McKissick, and Peyton Barber all set to compete for roster spots and offensive touches. Absent injury or trade, at least one NFL quality running back is likely to get cut from the Football Team’s roster ahead of opening week.

Wide Receiver

Some people look at the Washington WR group and say it is inexperienced and lacks talent behind Terry McLaurin. I look at it and say that it is young and filled with potential. Let’s see what PFF had to say:

McLaurin’s emergence as a third-round pick gives Washington plenty of hope, but they still have work to do to build around him. No other receiver graded higher than 65.0, with Steven Sims leading the way at 64.4. An undrafted free agent, Sims showed well in the slot, where he picked up 165 of his 310 yards.

Yet another rookie, sixth-rounder Kelvin Harmon, ranked second among the team’s receivers with 365 yards to go with a 64.6 receiving grade. Trey Quinn has shown flashes as a slot receiver, though he’s graded in the 50s in his two NFL seasons.

Veteran Cody Latimer joins the team after a career-high 300 yards last year with the Giants, but you should also keep an eye on fourth-round pick Antonio Gandy-Golden, who has a 6-foot-4 frame and the catch radius to produce immediately after an impressive 89.4 receiving grade last season at Liberty. Emanuel Hall is the other name to watch, as he ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at 6-foot-3, but he’s a project who is yet to play an NFL snap.

This helps highlight how much damage has been done to the group by the Achilles injury to Emmanuel Hall, the ACL injury to Kelven Harmon, and Cody Latimer’s arrest and subsequent move to the Commissioner’s exempt list. With the loss of these three players, the receiver on the WFT roster with the most NFL game experience is Steven Sims, with 16 games under his belt. Even third-year receiver Trey Quinn has only been healthy enough to log 15 games. McLaurin played in 14 as a rookie.

Suddenly, Antonio Gandy-Golden looks like a very important player on the Washington offense. Other players who could potentially benefit are Cam Sims, a receiver with good measurables who has been on the roster fringe in DC since being signed as a UDFA out of Alabama in 2018, and rookie UDFA Isaiah Wright, who plays a different position than RB Antonio Gibson, but brings similar size, speed and positional versatility to the roster.

The depth of the RB room and the thinness of the WR room makes me think that we may see a different sort of offense from Scott Turner this year — one in which a RB may often line up at, or motion into or out of, a receiver’s position. With the TE group seeming to have more blocking than receiving skills, this offense may end up looking a bit different than what we’ve grown accustomed to from NFL teams in recent years.

Speaking of tight ends...

Tight ends

Except for the exclusion of LSU rookie UDFA Thaddeus Moss and second year TE Hale Hetges from the discussion, I find it hard to argue with the PFF description. I especially like the first sentence, which utilizes imagery similar, I think, to some I have employed before, myself.

Washington is going with a see-what-sticks approach at tight end, as there are several options who could see significant playing time. Jeremy Sprinkle led the unit with 241 yards last season, though his 49.8 overall grade ranked fourth-worst among tight ends. Richard Rodgers comes over from two years with the Eagles, where he caught just one pass. He has just one year with a grade above 70.0 in his career, and it came in 2015.

Logan Thomas joins his fifth team and has yet to grade above 64.0 overall since transitioning from quarterback to tight end. Marcus Baugh and Caleb Wilson will also compete for snaps, though neither has played a regular-season snap in the NFL.

Unless Sprinkle or one of the youngsters develops, this is one of the worst tight end units in the league.

I wrote my analysis of the seven tight ends on the Team’s roster about a month ago.

The organization seems to be taking the shotgun approach to the tight end position for 2020, bringing seven players to camp — at least five of whom have a legitimate shot at making the roster at a position that will likely see 3 or 4 players on the eventual regular season depth chart. None of the seven, however, is a clear-cut starting-quality tight end; each of them comes with concerns and question marks.

Four of them were drafted into the NFL, but only one of them by the Redskins. One, Logan Thomas, was a quarterback in college and for his first few seasons as a pro. Richard Rodgers, selected in the 3rd round of the 2014 draft, has the best pedigree, but, due to injury, had only one reception in 2018 and didn’t log a single offensive stat (beyond snap count) in 2019. Caleb Wilson was 2019’s “Mr. Irrelevant” — the last player selected in the draft. The other three players all entered the NFL as undrafted free agents in 2019 or 2020. It looks like the coaches are planning to throw them all on the field and hope that some cream rises.

Offensive Line

There aren’t a lot of good resources for evaluating line play. PFF takes a shot at it, but their grades over the years have been subject to a lot of criticism at both the individual player and unit level. That said, they graded the 2019 Redskins offensive line as slightly above average.

Washington got solid play across the line last season, finishing 13th in our final rankings. With Trent Williams absent, the team signed veteran Donald Penn in a move that paid off relatively well. Penn finished the campaign with a 64.2 overall grade that ranked 50th among players at the position.

The article then talks about specific position battles, starting with left tackle, where it identifies veteran Cornelius Lucas and rookie Saahdiq Charles as the two top contenders, and adding Geron Christian as a bit of an afterthought.

Lucas is a 6-foot-9 monster who has graded above the league average on 999 career pass-blocking snaps, though his size makes it a challenge to play low in the run game or get to the second level. Charles, meanwhile, may not be ready to play right away, as he never graded above 70.0 overall in college, and he gave up over 20 pressures in each of the last three years. The one other name to throw in the mix is 2018 third-rounder Geron Christian Sr., who has only played 189 snaps in his career and notably earned a 63.0 grade in limited time last season.

I have been in a pitiably small and perhaps overly-vocal minority of fans that can probably be counted on the fingers of one or two hands who see Lucas as most likely to compete with Morgan Moses for the starting right tackle spot, where Lucas has played most of his career. Lucas has probably been a bit better for the past two seasons than Moses.

Here’s what PFF has to say about Moses:

At right tackle, Morgan Moses has been a viable starter, though his highest-graded years came in 2015 and 2016. Last season, however, his 65.2 overall grade ranked 43rd among tackles.

By comparison, PFF graded Lucas at 72.2 as a backup and fill-in starter in 2019.

I am not ready to die on that hill, however, and most people foresee Lucas opening the season at Left Tackle, with Charles having a decent shot of taking over mid-season or in 2021. Consider what ProFootballNetwork said in their recent article on the best landing spot for 2021 top draft prospects:

Penei Sewell is arguably the best player in this class and the top lineman in recent memory. He’s a plug and play impact player, and by my base evaluation, I think Sewell would enter the NFL as a top-15 tackle in the league. Washington’s most glaring need is their offensive line, and more specifically the tackle position. Morgan Moses is a liability, and the Redskins starting left tackle will either be a rookie draft on day three of the 2021 NFL Draft or a journeymen veteran with 16 career game starters in six years. Sewell would be able to plug in instantly for Washington and would give them a true successor to Trent Williams.

Brandon Scherff should play right guard, and Chase Roullier is locked in as the starting center; that leaves one other positional battle open, also on the left side.

On the inside, Wes Schweitzer comes over from Atlanta to compete at left guard, though he’s coming off a career-low 56.4 overall grade.

PFF doesn’t mention who Schweitzer will be competing against, but it is most likely to be 2019 4th round draft pick Wes Martin, though Ron Rivera has indicated that Saahdiq Charles may be tried at the LG spot as well. Another 2019 draft pick, Ross Pierschbacher, and rookie 5th rounder Keith Ismael are both competing for the backup center spot, but both have played the guard spot as well in college.

My guess is that the Redskins open up the season with this arrangement:

LT: Lucas (starter) / Charles (backup)

LG: Shweitzer (starter) / Martin (backup)

C: Roullier (starter) / Ismael (backup)

RG: Scherff (starter) / Pierschbacher (backup)

RT: Moses (starter) / Lucas/Christian (backup)

While it’s been typical for the Redskins in recent seasons to carry 9 offensive linemen, going forward under the new CBA, like all NFL teams, the Washington Football Team will be allowed an additional active roster spot on game day if there are 10 linemen on the active list for the game.

The final word from PFF on the O-line:

For Washington to rank in the top 15 once again, they need someone to emerge at left tackle to go with a return to form for both Schweitzer and Moses.

Defensive line

Chase Young will be the most intriguing player to watch on Washington’s front line. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft may be the best pass-rusher to come into the NFL in a decade, and we have seen some excellent ones arrive over that time. He was able to statistically separate himself from players like the Bosa brothers and Myles Garrett during their college careers and could be a transcendent player for a defensive front that has had a lot of good players recently but, perhaps, lacked true star power. Young gives the team five former first-round picks along the defensive line, each of whom has shown flashes.

Ryan Kerrigan has been consistently excellent for Washington, but he posted the lowest pressure total (37) and PFF grade (63.1) of his career in 2019, and at 32 years old by the time the season starts, he may have his best days behind him. Montez Sweat will have a chance to take a step forward and potentially supplant Kerrigan, along with Young, if he can improve on his rookie performance.

I don’t really have a lot of argument with this analysis from PFF, except to say that I think the change to a base 4-3 may allow Kerrigan to not only return to form, but perhaps have his the best statistical production of his career, possibly playing fewer snaps than he did in 2018, when he last played a full 16 games. I foresee Kerrigan subbing in and out of the game more frequently, rushing the passer more and dropping into coverage less, leading to a resurgence for No. 91.

Inside, the former Alabama pairing of Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen should be a pair to be reckoned with, but they were actually outdone in terms of snaps by Matt Ioannidis, who had the best pass-rushing grade (76.6) of the unit. Ioannidis led the team in total pressures (55) and will look to maintain his role despite being surrounded by first-rounders. Ryan Anderson, another one of the few non-first-rounders on Washington’s line, saw more snaps in 2019 than he saw in his previous two seasons combined, but he may be the first to lose playing time with Chase Young’s arrival.

Again, PFF seems to have most of this right. I think Matt Ioannidis is simply gonna continue to play better and better. He is likely to out-snap and out-perform both Allen and Payne, though the three of them (plus Settle) will provide a great foundation for the defense.

Coach Rivera said during this off-season that Ryan Anderson was a guy that the coaches had to find a way to get on the field. With all the depth at DE, I wouldn’t be at all shocked to see Ryan Anderson spending most of his time with the linebackers, and getting most of his snaps at LB, with spot duty as a pass rusher/blitzer. I’m not sure he’ll end up losing many snaps this season.

Linebacker

We know that Reuben Foster will start training camp on the PUP list; that doesn’t mean he has to finish there. If he does, he starts the season on the PUP list, eligible to return after Week 6. With the switch to a base 4-3 defense, there has been a lot of argument over the best positions (SAM, MIKE, WILL) for the players on the Team’s roster; the uncertainty of Reuben Foster’s injury status has made the discussion that much less predictable. I suppose the PFF point of view is as valid as any.

There are numerous options for Washington at linebacker this season, starting with the addition of veteran Thomas Davis Sr. Once one of the best all-around linebackers in the game, Davis has slowed down in recent years, posting grades in the 60s in three of his last four years. At his best, Davis was one of the rangiest linebackers in the league, peaking with three elite coverage grades from 2013 to 2015 with the Panthers. He’s also a viable blitz threat, but he was used in that capacity just 19 times last season after regularly being sent after the quarterback at certain points with the Panthers. Davis is still effective enough to contribute, especially on a lesser team, but he may best be used as a versatile blitz/coverage option in sub-packages.

The player we’d really like to see more of is Shaun Dion Hamilton, a 2018 sixth-round pick who earned an impressive 74.9 overall grade last year on just 387 snaps. He has battled injuries and been limited to just 994 snaps over the last three years, including college, but Dion Hamilton has always performed well when on the field.

Last season saw rookie fifth-rounder Cole Holcomb play 718 snaps, and he earned a solid 71.3 run-defense grade though his 43.4 coverage grade ranked just 86th in the league. Jon Bostic also returns after a career-high 1,031 snaps, but he has just one season grade above 60.0 in his six years.

The wild cards are Reuben Foster and Kevin Pierre-Louis. Foster is a former first-rounder who looked like a future star after his rookie season in 2017, but off-field issues, poor play and a season-ending injury last season have all derailed his career. If Foster returns to 2017 form, however, he’s a three-down, impact linebacker. Pierre-Louis, on the other hand, has played just 779 snaps in his five years in the league, though he recorded a 90.5 grade last year in what was an excellent stint for the Bears.

Washington has several options to choose from, and that gives them a wide range of outcomes when it comes to the quality of this unit in 2020.

I’m thinking that John Bostic is the sure starter in the middle. I think Reuben Foster, depending on health, would be the second sure starter, but if he starts the season on PUP, then I think we’ll see a lot of Thomas Davis, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Cole Holcomb and Ryan Anderson on the field as well.

Secondary

I get the feeling that PFF was a little confused about the Team’s plans at CB and safety. The article was talking about Montae Nicholson as “still unsigned”, though he was cut by the Redskins. It also talked about Apke “fighting” Sean Davis and Jeremy Reaves for the second starting safety spot. I’d be shocked if Sean Davis wasn’t seen by the front office and coaching staff as the presumptive starter at free safety. It’s almost as if last year’s season-ending shoulder injury caused PFF to forget that Davis was the starting safety for the Steelers, and only left in free agency because his position was filled by a trade for Minkah FItzpatrick to make up for the roster hole created by Davis’ injury.

At cornerback, PFF had very little love for the WFT roster.

Quinton Dunbar was by far the highest-graded player in Washington’s secondary in 2019, as the former UDFA finished his breakout season with a PFF grade of 87.6, third-best among qualifying cornerbacks. However, he was not a great fit for new coach Ron Rivera’s defense and was shipped off to Seattle in exchange for a mid-round pick.

So, with Dunbar out of town, Kendall Fuller returns to the team he began his career with after an ugly stint with the Chiefs, albeit a stint that earned him a Super Bowl ring. Fuller was the best slot corner in the league for a period, but he wasn’t quite the same force when he was asked to play outside. Fuller will likely be expected to start because the alternative options include Fabian Moreau, Aaron Colvin and Jimmy Moreland.

Ronald Darby also has a chance to resurrect his career after a sharp decline in Philadelphia. Darby has the talent to be a high-end corner, but that play is getting further and further away in the rearview mirror. Also in the mix is third-year cornerback Greg Stroman, who could be a sneaky dark horse for playing time, too. Stroman played just two snaps in 2019, but his rookie year saw him play well across almost 400 snaps.

Wrap up

I look at the Washington Football Team and I see youth, potential, and too many roster holes to win a lot of games in 2020. When I look at the left side of the OL, the lack of top-tier talent at TE, the lack of depth and experience at WR, the questions a CB, and all the issues that come with a new coaching staff and the challenges of the COVID pandemic, I see a team that will struggle. My best guess is that Rivera’s team is likely to go 4-12 in a 16 game season in 2020, though I look at the core roster, the caps space and draft picks available next off-season, and I believe the Burgundy & Gold should end up favorites to win the NFCE in 2021.

PFF is actually more optimistic about this year’s win-loss outcome than I am.

BEST BET

As discussed at length in a previous article, one of the best boards still on the board is the Washington over 5 win total.

This bet boils down to the ability of QB Dwayne Haskins, who flashed promise in his rookie season, maintaining a high aDot while also minimizing mistakes. With a significant amount of talent on the defensive side of the ball, too, one of the most comfortable overs to bet is that of Washington, a team that appears to be mispriced given the ability on this roster.