Pro Football Focus (PFF) is well-known for its thorough analysis of the National Football League and NCAA Division-I football in the United States. Over the past month or so, PFF has shifted gears from analyzing last season to looking ahead to the upcoming 2021 season. As part of that effort, PFF has been ranking players at many roster positions. When you pay attention to what PFF is saying about the individual players on the Washington Football Team, it’s hard not to get excited about what to expect from the sum of its parts.
Here’s some of what PFF has had to say recently about some of Washington’s offensive players.
RB Antonio Gibson
PFF ranks Gibson as the 15th running back overall in the NFL coming into 2021. The site points out that Gibson “already finished with a top-five PFF rushing grade (85.3) in just his first year at this level. Gibson is an excellent ball carrier and has yet to be fully exploited as a receiving weapon, given his background playing that position in college.”
In looking back at Gibson’s rookie season, one promising statistic from the advanced rushing metrics is that Antonio Gibson is among the league’s best at breaking tackles. In fact, he ranked 2nd overall, breaking one tackle per 8.5 carries (Mike Davis led the league at 1:7.9).
With Gibson having come into the NFL with just 33 rushing attempts in college, Washington fans could see the rookie running back improving weekly last season, as he learned on-the-job. This offseason, running back coach Randy Jordan talked about Antonio Gibson and compared him to the 2020 version, declaring, “It’s like night and day.” Jordan said that Gibson has improved his understanding of what the offense is doing and why certain plays don’t work the way they are supposed to. Jordan added that Gibson is learning how to press the line of scrimmage to get more positive yards — which is quite a feat considering that Gibson was a league leader a year ago, earning positive yardage on over 92% of his runs.
WR Terry McLaurin
PFF noted that Terry McLaurin improved his overall output as a second-year receiver in 2020 despite much more conservative quarterback play that saw his average depth of target dip from 14.6 yards as a rookie in 2019 to 9.9 yards in 2020. The percentage of his catches that turned into a 15-plus-yard gain decreased from 40% to 30%, and his yardage total from vertical routes was nearly cut in half from 404 to 207 despite him seeing 37 more targets overall. PFF ranks Terry at #17 in their preview of top receivers in 2021.
NFL analyst Matt Harmon of Yahoo Sports recently completed an evaluation of McLaurin, and found that he demonstrated elite traits despite the 2020 offensive shift to a shorter passing game. Harmon said that Terry McLaurin achieved a 78.6% success rate vs. man coverage (97th percentile) and a 78.9 percent success rate vs. press (90th percentile). Furthermore, Harmon said that Terry was double covered “at a rate similar to elite alpha WRs.”
McLaurin was the 6th highest graded receiver in the NFL as a rookie, according to PFF, with an 86.5 grade; there is every reason to expect that with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, the use of Terry McLaurin as a deep threat will return, and with the addition of veteran Curtis Samuel and rookie speedster Dyami Brown at the receiver position, it will be harder for defenses to double-cover him as consistently as they did last season. Look for McLaurin to put up huge numbers in 2021.
TE Logan Thomas
I doubt whether many Washington football fans will be shocked to learn that Logan Thomas was among the most productive tight ends in the league last season, but it will probably surprise the average NFL fan outside of the DC area, as the converted QB from Virginia Tech didn’t get much publicity for what he achieved.
PFF readers will be forewarned this season, as the analysts there have ranked Logan Thomas as the 14th best tight end in the league in their preview of the position for 2021. PFF points out that Thomas is “coming off by far the most productive season of his career with Washington in 2020, catching over twice as many passes last season (72) than the rest of his career combined (35). Thomas was also the only tight end in the NFL to play over 1,000 regular season snaps last year, rarely coming off the field.”
Watch this All-22 film: Logan Thomas makes a simple catch, then bulls his way for 5 or 6 extra yards, turning this short 1-yard pass into a 7-yard gain
Tight ends coach Pete Hoener, agrees; he is extremely high on Logan Thomas, saying recently, “Right now, when I talk about a complete tight end, he’s got to be within the top five, six, seven of the league.” Hoener added, “In an ideal world, you would want three Logan Thomases out there.”
Don’t be surprised if Thomas’ statistical production falls off a bit in 2021, even if his understanding of the position improves. He’s certainly not going to increase his snap count, after all. Furthermore, with a more aggressive quarterback in Fitzpatrick and more receiving weapons with the addition of Brown and Samuels — not to mention more capable pass-catching tight ends in addition to Logan Thomas than were on the roster in 2020 — Thomas may regress towards the mean a bit in the coming season as the ball is spread around more.
RG Brandon Scherff
Despite any angst some Washington fans may feel about Scherff’s contract situation (he is playing on his second consecutive franchise tag), everyone seems to agree that the 7th year All-Pro guard is an exemplary leader and player. PFF really loves him, ranking him 5th overall at the guard position. PFF points out that Washington’s starting right guard produced an impressive overall PFF grade of 86.3 in 2020, ranking in the top 10 as both a run-blocker and pass-protector.
Scherff, of course, has played his entire career next to former teammate Morgan Moses, who was released by the Football Team last month. He will now have the opportunity to act as a mentor to rookie 2nd round draft pick, Sam Cosmi, and as a leader to a reconstituted offensive line. PFF points out that Cosmi earned a 90.8 overall grade at Texas last year, though he often beat his opponents with his athleticism and has work to do on technique in order to thrive at the NFL level.
The Football Team has two opportunities to secure a long-term contract with their All-Pro guard. First, they have until July 15th; if they can’t reach a deal by then, Scherff will play the entire ‘21 season on the $18m franchise tag. Once the 2021 season is over, Washington will have an exclusive negotiating window with Scherff that will last until the start of the new league year in early March. Regardless of his contract status, barring injury, Scherff will be on the field for every offensive snap of the season.
C Chase Roullier
While Washington fans often have a top-of-the-mind awareness of Brandon Scherff, who was the 5th overall pick in the 2015 draft, the less-heralded starting center Chase Roullier, drafted in the 6th round of the 2017 draft, has arguably been equally important to whatever success the team has enjoyed recently, and is a key to whatever success will be achieved in 2021.
PFF sees Roulllier as the 10th-ranked center in the NFL, saying, “The Football Team still has to feel relatively good about their group up front because of how well the interior offensive line played in 2020, including a career year from Roullier. The former sixth-round pick out of Wyoming has improved his PFF grade every season with Washington, putting up a career-high 76.4 overall mark last year. The only two centers with a higher pass-blocking grade on true pass sets than Roullier in 2020 were Linder and Tretter [ranked 6th & 4th respectively by PFF].”
With 2019 starter Ereck Flowers battling 2020 starter Wes Schweitzer for the starting left guard position, Roullier will have a familiar face beside him regardless of who wins the job. Chase should feel right at home working between two veteran guards, with Scherff working on his right side. PFF’s final analysis on the offensive line: “Washington should have another solid line along with excellent depth.”
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
There’s a picture of Ryan Fitzpatrick next to the word “journeyman” in the dictionary, but the 38-year-old has the opportunity in Washington, with a fresh coaching staff and a deep roster, to change his career narrative. Combining a good 2015 season in New York with the past 4 seasons spent in Tampa Bay and Miami, Fitzpatrick has convinced a lot of people that he has the potential to be more than just a backup quarterback, and in Washington, he has a situation he hasn’t seen for a long time; Fitzpatrick enters camp as the presumed starter at the top of the QB depth chart, and it is, according to Ron Rivera, his job to hold onto.
PFF seems to be on the Fitzpatrick train, such as it is:
Fitzpatrick continues to play his best football the longer he stays in the league — the veteran ranks 15th in PFF passing grade since 2018. Last year in Miami, he had the team rolling until Brian Flores took the QB room for a rollercoaster ride. It’s rare for a veteran quarterback “placeholder” to join a solid football team, but this will be the best team Fitzpatrick has been on in quite some time. Fitzpatrick brings energy, leadership and a wealth of knowledge to a locker room, but his Achilles heel is protecting the football. If he is able to play smart and deliver on explosive plays, Washington will be a playoff contender.
Of course, KS4GM recently wrote an article suggesting, in not so many words, that Fitzpatrick and the 2021 Washington roster, with its expected elite defense, are made for each other.
[S]ince about 2013 (and excepting 2016) Fitzpatrick’s play level has been on a steady upward trajectory, with the best seasons in the middle of his career coming with the best defenses that he had played with to-date (on the Texans and Jets). For the past three seasons, though, we see Fitzpatrick bucking a bit of a trend, playing some of his best football in spite of his two worst defenses, in 2018 and 2019, and then - probably not surprisingly - having a great season playing with the highest ranked defense of his career, the 2020 Dolphins.
In my estimation, this bodes very well for Washington in 2021. Washington’s defense last year - ranked 4th in the NFL - was better than any defense Fitzpatrick has played alongside in his career, and it appears to have improved this offseason. I would be surprised if, given the historical pattern of Ryan’s career this doesn’t end up being his best statistical season, assuming he’s able to stay healthy and resist the urge to try to put this team on his back.
If Ryan Fitzpatrick can take a few pages from the Alex Smith playbook and learn to play within himself when the team falls behind, rely on the defense and special teams to help him out, and avoid playing “hero” ball while still retaining his underlying aggressive mentality as a passer, then the Washington offense seems to have enough talent on the roster for the Football Team to establish itself as a playoff contender in 2021.