The final step in pondering just how far away the Washington Redskins are from truly contending in the NFC is studying the skill positions. Warning: The Kirk Cousins contract situation comes up.
Part 1: Linebackers and defensive backs
Wide receivers: Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson, Maurice Harris, Robert Davis
Free agents: Terrelle Pryor, Ryan Grant, Brian Quick
Notes: The Redskins paid the price for not retaining Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson last off-season. Replacing two veterans with the truly inexperienced pair of Pryor, who landed on injured reserve following a mid-season benching, and Doctson proved inadequate.
Crowder picked up his game as the season progressed and Doctson received valuable playing time in what essentially was his rookie season. Washington could use 2-3 new receivers depending on what the coaching staff thinks of Harris and Davis.
Needs: Spending big bucks for a wide receiver isn’t ideal simply based on the amount of touches per game. This might be a case where the Redskins strongly consider flexing their free agent muscle for some pass-catching help regardless, though this free agent class is not loaded with gems.
Keeping Grant, a Jay Gruden favorite, would be a cost-effective move and perhaps the right one especially if the Redskins believe tight end Jordan Reed serves as their true No. 1 receiver. Seeing as it is hard trusting that scenario, targeting outside help must be strongly considered. Jarvis Landry, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant are among the outside names worth considering.
Running backs: Chris Thompson, Samaje Perine, Robert Kelley, Byron Marshall, Keith Marshall, LeShun Daniels
Free agents: Kapri Bibbs (RFA)
Notes: Another position wrecked by injuries and yet it remains unclear whether the Redskins ever truly had a strong group on the ground. Kelley, the true definition of steady but not spectacular, never quite found the form demonstrated during his rookie season before he landed on IR. The powerful Perine had back-to-back 100-yard rush games in Weeks 11-12, but overall averaged a meh 3.5 yards per carry entering the finale.
Needs: Washington has passed on investing major draft or free agent assets into the running back position. If they believe the combination of the Kelley and Perine gets them plus effort on early downs, they likely keep up the same philosophy.
The hope is Thompson returns for OTA’s, which would leave him enough time to ramp up for training camp. Assuming Thompson maintains his quickness after the injury, the Redskins have a true big play threat out of the backfield. It’s hard assuming much else, but don’t be surprised if the organization runs it back with the same group with Bibbs or the Marshall’s vying for the fourth spot.
Quarterback: Colt McCoy
Free agents: Kirk Cousins
Notes: Whatever one thinks about the Cousins contract situation, everyone should give him this much. Despite roster turnover and major injuries at every other position on offense, he turned in yet another quality season. Cousins will finish with 4,000 passing yards for a third consecutive year and his touchdown passes remain in line with the previous two campaigns despite significant losses in the receiving corps.
Sunday against the Giants will mark his 48th consecutive start, an impressive achievement for a player who early in his career looked like he’s never be the guy here.
Needs: Let’s start with this. The Redskins need to get off this franchise tag track. Either sign Cousins to a long-term deal or trade his rights. At some point, they must plan for a future beyond the immediate season. That is incredibly hard when you do not know who is the quarterback and going forward and how much they will spend at the position.
There are several paths for the Redskins including a third (and final) franchise tag that would pay Cousins around $34 million for 2018. The transition tag ($28 million) is possible, though it opens the door for another team offering Cousins a long-term deal Washington loathes. Pass on matching and the Redskins receive zero compensation.
There are some possible trade scenarios. If no more Cousins, the free agent class offers some stopgap hope and the 2017 draft class may include 4-5 quarterbacks in round one. Perhaps McCoy is the holdover while a young passer develops. Whatever the plan, pick one that moves things beyond the moment.
Overall: Let’s go back to the point of this exercise. Are the Redskins good enough to compete for the NFC title next season? My answer is – assuming reasonable good health and fortune and Kirk Cousins staying – yes.
There is enough to work with here, particularly at offensive line, the most important building block for any offense. Keep Cousins and Zach Brown. Retain Spencer Long and make him the left guard.
Use their top two draft picks at inside linebacker and defensive line. Make the top two free agent moves at wide receiver and the secondary. Keep Galette and/or Murphy or add another pass rusher. These are hardly outlandish costs or concepts.
Now think of the roster. Not many holes remaining.
The toughest call may be whether to trust tight end Jordan Reed as an offensive centerpiece. The wildest will surely involve Cousins. Even if he leaves, the Redskins can add an Alex Smith in free agency or draft a first round passer and suddenly have even more money to fortify all other areas.
The point is there are reasons to believe Washington can advance beyond the .500 level it has existed on the past three seasons. Based on the last 18 years, it is understandable if few buy in.