Despite two-straight winning seasons, the Washington Redskins have plenty of needs on both sides of the ball that should be addressed in the 2017 NFL Draft.
The Washington Redskins just posted their first back-to-back winning seasons in 20 years. To say this is a pivotal offseason for Washington and fourth-year head coach Jay Gruden is an understatement. Will the Redskins continue to build off their positive momentum or will the team allow many core free agents to depart, forcing another change in leadership?
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After the Redskins stumbled to a 4-12 record during his first year as coach in 2014, Gruden led the team to a combined 17 wins the last two seasons. A big reason for Washington’s success was its potent offense, led by Kirk Cousins and a host of talented pass-catchers.
Now, with quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson expected to become free agents (Cousins will likely receive the franchise tag), the Redskins could face an overhaul on offense.
The defense, an issue for several years now, is expected to receive a talent infusion this offseason. If Washington loses Garcon and Jackson, it could be faced with having to replace one of them with another free agent. So, much of general manager Scot McCloughan’s offseason could also be shoring up some holes on offense instead of focusing solely on the defensive side of the ball.
What are the Redskins’ biggest needs heading into the 2017 NFL Draft? Well, much of it depends on what happens in free agency.
Dec 24, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Washington Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson (11) in action during the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Redskins defeat the Bears 41-21. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
5. Wide Receiver
As it stands right now, the Redskins have one of the top wide receiving groups in the NFL. However, this could change drastically within the next two weeks if Jackson and Garcon depart. That would leave Washington with third-year slot receiver Jamison Crowder as the team’s top receiver. Crowder is already one of the best slot men in all of the league, but he’ll clearly need help.
Much of how the team feels about this group centers around last year’s first-round pick, Josh Doctson. Doctson has made progress in his recovery from an Achilles injury and has star potential. If the Redskins do not make a strong effort to retain at least one of their veteran receivers, that would seem to indicate they’re confident in Doctson.
So, if the Redskins lose Garcon and Jackson, how do they replace them? Do they go with a veteran receiver like Kenny Britt or Kendall Wright, or look to fill the spot in the draft? Much like recent years, this is another strong draft for wide receivers.
If the Skins want speed, John Ross could be an option at No. 17. However, if they want a sure-handed pass-catcher who runs good routes, Zay Jones of East Carolina would be a strong option in the second or third round.
Sep 30, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey (5) rushes the ball against the Washington Huskies during the second half at Husky Stadium. Washington won 44-6. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
4. Running Back
Just a few short years ago, this position appeared set with Alfred Morris. Then, McCloughan drafted Matt Jones in the third round in 2015 and allowed Morris to walk after that season. Jones received his opportunity in 2016 and failed at every turn. Not only does Jones struggle to hold onto the football, he routinely misses open holes and isn’t patient. When he runs with aggression, he’s successful. Unfortunately, he rarely does so.
Robert Kelley, an undrafted free agent last season, proved to be a revelation. While Kelley has his limitations—he was, after all, undrafted—he’s a tough runner who rarely loses yardage. Numerous times last fall, Kelley would get hit in the backfield and still manage to fall forward for a positive gain. Kelley doesn’t run with hesitation, but sometimes he struggled to find the right hole.
Chris Thompson is clearly Washington’s top back. Unfortunately for him and the Redskins, he’s just 5-8 and 194 pounds with a history of major injuries. Thompson is an outstanding blocker and a consistent receiving threat out of the backfield. He’s also a much tougher runner inside than he’s given credit for. He’s also a restricted free agent. While the Redskins will do whatever they can to keep him, they should also find him a more consistent partner in the backfield.
Jones will be on the bubble watch in training camp. Meaning, McCloughan will most likely look for a back in this year’s draft because of the talent and depth of the position. The Redskins could conceivably find a strong runner in the third or fourth round who could contribute immediately as a rookie. Or, Washington could go with Dalvin Cook of Florida State or Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey with the No. 17 overall selection. A player like Alvin Kamara of Tennessee would be ideal in Round 2 if he’s still on the board.
And what about Joe Mixon? Would McCloughan and owner Daniel Snyder roll the dice on the talented Mixon? Washington is a tough media market so it may not be the right place for Mixon. But if Snyder is okay with the move, McCloughan could draft Mixon, a clear first-round talent.
Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) reacts after bring brought down by Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reuben Foster (10) during the second quarter in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
3. Inside Linebacker
Both of Washington starting inside linebackers last season, Mason Foster and Will Compton, should return next season. Compton is a restricted free agent, but the team loves him and should re-sign him. Both are solid players, giving maximum effort on every play and are smart and technically sound. However, neither player is an elite athlete and sometimes that hurts Washington when it comes to covering tight ends or playing in space.
One of the big reasons this defense has struggled in recent years is because of the holes in the middle. The Redskins have lacked a nose tackle. That trickles down and affects the inside linebackers, too, particularly in a 3-4 scheme. If the Redskins upgrade up front, Foster and Compton will also be better.
John Keim of ESPN speculated about Dont’a Hightower of the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots. If Hightower is available should Washington make an attempt to sign him?Probably not. While Hightower is a great player, he isn’t going to transform the Redskins defense. If Washington improves up front, the linebackers will improve. For a team with so many holes, it doesn’t make sense to pay $12 million or more per season to a linebacker that doesn’t rush the passer.
As for the draft, what if Reuben Foster falls to No. 17? Or, what if the Redskins acquire the No. 2 overall pick for Cousins? Foster would most definitely be in play as he is in the conversation for the draft’s top overall player. This isn’t Washington’s top need, but the front office wouldn’t hesitate to get better at the position. This defense needs an infusion of speed. A fast, rangy middle linebacker would go a long way in improving this unit.
The Redskins feel like they solved the strong safety position with the drafting of Su’a Cravens in 2016. While Cravens spent the majority of his time on the field as a dime linebacker, coaches revealed later in the season he would be a safety in 2017, per CBS Washington. Cravens was thrilled with the move as he feels that’s his natural spot. So, what about free safety?
The years of taking aging cornerbacks and moving them to safety in hopes of filling this position should be over. De’Angelo Hall made some plays at safety before his injury, but clearly wasn’t showing he was a long-term answer. Will Blackmon, another veteran corner, also moved to safety last season. As with anyone learning a new position, there were communication issues. That’s to be expected. Blackmon will be back in 2017, but should be viewed as a nickel corner and backup safety. If the Redskins proceed with either Blackmon or Hall as the free safety in 2017, they are asking for trouble.
Fortunately, this is a deep draft for safeties. Jamal Adams (strong safety) and Malik Hooker (free safety) won’t be around at pick No. 17. That’s okay. Washington’s Budda Baker would be an excellent choice for Washington. He’s a fearless player who tackles well and is strong in coverage. He would also bring leadership and energy to the position.
UConn’s Obi Melifonwu, a 6-4, 219-pound athletic freak, is a player rising up the boards. After the Combine, Melifonwu could find himself in the first-round discussion. Texas A&M’s Justin Evans and Eddie Jackson of Alabama are also good options for the Redskins in the second if they’re looking for a safety.
Oct 15, 2015; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal defensive tackle Solomon Thomas (90) celebrates after a tackle in the second quarter against the UCLA Bruins in a NCAA football game at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
1. Defensive Line
The Redskins need lots of bodies up front in 2016. Of course, they did last year, too, and seemingly refused to upgrade the position. In fact, Washington hasn’t drafted a defensive lineman in the first three rounds since Jarvis Jenkins back in 2011. That isn’t going to get the job done. Good teams like Baltimore consistently pick defensive linemen each and every year. That way, when big-time players become free agents, the team is confident in their own evaluations and promote from within.
For the Redskins, it’s a good year to be looking for defensive line help. While defensive tackle isn’t as top-heavy as it’s been recently, the depth is pretty solid.
Michigan State’s Malik McDowell is a player that could be available at No. 17. On talent alone, McDowell is a top-10 talent. However, there have been questions about his consistency. He was terrific as a sophomore but took a step back in 2016. McDowell can play all along the defensive line and could be a steal if he plays to his talent level on every snap.
The Redskins will likely spend lots of money on free-agent defensive tackles. That’s a smart move. But it’s also a good time to begin replenishing this unit’s depth through the draft. Auburn’s Montravius Adams and Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson are players who will be drafted in the second and third rounds. Both players have the potential to see the field in early in their respective careers as well.