The 9 Toughest Decisions Washington Redskins Will Have to Make This Offseason
The toughest offseason decisions for the Washington Redskins lie on defense. New head coach Jay Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen must decide the value of the unit's best pass-rusher, along with a young and talented inside linebacker.
Away from the front seven, Gruden and Allen have a decision to make regarding the team's top cornerback. They can either retain the often controversial veteran or opt to move on.
Offensively, the pressing personnel issue involves a talented but temperamental tight end. The emergence of a promising rookie at the position in 2013 could make that decision easier.
The remaining choices on offense involve how to shape a new scheme around the talents of two of the NFL's most exciting skill players.
Here are the nine toughest choices the new regime in Washington must focus on this offseason.
Bringing Back DeAngelo Hall
It is typical of DeAngelo Hall that he would deliver a solid season right when the Redskins might have been eager to dump him. Hall is scheduled to hit free agency this year, but losing him would mean robbing an otherwise dire secondary of its best player.
At 30, Hall showed he still has a lot of fine football left. He was a rare capable performer on defense in 2013.
But Hall hasn't always been a model citizen in D.C. He is never short of an opinion and usually picks an inopportune time to voice his views.
Most recently, he embroiled himself in the sensitive debate about changing the name of the NFL's franchise in Washington. Hall even had to backtrack after his initial comments garnered so much attention.
Most of his tenure in Washington has been defined by inconsistent play. There is also the fact that Hall's good showing in 2013 could work against the Redskins at the negotiating table.
He counted for $1.25 million against the cap in 2013, according to Spotrac.com. But now he may look to parlay some of his strong performances this season into one final lucrative deal.
Even at his age, it's easy to imagine a player who recently dubbed himself the best in the league at his position believing he merits a bigger contract.
This is the dilemma Gruden and Allen will face. While Hall's opinion of himself is inflated, there is no doubting he is a highly capable cover man who does raise his game against the best.
The NFL is not overflowing with such players. But that still doesn't make Hall worthy of anything other than a modest increase on his 2013 terms.
Gruden and Allen may want reinforcements at cornerback, but most of their resources should be spent at safety. That ought to rule out big-money swoops for New England Patriots cover ace Aqib Talib or Alterraun Verner of the Tennessee Titans.
The Redskins could consider a move for Miami Dolphins veteran Brent Grimes, or even Walter Thurmond of the Seattle Seahawks. But they would first have to decide if either is enough of an upgrade on Hall to justify the outlay.
With fellow corners Josh Wilson, E.J. Biggers and Jerome Murphy also ticketed for free agency, Hall may be deemed too valuable to let go. The defense certainly needs a veteran to help out young David Amerson.
The Redskins will have to scour the market and the draft to decide if it is worth moving on from Hall, or whether it is easier to keep him around a little longer.
Paying Perry Riley Jr.
Perry Riley Jr. emerged as a versatile playmaker in the middle of the Washington front seven. His performances should earn him some attention as a free agent.
The Redskins need to keep Riley, but they will have to decide at what cost. The value of the active inside linebacker has certainly increased after he tallied over 100 tackles for the second season running.
The 25-year-old also overtook distinguished veteran London Fletcher as the prime signal-caller on defense. He is ready to assume the key leadership role at the heart of this 3-4 scheme.
But just like with Hall, the Redskins won't want to enter a bidding war for Riley's services, especially when both free agency and the 2014 NFL draft are ripe with options at his position.
In terms of veteran help, Jon Beason would be an excellent signing. He showed his skill on the New York Giants defense in 2013.
In the draft, a player like Stanford's Shayne Skov could appeal. He has been mocked to the Redskins at the top of the second round by Bleacher Report draft columnist Matt Miller.
The problem the Redskins have here, one that pervades most of the roster, is a lack of depth. Fletcher has retired, and Riley will be joined on the market by fellow inside linebackers Nick Barnett and Bryan Kehl. Young Keenan Robinson also missed all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle.
Washington needs Riley back for 2014. He accounted for a mere $1,455,500 against the cap in 2013, per Spotrac.com.
But the team is now in a trickier position with Riley. He is certainly a player on the rise who will feel he is due being paid accordingly.
But the Redskins can't let their need for Riley force them into overpaying. This is where Allen can earn his salary: by keeping a talent like Riley for less than a marquee fee.
Choosing the Right Combination Along the Defensive Line
One tough choice recently retained defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has to make is deciding his best combination up front. The Washington defensive line was a disappointment in 2013, but there is talent among the group—it is just a question of finding the right match.
One player who must feature more is pending free agent Chris Baker. The Redskins should re-sign the hulking lineman and move him into a starting role.
The front creates more push and gains more penetration when Baker is playing. The 6'2" 333-pounder could play a one-gap role at end, or even slide over the center and play nose tackle.
The latter move would allow Barry Cofield to shift outside where his pass-rushing skills might be more effective. Another option would be to move Cofield to end and put Chris Neild, the 2011 seventh-round pick who always seems to impress, on the nose.
Haslett will also be helped by a full recovery by veteran end Stephen Bowen. He underwent microfracture surgery to heal a torn knee ligament in 2013.
It was originally reported by Mike Jones of The Washington Post that Bowen needs six months to recuperate. The former Dallas Cowboy is a key part of this defensive front when healthy.
Haslett could do worse than work a three-man line that features Cofield and Bowen outside and Baker in the middle. Neild and the slightly overrated Jarvis Jenkins could then figure highly in the rotation.
The personnel is strong at this position, but Haslett must get more out of them. He needs to be more creative with how he uses his linemen, especially Cofield, to attack offenses.
But the process must begin with identifying the right combination of starters.
Replacing London Fletcher
Compensating for London Fletcher's retirement will be far from easy. He was the emotional focal point for this defense and one of its most capable and consistent performers.
The Redskins must choose between three distinct options for replacing Fletcher. The first involves diving into free agency and splashing the cash.
This approach could land them a player like Brandon Spikes. He seems destined to be allowed to test the market after the New England Patriots apparently ditched him at the start of the playoffs.
But while Spikes has youth, talent and pedigree, he is not worth a hefty investment.
The 26-year-old bruiser is a force against inside runs and excellent on the blitz, but that is the extent of Spikes' value. He is extremely limited in space, both as a coverage defender and moving laterally to chase down running backs.
While his size is appealing for a 3-4 defense, the Redskins need a more complete linebacker than Spikes. If they insist on finding Fletcher's successor in free agency, the Redskins should seek another wily veteran.
Tabbing a savvy linebacker to plug in at the heart of a 3-4 scheme worked well for the Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens this season. They signed smart veterans Karlos Dansby and Daryl Smith, respectively.
Both are free agents on this year's market, but they are not the only aging stars who should appeal to the new regime in Washington.
As stated previously, both Beason and Bishop are excellent fits meriting strong consideration.
Of course, the other choice is to use the draft to find the man who can replace Fletcher. The only problem with this approach is that it commits the team to using one of its top two choices to find that player.
Those picks should be used on positions of greater need, such as the defensive backfield and offensive line.
The safest bet for Gruden and Allen would be to snare an able veteran to plug the gap next to Riley.
Bringing Back Brian Orakpo
Retaining Brian Orakpo is a no-brainer. He is a game-changing pass-rusher, and those players never lose value in the NFL. The choice becomes a tough one when deciding the terms of Orakpo's return.
He could command a lot of money on the market following a 10-sack season. One option is to adorn Orakpo with the franchise tag.
Joel Corry of CBS Sports broke down the figures for this approach:
The most important player headed to free agency is Orakpo. The two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker has 10 sacks in his return from tearing his left pectoral muscle last season for a second time. Since Orakpo views himself as an elite pass rusher, it will probably require a long-term deal in excess of $10 million per year with over $30 million in guarantees to retain him. Using the franchise tag, which will be right around $11 million for linebackers, is also an option.
In the humble opinion of this writer, these numbers suggest using the tag is the best choice to make regarding Orakpo. An $11 million fee can easily be justified to keep a player capable of dominating on the edge.
When Orakpo is terrorizing left tackles and Cofield is disruptive inside, this defense works. There is not a free agent at this position who can match what Orakpo produces at his best.
Using the tag would also give Washington some insurance against a recurrence of injury concerns. Orakpo missed 14 games in 2012 thanks to a torn pectoral muscle.
Giving him another year to both prove he can stay healthy and deliver consecutive seasons with double-digit sacks is a smart move.
The other option is to take a less cautious approach and award Orakpo a bumper deal now. That would be gambling on both his durability and consistency.
Either way, it certainly makes no sense to part ways with a player who is about to enter his peak years.
The Scale of Changes Along the Offensive Line
A credible case can be made for four new starters along the offensive line. Only left tackle Trent Williams can really be deemed good enough to keep his place.
But finding four new capable starters is a tall order on a 3-13 team with more than a few holes to fill. Still, securing enough linemen to boost the quality and options along the front shouldn't be beyond the new regime.
Back in mid-December, I suggested targeting veteran free agents like right tackle Eric Winston and powerful guard Willie Colon. Both represent excellent value.
That would allow the team to target another interior lineman with a mid-round pick. In his full mock draft, Matt Miller has the Redskins taking Utah State center Tyler Larsen in the fifth round.
Larsen, or a player like Clemson's Brandon Thomas, would be a smart selection. The Redskins can't avoid retooling their O-line this offseason.
But they must make the right choices in terms of skill, experience and cost. If they do, they could successfully overhaul a group that was dreadful in 2013.
Last offseason, the Chicago Bears committed to remaking their offensive line. They signed free agents Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson and drafted Kyle Long and Jordan Mills.
All four became starters on a new-look front that did wonders for the Chicago offense. So it is possible to completely revamp this group, if Gruden and Allen are shrewd and selective.
Working in Some New Schemes in the Running Game
The expected hiring of former Redskins Super Bowl-winner Earnest Byner as running backs coach poses questions about what the rushing attack will look like in 2014.
For the last four seasons, the Redskins have relied on the famed zone scheme implemented by ex-head coach Mike Shanahan. The system allowed 2012 sixth-round pick Alfred Morris to produce back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
The foundation of the scheme and Morris' success is the stretch run, usually to the left. It became the trademark play of the Washington offense under Shanahan.
The problem is defenses have become much more adept at attacking this stretch run. In 2013, they blitzed the inside to gain early penetration.
Defenses also attacked straight downhill, splitting the gaps behind shifting offensive linemen. Defenders got to Morris before he reached the edge, where his cutback lane was often formed.
New offensive coordinator Sean McVay has indicated the running game will be very similar, according to ESPN reporter John Keim. But given how well teams are defending the stretch play, putting in a few new wrinkles may be wise.
Byner could help in this area. He has never failed to produce a 1,000-yard runner in his coaching career. He has also usually coached backs who thrived in a power-based system.
That's what he did with Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jacksonville Jaguars. He did the same with Chris Johnson and the Tennessee Titans.
The last time he was in Washington, from 2004-08, Byner helped Clinton Portis master the nuances of Joe Gibbs' power schemes. Most recently, runners for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thrived in a power scheme under Byner.
It is also worth noting that Gruden leaned on power running when he called the offense for the Cincinnati Bengals. He should add some different concepts to expand the rushing attack.
The tough part will be tinkering with what has worked, but not altering it too much to disturb what Morris does best.
Keeping Fred Davis
Deciding if Fred Davis still has a future in Washington will be one of the toughest decisions of the offseason. There are favorable arguments on both sides.
When it comes to dumping Davis, the player's own inconsistency, durability and poor habits have provided all the ammunition needed to justify that decision.
He missed nine games in 2012 after injuring his Achilles tendon against the New York Giants. That meant that one of the most productive playmakers on the offense was given the franchise tag, rather than a long-term deal ahead of this season.
Of course, the Redskins hardly missed Davis. Rookie Jordan Reed made sure of that. The third-round pick was brilliant as a roving "joker" in the offense.
So on the face of it, the Redskins no longer have a real need for Davis. But the issue is nowhere near that simple.
As good as Reed was, he had his own injury concerns. He missed the last six games of the season, during which he was shut down thanks to the effects of a concussion.
Without Reed, the Washington offense didn't have a credible receiving threat at the position. Davis has proved he has the ability to be a dynamic "move" tight end. Not bringing him back leaves little cover for Reed's particular skills.
Many would advocate getting Davis and Reed on the field together more often, something Gruden could do. When he was in Cincinnati, he featured both Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, two highly capable receiving tight ends.
With Davis and Reed available, the need to recruit another top wide receiver alongside Pierre Garcon becomes less pressing. The Redskins could find themselves in a strong position when it comes to negotiating a new deal with Davis.
A season spent on the fringes is not going to yield the kind of payday he might have expected even a year ago. If Gruden can get him to apply himself, Davis is a player worth keeping.
But it must only be on terms that suit the Redskins. The second Davis begins to haggle for more, Gruden and Allen should waste no time walking away from the table.
Fitting an Offense Around Robert Griffin III
Perhaps the toughest choice Gruden will have to make this offseason is how to tailor his familiar offensive system around the maverick skills of quarterback Robert Griffin III.
At the heart of the issue is striking a happy balance between read-option concepts while not exposing Griffin to too much risk and still improving his mechanics as a passer.
In his ESPN report, Keim notes McVay has promised to "hammer the fundamentals," particularly footwork, this offseason. Those are encouraging words, since Griffin needs to dedicate a lot of time to refining his mechanics.
But that shouldn't mean eliminating opportunities for Griffin to use his dual-threat talent to surprise defenses. When completely healthy, Griffin's ability as a runner scares defenders out of their wits.
Gruden should include some read-option elements to keep defenses honest. But few would argue against him scaling them back somewhat to protect Griffin.
Gruden, previously a naysayer regarding option-style attacks, has indicated he won't abandon the scheme entirely in D.C. Griffin has also stressed his desire to test himself in a more pro-based offense.
But wedging a natural freelancer like Griffin into a pro-style scheme is easier said than done. It will require a balancing act Shanahan never mastered.
Gruden's success will determine the fate of his own tenure.
Solving these nine issues can position Washington to enjoy a quick turnaround in 2014.