Washington Redskins' Most Likely Postseason Award Candidates for 2014 Season
A stellar third season in the pros can erase the memory of 2013's debacle to announce his comeback as a feared playmaker. How his numbers compare to the other elite players at his position will depend on Griffin's ability to respond to a new head coach.
Defensively, a veteran free agent has the potential to dominate in a more expansive scheme. Meanwhile, the team's top draft choice this year will be a contender for a rookie honor.
Here are Washington's leading candidates to scoop up postseason accolades.
AP Defensive Player of the Year: Jason Hatcher, DT
Jason Hatcher is the best signing this team made during the offseason. The experienced defensive tackle gives the Washington defense something it sorely lacked in 2013: pressure from the interior.
His impact in Washington will be even greater. His ability to collapse the pocket inside will boost how the entire defense generates pressure.
It will prevent double-teams on the outside against edge-rushers Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and rookie Trent Murphy. But Hatcher will also draw blockers away from nose tackle Barry Cofield, another capable pass-rusher through the middle.
Of course, Hatcher's role won't just be about diverting attention away from others—far from it. The threats posed on the outside will naturally leave him facing some single blocking, which is a recipe for disaster for any offense.
More specifically, he has given coordinator Jim Haslett a player who expands how the front seven can rush the passer. Hatcher's presence makes the use of more stunts, twists and different looks possible.
He is athletic enough to twist to the outside around Orakpo, allowing the outside 'backer to crash over a guard. Alternatively, Hatcher could easily slant across Cofield, while the nose tackle loops around him on an inside game.
Those are just two basic examples of how Hatcher expands things up front, but the overall possibilities add up to significantly more. Haslett is keen to use more attack-minded principles up front, per ESPN.com reporter John Keim: "But the plan and thought is to be more aggressive with their primary rush -- using more one-gap system rather than the two-gap in which the linemen are just there to hold up the blockers."
Haslett can shift Hatcher along the front into different gaps to set him free. He will be the key to a more dynamic and interesting pressure defense, something new head coach Jay Gruden wants to show quarterbacks, according to another report from Keim: "As you know, great quarterbacks, if you're vanilla, they will kill you. So we have to be exotic a little bit here and there. But also sound in what we do."
With Hatcher on board, this defense certainly won't be vanilla. If he delivers, the former Dallas Cowboys star can emulate Houston Texans ace J.J. Watt, another dominant interior rusher who claimed the league-wide award in 2012.
AP Comeback Player of the Year: Robert Griffin III
It's easy to envisage a scenario where Robert Griffin III comes back strong this season. After all, he has a cast of weapons around him that most quarterbacks would envy.
As if that trio wasn't enough, 2012's second overall pick is also complemented by a dominating ground game, led by two-time 1,000-yard rusher Alfred Morris.
But just as important as the talent around him, Griffin's health, along with his enthusiasm playing under a new coach, will be key to his turnaround.
Washington fans know the story well enough by now. Major offseason knee surgery, followed by a recovery schedule he didn't like, combined with playing for Mike Shanahan, which should come with its own health warning.
Those factors meant Griffin stumbled through a poor second season in the NFL. With his mobility reduced, the dual-threat ace was challenged to make reads and throws he has yet to master.
But all of that should change in the new season. He has the benefit of a full offseason, something he values dearly, according to Mark Maske of The Washington Post.
The early effect is obvious, per USA Today reporter Jim Corbett, who has noted that the technical aspects of Griffin's game already look better. With improved talent around him, as well as a full schedule of preparation, he can rebound from his injury-enforced struggles in 2013 in a big way.
If he does, The Associated Press will have no trouble anointing him with the comeback prize.
AP Defensive Rookie of the Year: Trent Murphy, OLB
Trent Murphy may be an outside candidate for a postseason award, considering he won't be a full-time starter as a rookie. But if Haslett uses him right, Murphy can create havoc in his first year in D.C.
The team's second-round pick should be able to establish a niche as a situational pass-rusher of merit. He led college football with 15 sacks in 2013, per cfbstats.com.
That number is evidence of a pass-rusher with a natural instinct for getting to the quarterback. He is joining a defense that operates a similar multiple 3-4 scheme to the one he played in at Stanford.
But his real value will be in nickel packages. That's where he can join the likes of Hatcher, Cofield, Orakpo and Kerrigan to form a fearsome quintet of rushers.
Just like Hatcher's impact on the base defense, Murphy's presence in the nickel will expand the possibilities for Haslett. In particular, Haslett will be able to not only rotate his best pass-rushers but also confound blocking schemes with different looks.
That's something ESPN.com reporter John Keim has detailed, with a focus on Murphy:
They also have it at outside linebacker where they now have three players who can line up in a variety of ways to rush the passer with Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and now Trent Murphy. All three are fine rushing with their hand down or standing up; from both sides or even through the middle. Now, whether Murphy will be effective in doing so, it's impossible to say without having seen him in a game. But, in theory, it provides options for Haslett and the ability to use different looks and a better variety of blitzes.
But what that group offers is not just the ability to move around, but to provide different looks for a tackle (or even a guard). After blocking Orakpo much of the game, a left tackle might not be prepared for, say, Murphy's spin move. They can throw a curve at a player just by sending someone different at the right time. At least that's what the Redskins hope. Everything always sounds good at this time of the year.
Expect to see a lot of Murphy this season, as Haslett gets more daring with his use of sub-packages. With ample talent around him, Murphy's skills can shine in a strong group of pass-rushers.
If he can break the double-digit mark for sacks as a situational rusher, he will significantly upgrade a defense that registered just 36 sacks last season, per NFL.com.
That ought to put him in the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
AP Offensive Player of the Year: DeSean Jackson, WR
Nothing particularly creative here, but DeSean Jackson has to be this team's best candidate to win the AP Offensive Player of the Year award.
The former Philadelphia Eagles flanker should be a true terror in Gruden's offense.
As offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, Gruden loved the deep ball. He frequently utilized the vertical speed and height mismatch offered by wide receiver A.J. Green. Now Gruden has Jackson, who can stretch the field as well as any wideout in football.
More importantly, in Griffin, Gruden has a quarterback with a stronger arm than Cincinnati passer Andy Dalton. Launching a deep strike is the one thing Griffin can really do. Jackson's greatest challenge may be keeping up with the flight of the ball.
Together, Griffin and Jackson should form a lethal connection. Their threat will be made even greater by Gruden's ability to manipulate coverage.
With players such as Garcon, Reed and Andre Roberts able to occupy underneath defenders, Gruden will be able to draw safety help away from Jackson's coverage.
Giving Jackson a one-on-one matchup on the outside is an invitation to the deep ball, and Gruden is a coach who won't be afraid to call it every time it's there.
Jackson can put up huge numbers, provided Griffin gets him the ball. Jackson will also still be able to move around formations and challenge defenses on screen plays.
There was a lot of risk to signing him, but the potential rewards are far greater. If he and Griffin jell, Jackson will be among the league's most dominant offensive players in 2014.
League MVP: Robert Griffin III, QB
Robert Griffin III is always going to attract award voters. His media personality—carefully and cynically cultivated or not—keeps Washington's quarterback in the spotlight.
After a 2013 campaign of turmoil, the question is, Can Griffin emerge in a better light this season? That will be determined by his performances, which will depend on how he responds to new coaching.
The non-Mike Shanahan factor will be massive for the whole franchise this season, but its benefits should be most apparent in Griffin. He'll have to learn to co-exist under Gruden, who was certainly hired based on his perceived ability to maximize the quarterback's talent.
The relationship between the pair has begun positively, according to NFL.com reporter Albert Breer:
And that brings us back to the crucial nature of the relationship between Gruden, a former quarterback himself and a teacher of the position by trade, and Griffin. The third-year Redskin is reluctant to expound on it now, because he knows the implications of his words and how they could be projected back to last year. But Gruden sees positive signs.
Not to be a cynic, but the early signs are almost always positive. The trick will be keeping things that way while ensuring Griffin significantly improves his overall mechanics and pocket awareness.
That will also call for some flex on Gruden's part, something he has acknowledged, per Breer:
In describing Griffin as a dreamt-up video-game terror, Gruden freely admits there's a personal challenge rooted in his lack of experience with dual-threat quarterbacks. He's learning, too. He doesn't want Griffin to have his head ripped off. He also doesn't want to black out a rare athlete's electricity.
That hint at compromise in what Gruden will allow Griffin to do is encouraging. Shanahan was notoriously inflexible and never struck the right balance with Griffin.
His offense was either too much read-option or too pocket-oriented. Striking the right balance is the only way to bring the best out of Griffin on a consistent basis.
If that happens, the Washington offense will be close to unstoppable this season. Griffin will be the biggest reason why, and that will put him in the MVP conversation.
If he leads a worst-to-first turnaround, which is not out of the question for this team in the NFC East, he will be one of the award's strongest candidates.