Ranking the 7 Biggest Upgrades Washington Made This Offseason
In an unpredictable NFC East, Jay Gruden made some offseason moves that should see his Washington Redskins team back in contention.
Although being offseason champions hasn't worked out very well for the Burgundy and Gold in the past, this year's additions were rooted in need.
Ranking the list was based on the following criteria:
- The player has to have proven experience in the NFL to be considered an upgrade. Sorry, rookies.
- Coaching staff can be included, but the same rules apply. So despite Gruden appearing to be an excellent addition, he's never been an NFL head coach before. The situation in D.C. might be more pleasant right now, but he doesn't rank as an upgrade over Mike Shanahan. Not yet, anyway.
- The player also had to be a new arrival. Free agents who were re-signed don't count.
That's it. Read on for the rankings.
7. Brian Baker, Outside Linebackers Coach
As long as Washington has Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan bookending its linebacker group, it will always be a threat.
However, last year the defense didn't exert enough pressure on the quarterback, which left the secondary exposed.
Enter Brian Baker.
He has gained the confidence of the players and beat writers in very quick time, as this reference from John Keim at ESPN will testify:
When it comes to the pass rush, Baker’s arrival could be a big one... One player said that in the past the coaches were more focused on their assignments; Baker emphasizes fundamentals and how they can win on a play. Entering camp, the outside linebackers have more confidence in what they can do as pass-rushers than they had in the past.
The fact that Baker is spending individual time with the players is very encouraging. In hiring a pass-rush specialist, Gruden has made it clear that he wants Orakpo and Kerrigan to be a force this year.
Combined with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's predilection for inventive blitz packages, he should get his wish.
6. Shawn Lauvao, Guard
Whether you think Shawn Lauvao was worth the contract he signed to come to Washington is now immaterial.
Watching Kory Lichtensteiger and Chris Chester get run over every week made it clear that help was needed at guard. The jury's still out on Josh LeRibeus and Adam Gettis, so Lauvao fulfills the need.
When he's on form, Chester is a better run-blocker than Lauvao. However, the emphasis will almost certainly be on developing Robert Griffin III as a passer, and it's here where Lauvao will earn his money.
At 6'3" and 315 pounds, Lauvao brings the size that Gruden likes. He also displays good blitz recognition and excellent awareness in pass protection. Opposing rushers should have to find another route to the quarterback this year.
Of course, that's likely to be through Tyler Polumbus at right tackle, but that's a conversation for another day.
There are still some lingering doubts about Lauvao in the run game and the effect this will have on Alfred Morris, but Gruden's ground scheme is unlikely to require as much finesse from the linemen, which will be to Lauvao's benefit.
5. Ben Kotwica, Special Teams Coordinator
The unit in most need of an upgrade last year was special teams—a unit that was painful and hilarious all at once. The deficiencies in tackling were bad enough, but the sheer lack of fight and determination was unacceptable.
Ben Kotwica is the man brought in to turn things around.
Things seem to be going well so far, too. Mike Jones at The Washington Post spoke of Kotwica's call to players to sign up for his "special forces" and that he is building the unit back up through "dedication, pride and precise technique."
Niles Paul was one of the players who looked like he cared about special teams last year, so it means a great deal that he's already praising his new coach, per Jones:
He’s getting everybody to buy into what he’s selling. We’re believing in him. That’s the big thing when you get a new coach, is guys believing in him...Guys are communicating, guys are wanting to make tackles. That’s what special teams is all about.
According to Jones, Kotwica has also got the other position coaches working with his special teams group to ensure they get the most of their time in camp. That experience will be invaluable as the season approaches or when players go down injured and guys further down the roster step in.
In addition to Kotwica, Gruden also bolstered special teams with proven vets like Akeem Jordan in order to instill leadership and belief into the unit. When the head coach understands the importance of special teams, his staff will inevitably do the same.
That dedication seems to be finding its way down the coaching chain.
4. Ryan Clark, Safety
Ryan Clark may be 34 and on a one-year deal, but no one is expecting him to shore up the secondary for the next decade.
He's back in town to mentor the young guys behind him while offering a serviceable patch to a position that has been cursed since Sean Taylor left this earth.
Clark appeared to be on the decline last year, so he may seem a little high on this list. However, Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo should make it their mission to absorb everything Clark knows about playing safety. In fact, if Thomas and Rambo don't have lockers on either side of Clark, something is wrong with this organization.
Santana Moss has already acknowledged the importance of Clark when speaking to Brian McNally at The Washington Times:
I love a guy like Ryan to be around just for what our defense was missing. I think with London leaving, Ryan is the next best guy to be out there, to be able to listen to and to be able to talk to these young guys.
With Thomas missing the entire 2013 season and Rambo looking out of his depth, the feeling is that they have some way to go before making their mark. The arrival of Clark shows that.
What it also shows, however, is that the coaches believe in the young guys and want to help them get better.
That's why Clark is so important to the team this year, and why he's on this list.
3. Andre Roberts, Wide Receiver
Andre Roberts is a committed, versatile receiver with excellent hands and a natural understanding of the game. Although the arrival of DeSean Jackson will inevitably reduce the number of catches Roberts gets, he still has a vital role to play in this offense.
Jay Gruden put it perfectly when he spoke to Zac Boyer at The Washington Times and outlined his plans for his group of pass-catchers:
It’s important for people to be in multiple positions, and the guys mentally who can handle it will have the edge up. Obviously, you want to look into the physical skill set of each player, but right now, it’s a great competition.
This is precisely where Roberts excels. Able to take on a physical role as a blocker, line up in the slot or make a tough catch over the middle in coverage, Gruden can line him up at the X, Y or Z and know that he can be relied upon. It doesn't hurt that he can return punts and/or kickoffs too.
He may have arrived with the expectation of being the No. 2 receiver, but Roberts will feature heavily in Gruden's plan to revitalize this offense.
2. Jason Hatcher, Defensive Line
It seems that Jason Hatcher will be placed on the PUP list when camp opens, but he remains integral to the success of the Redskins defense in 2014.
Adding a player like Hatcher, who racked up 11 sacks last year, will further reduce the pressure on the secondary and rush the opposing quarterback into a risky throw.
While it's true that Hatcher posted excellent sack totals in a 4-3 defense and average ones (2.3 per season) in a 3-4, he will be best used in a role that lets him roam along the line, creating mismatches and confusion.
As Kevin Patra at NFL.com noted, Gruden has extravagant plans for the player who terrorized quarterbacks last year:
We'll go out and play with our new toy when we get to training camp and figure out what we can do with him. In talking to him after we signed him, Jason is champing at the bit. A lot of people had him viewed as, 'I just want to be a 3-technique in a 4-3.' That's not true at all. He wants to move around, be a 4, be a 5, be a 3. That makes him more effective.
Gruden is preaching versatility seemingly every time he opens his mouth. In Hatcher, he has another new arrival capable of living up to expectations.
1. DeSean Jackson, Wide Receiver
It may be the obvious choice, but it's also the correct one.
The Redskins didn't have a player capable of what DeSean Jackson can do, and now that he is on the roster, they are immediately a better team.
Aldrick Robinson was the closest player to Jackson among the Washington receivers last year, but he was inconsistent and frustrating. He got better as the year went on, but he now faces a battle to stay on the roster.
Jackson opens up a whole new dimension to the offense. With him, Pierre Garcon, Roberts and Jordan Reed on the field, defenses cannot afford to double-team one guy, and against single coverage, any one of those four can take it to the house.
Jackson's speed is his main weapon. Knowing that he can beat them deep every time, defenders are forced to respect him and attempt to keep up. This allows him to run comebacks with great success, gaining separation, a first down and more.
It's vital that Griffin and Jackson develop some chemistry for this to work, as Griffin will be throwing to where he expects Jackson to be at the point of catch.
If he can't get separation on the short passes, Jackson will burn defensive backs by running deep routes to great success. Griffin is accurate with the deep ball and should have no trouble picking Jackson out in space.
Of all the excitement being generated this year, the possibility of the Griffin-Jackson combination is the one uppermost in the minds of fans.