Ranking Washington Redskins' Best Players So Far This Season

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistOctober 24, 2017

Ranking Washington Redskins' Best Players So Far This Season

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    Defensive players dominate the list of the 3-3 Washington Redskins' 10 best performers in 2017, despite a second-half collapse against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football in Week 7.

    The Redskins lost 34-24 at Lincoln Financial Field because an injury-hit secondary couldn't cope with Carson Wentz and his receivers. Even so, members of the pass rush continued to thrive while the run defense also maintained its upward surge during the second half of this calendar year.

    Sadly, for Washington it's been a different story on offense. The unit has regressed after losing key talent at the wide receiver position. It's no surprise quarterback Kirk Cousins doesn't make this list as he still waits for somebody, anybody to step up and replace DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon.

    At least Cousins has been able to count on two situational players to help him out. No. 8 has leaned heavily on his third-down back and second tight end so far, with both putting together their own outstanding seasons.

    Find out which 10 players have been Washington's best after six games this season.

Matt Ioannidis, DT

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    Rating as one of the most pleasant surprises on the team merits Matt Ioannidis a place on this list. The second-year defensive tackle spent portions of 2016 on the practice squad, but he has emerged as a key situational pass-rusher this year.

    Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has trusted Ioannidis to play inside in nickel sets, a role he has seized with enthusiasm. The former Temple ace has helped himself to 3.5 sacks and generated a ton of pressure along the interior.

    It's become common to see Ioannidis shove a guard back into the lap of a hapless quarterback. Push this strong shrinks the throwing windows for passers also mindful of Washington's dangerous edge-rushers.

    Any game-changing pass rush succeeds when heat from the outside is complemented by pressure from the middle. Ioannidis is supplying ample amounts of the latter.

    He is not as heralded as many of the other front-seven studs who have made Washington's defense a force this season. Yet Ioannidis is just as responsible for the rapid and significant improvements on this side of the ball.

Jonathan Allen, DT

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    Washington's D sacked Wentz three times in Week 7 but still missed the presence of top draft pick Jonathan Allen. The 17th-overall pick in this year's draft has been ruled out for the remainder of his rookie year after surgery to deal with a Lisfranc injury.

    It means the Redskins had only five games to glimpse and appreciate Allen's undoubted potential. The upside was obvious from a player who made himself a force in sub-package situations.

    Allen registered his first sack as a pro during Week 3's win over the Oakland Raiders. He was also in on 10 tackles before injury struck against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6.

    More than his numbers, Allen was displaying a natural talent for disruption. Like Ioannidis, No. 95 was creating the consistent push on the inside of the pocket that quarterbacks hate.

    He was also offering greater flexibility to Manusky's looks and schemes in sub-package situations. Allen's ability to play all over the line, honed at Alabama, was only teasingly exploited by Manusky, who occasionally lined him up at end and even inside linebacker on one occasion against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4.

    Allen was steadily becoming somebody Manusky could rely on, with the rookie appearing on 50 percent of Washington's total defensive snaps before Week 7, according to Brian McNally of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

    Washington's top pick this year looked primed to get better and more productive each week. Replacing his versatility and dynamism won't be easy.

Ryan Grant, WR

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    Washington's primary choices to replace Jackson and Garcon haven't done the job this season, and they know who they are. Cough, Terrelle Pryor Sr. and Jamison Crowder, cough.

    However, the one silver lining for a generally disappointing receiving corps has been the play of its fringe pass-catchers. In particular, Ryan Grant has proved a useful clutch target with a true nose for the end zone.

    The 26-year-old has reeled in 16 catches for 177 yards and a pair of touchdowns. One of those scores made for a game-winner on the road in Week 2 against the Los Angeles Rams.

    Reliability has made Grant valuable this season. He's catching what's coming his way, with Evan Silva of Rotoworld (h/t Yahoo Sports) noting before the loss in Philly how the fourth-year wideout had been targeted 20 times through five games.

    Meanwhile, Rick Snider of the Washington Post noted how Grant has outplayed both Pryor (the man the Redskins signed from the Cleveland Browns this offseason to replace Jackson) and Josh Doctson (the team's top draft pick in 2016).

    Big plays and monster yards won't ever be Grant's strengths, but he is demonstrating he can be counted on to keep the chains moving and deliver in the red zone when his team needs him.

    That's more than can be said for most of Washington's wideouts so far this season.

Jordan Reed, TE

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    Even after a stop-start beginning to his 2017 season, Jordan Reed has still caught more passes than any other member of Washington's offense. In fact, if Week 7's performance is anything to go by, the Redskins' biggest threat in the passing game is just about back to his awesome best.

    Reed made eight catches for 64 yards against the Eagles, including snagging two touchdowns in the red zone. His instinct for paydirt inside the 20 is invaluable to an offense often struggling for identity and answers in this critical area.

    Those struggles disappear with Reed on the field because he's a walking, talking matchup nightmare. His first touchdown against the Eagles, a five-yard catch off a slant route, exemplified the flexibility Reed lends Washington's offense near the goal line.

    Head coach Jay Gruden split the multi-use tight end out as a de facto wide receiver, forcing the Eagles to use cornerback Patrick Robinson to match up one on one.

    Yet 5'11", 191-pound Robinson was no match physically for 6'2", 246-pounder Reed. The obvious mismatch gave Cousins an easy read and quick throw for a score.

    It was a similar story for Reed's second TD, this one a 12-yarder off another slant route when corner Jalen Mills tried to match up. Matching up is something defenses find tough to do against a joker-style tight end big and quick enough to strike from multiple alignments and on a variety of pass patterns.

    Reed has struggled to be fully healthy all season and missed the win over the Raiders in Week 3. Yet he has still been Cousins' favorite target, only underlining his importance to this offense.

    His importance will only grow as the difficult adaptation to life without Garcon and Jackson continues to unfold. Reed's threat in the red zone, as well as his ability to create space for others, means he'll have to carry the full weight for Washington's passing game this season.

    Fortunately, he is already putting up decent numbers and breaking records even in limited action, per Jake Kring-Schreifels of the team's official website. He detailed the significance of Reed's second touchdown grab in Week 7: "With the completion, Reed passed Jean Fugett for third-most career receiving touchdowns (22) by a tight end in Redskins history, trailing only Jerry Smith (60) and Chris Cooley (33) among tight ends in team history."

    These tantalizing glimpses of what he can do when fully healthy indicate Reed will be better than ever this season.

Brandon Scherff, G

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    It was no coincidence an otherwise impressive Redskins offensive line fell part when Brandon Scherff left the field with a knee injury against the Eagles on Monday night.

    Without their starting right guard, the Redskins began letting Philadelphia pass-rushers into Cousins face barely after the quarterback had taken his second step. Backup guard rookie Chase Roullier simply couldn't cope with Fletcher Cox and Derek Barnett along the interior.

    The running game also disintegrated, as Washington mustered just 75 yards on the ground.

    Of course, it shouldn't surprise anybody that losing Scherff would have this level of impact on Washington's ability to boss the line of scrimmage. The second-year pro is quickly becoming one of the toughest interior maulers in football.

    Scherff brings a level of nasty to Washington's blocking, thanks to a mindset based on bullying defenses—not beating them with finesse. Without him, the Burgundy and Gold go from bullies to bullied.

    Scherff's significance makes the initial news about his injury all the more concerning, per Rich Tandler of NBC Sports Washington: "Coach Jay Gruden said that he had an MCL injury and that he will get an MRI on Tuesday. He left the game late in the third quarter and did not return. Scherff rarely takes plays off and the feeling is that he could have a significant injury. He headed to the team bus to the airport with a brace on the knee."

    Losing Scherff for a lengthy period would severely stunt the development of one of the league's better offensive lines, robbing the group of its best player so far this season.

Preston Smith, OLB

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    It's hard to pinpoint exactly what has changed for Preston Smith. He showed flashes of dominance as a rookie but took his eye off the ball completely in 2016.

    Yet the light has gone on for Smith this season. He has already equalled last season's total of 4.5 sacks as well as making 18 tackles and breaking up a pass.

    Smith looks quicker off the ball, faster around the corner and stronger at the point of attack. Those improvements have made him a greater force against both the run and the pass.

    More importantly, Smith's upsurge in production is creating too many threats for offenses to block. Most offenses need to focus on Ioannidis, Ryan Kerrigan and Zach Brown. However, those who ignore Smith do so at their peril this season.

    Seeing Smith leave the field with a groin injury against the Eagles, per the team's official Twitter account, is one more headache for Gruden and Manusky. Neither will want to see one of the best weapons on defense sidelined for long.

Zach Brown, ILB

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    Zach Brown has proved a true bargain after signing a one-year deal late in the offseason. He has given the Redskins a versatile playmaker at the heart of defense, one who has expanded the playbook for Manusky.

    Knowing he now has an athlete who can get downfield in a hurry has allowed Manusky to be more aggressive with his pressure schemes. More aggression has meant dialling up A-gap blitzes to let Brown overwhelm blockers in the middle.

    Those schemes led to 1.5 sacks against the Eagles for Brown. They were the signature moments of a game-wrecking show from the player voted to the Pro Bowl as a member of the Buffalo Bills last season.

    It hasn't just been about his pass-rushing chops, though. He demonstrated against the Eagles how effective he is against the run, per Pro Football Focus:

    "Brown finished his night with a good 82.4 run-defense grade while also earning average grades as both a pass-rusher and in coverage. He led both defenses with seven total stops (a solo tackle resulting in a 'loss' for the offense) and this was his third game of the season where he didn’t miss a tackle. Brown also earned three pressures on the day on nine pass-rush snaps, including his first two sacks of the season."

    Brown has been in on 63 tackles and regularly leads the charge for the NFL's ninth-ranked run defense. He has recorded eight stuffs already this season, per ESPN.com, further proof of his impact in the running game.

    Getting Brown into the backfield more often has been the catalyst for improvements against both the run and the pass. He has wasted no time establishing himself as the versatile playmaker Washington's front seven lacked for too long.

Vernon Davis, TE

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    Vernon Davis is ignoring the sands of time in 2017 to enjoy an outstanding season so far. The 33-year-old is averaging 19.5 yards per reception, the most per catch of any player on the Redskins' offense.

    Not many tight ends could maintain such a strong vertical threat in their 13th season. Yet Davis is regularly stretching the field for a passing attack still missing Jackson's downfield threat.

    His ability to go deep was showcased by two 31-yard receptions in the first half against the Eagles. On each occasion, Davis used his veteran savvy to get free in the middle before turning on deceptive speed to create a big play after the catch.

    Having Davis in this sort of form is a major fillip for the Redskins' offense. Most teams would love to have even one tight end as good as Reed or Davis.

    Being able to field them both is the main reason Washington ranks sixth in passing despite lacking a legitimate No. 1 wideout.

Ryan Kerrigan, OLB

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    Ryan Kerrigan has cemented his status as the one elite player on Washington's front seven this season. He has already logged four sacks, batted down a pass, forced a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown.

    One of the results of Kerrigan's all-action displays is that he has become a marked man for offenses. Yet his increasing versatility has encouraged Manusky to move his best player around more often in 2017.

    The sack Kerrigan was in on against the Eagles revealed the new looks the Redskins can unleash on offenses this season. It came when Kerrigan was shifted inside to line up at defensive tackle next to Smith, with Junior Galette taking the other edge.

    Kerrigan's stunt, along with middle linebacker Mason Foster's blitz through the A-gap, instantly wrecked the Eagles' blocking schemes and crushed the pocket around Wentz. Kerrigan has played on both sides and along the interior and been stood up in the middle at times this season.

    The movement is making an already outstanding pass-rusher a more consistent game-wrecker in 2017.

Chris Thompson, RB

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    No player has been more impressive for the Redskins so far this season than Chris Thompson. The dual-threat third-down back has been a prolific source of big plays and points, both as a receiver and runner.

    Thompson is leading the team in receiving yards with 366 off 23 catches. He's also Washington's leading rusher, having averaged five yards on 43 carries, adding up to 213 yards on the ground.

    Five touchdowns—three as a receiver, two as a rusher—have been the result of Thompson's banner year. One of those scores came on Monday night, when Thompson took a shallow hook route seven yards into the end zone for Washington's first touchdown.

    Gruden had created the space for his most productive playmaker by having a trips set on one side of the formation while Thompson snuck through the line on the other. The scoring grab matched a franchise mark from 12 years ago, per the team's official website: "Thompson became the first Redskins back to catch at least three touchdown passes in a season since fullback Mike Sellers (seven) in 2005."

    Defenses are struggling to track Thompson, despite his threat, because of the increasingly creative ways Gruden and his staff are using the versatile back. Thompson is the catalyst for this season's offense and the one player the Redskins can't afford to lose.

    The players on this list have been carrying the load for a team more talented than its record suggests but stretched to the breaking point by injuries.