Washington Redskins: Top 6 Positions That Will Have a New Starter in 2018
The Washington Redskins can start looking toward the future now they know they won't be involved in playoff football for yet another season.
It should be a future shaped by new starters at key positions along the offensive line and in the secondary. A combination of pending free agents and below-par incumbents will force the Burgundy and Gold into some tough decisions.
Yet they are nothing compared to the dilemma set to develop at quarterback. Kirk Cousins will either be the richest quarterback (and player) in the NFL in 2018 or he'll have received a third franchise tag from the Redskins.
It's beginning to look like he'll be throwing passes for somebody else instead.
There will also be the chance to add some talent to the heart of the front seven. A defense showing signs of life in the first half of this season may have dropped off the cliff in recent weeks, but a strong enough core remains to believe Washington will field a tougher unit next year.
Getting better on the other side of the ball will hinge on the Redskins being bold enough to use one of their top draft picks to address a longstanding deficiency in the backfield.
Find out which six positions will have a new starter in 2018.
Left guard was the weak spot on the Redskins' offensive line even before 2017's epic injury bug struck. The main reason is Shawn Lauvao has never been the powerful mauler he was expected to be after arriving from the Cleveland Browns in 2014.
Lauvao is ticketed for free agency next year, offering the Redskins a natural opportunity to upgrade their options at this important spot. Those options include a trio of potential in-house solutions.
Among them, the Redskins could move Ty Nsekhe inside to guard. Primarily the backup for Trent Williams at left tackle, he has rarely let Washington down when called upon to deputize.
He's also worked inside at times during this chaotic season, as line coach Bill Callahan has tried to adjust the Rubik's Cube while casualties mounted.
Nsekhe isn't the only name already on the roster who could replace Lauvao. Another option would be to shift Brandon Scherff from right to left.
Scherff was a standout left tackle in college before the Redskins wisely used the fifth-overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft to take him off the board. He has since developed into a formidable right guard, but a move back to his more familiar left side surely wouldn't be a stretch for a lineman this gifted.
If Scherff is entrenched on the right, Spencer Long could move out of the middle and back to his natural guard spot.
Long hasn't always convinced at center, but the Redskins did deem him convincing enough as a guard to use a third-round pick on him back in 2014.
Free agency will also offer some intriguing alternatives to Luavao, including Justin Pugh of NFC East rivals the New York Giants.
Any decision involving Long will naturally be determined by his own status as a pending free agent. There is a decent case to be made for keeping the former Nebraska ace.
For one thing, the versatility to play both center and guard is always valuable, particularly for an offensive line bitten so hard by injuries this season. The bigger issue, though, is whether Long is good enough to start at either position if the Redskins do opt to retain him.
Like left guard, center wasn't a standout position when everyone was healthy. It's also true the Redskins have a bigger need than most for a dominant player to anchor their front five.
This need is borne from the proliferation of quality defensive tackles in the NFC East. Two games a year against the Philadelphia Eagles mean two games trying to subdue the terrifying tandem of Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan.
Facing the Giants means the Redskins pitting their interior blockers against Damon Harrison and Dalvin Tomlinson. Even the Dallas Cowboys pose problems in the middle thanks to Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford.
The free-agency market isn't brimming with standouts, but Washington still has to find a more credible pivot for its O-line ahead of next season.
The top priority at inside linebacker has to be re-signing Zach Brown. He's set to become a free agent, but he has done enough through 13 starts to convince the Redskins they must bring him back.
Even if the NFL's leading tackler, who underwent foot surgery recently, per Master Tesfatsion of the Washington Post, is back and healthy, the Redskins will still need a better player alongside him.
Neither Mason Foster nor Will Compton have been up to scratch. Martrell Spaight and Zach Vigil have filled in for both, but they don't represent credible, long-term solutions at the position.
Let's assume the Redskins stick with their 3-4 scheme beyond 2017. Doing so would likely make choosing another new inside linebacker a lot easier.
It would mean having good reason to target a physical thumper, one beefy and aggressive enough to take on guards in the running game and play downhill to control the box.
"Whitehead is best between the tackles. As a run defender, Whitehead can spear through defenses on occasions and handle blocks adequately. He is not one to be worked out of plays on power and inside zone runs. Though not particularly athletic, Whitehead does a decent job of picking up on his run fits and triggering on time. He has collected seven tackles for loss on the year to lead Lions linebackers."
Klassen also noted the drawbacks to Whitehead's game, making specific reference to a lack of sideline-to-sideline speed and range in coverage. Fortunately, those aren't qualities the Redskins would necessarily need him to have.
Just like at center, the challenges posed in the division should be a big factor in choosing a new inside linebacker. Specifically, facing the Cowboys' mammoth offensive line and relentless interior rushing attack twice a year demands Washington's D is strongest in the middle.
Bashaud Breeland being headed for free agency means the Redskins could see a position of strength become a weakness in 2018.
Breeland is an important member of an enviable trio of cover men on the books for the Burgundy and Gold, along with Josh Norman and Kendall Fuller.
Aside from Cousins, Breeland is the one name among Washington's free agents who will generate the most interest. It's interest the Redskins may be willing for him to court given Fuller's rapid development this season.
The second-year slot corner has snatched a team-leading four interceptions, compared to Breeland's one. If Fuller is given a starting role on the outside could Breeland move into the slot? Would he even want to come back for what would essentially be a demotion, despite the increased importance of slot cornerbacks in today's NFL?
Fuller's rise, along with the lure of testing his worth in free agency, seems likely to send Breeland through the exit door at Redskins Park. It can be a positive, but only if the former is as good on the edge as he has been working the inside.
However, if Fuller can't make the same transition Chris Harris Jr. managed successfully with the Denver Broncos, Washington should commit to spending big to ensure Norman has a standout partner next season.
Injuries robbed the Redskins of the services of Rob Kelley and Chris Thompson, but the team's running game wasn't exactly wowing fans and tormenting defenses when both were healthy.
The injuries have given Samaje Perine a chance to shine, an opportunity the rookie has grasped with some gusto. The 22-year-old had back-to-back 100-yard games in Week 11 and 12 but has still averaged just 3.6 yards per carry.
While he can get better, Perine has the look of ultimately being a complementary piece rather than a lead back at the pro level.
Washington's ground game won't be the force it should be until the team acquires a bluechip talent at the position. Fortunately, the 2018 draft will offer plenty of prospects who fit the bill, according to Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated:
"Penn State's Saquon Barkley is fantastic, but it's not just him. LSU's Derrius Guice, Alabama's Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, Georgia's Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Stanford's Bryce Love, Auburn's Kerryon Johnson, USC's Ronald Jones, Miami's Mark Walton and Notre Dame's Josh Adams are among those who make this a deep, quality class."
Barkley is the standout name, despite some recent struggles, with Breer maintaining he is "still the do-everything, 21st-century prototype ."
Landing Barkley may be pie in the sky, even if the Redskins own a top-10 pick in next year's draft. Yet a workhorse such as Georgia's Nick Chubb, who remains productive despite suffering a gruesome knee injury earlier in his collegiate days, would be a steal in the second or third rounds.
However they go about it, the Redskins must land a true and dynamic feature back ahead of next season.
Over the last few years, I've regularly tried to make the argument for keeping Cousins. My reasons have usually fallen into distinct categories.
There's the "better-the-devil-you-know" argument. Cousins is a competent pro quarterback in an era generally short on them. It's better to stick with him than send the franchise wading through the murky and uninspiring waters of a free-agency market set to contain names such as Jay Cutler and Sam Bradford.
It's also true Cousins' struggles in 2017 have to be taken in the context of playing behind a makeshift line, throwing to an inconsistent bunch of largely unproven wide receivers and directing a unit with no run-pass balance.
Despite the best points from the case for the defense, though, it's getting harder to believe the Redskins will keep Cousins. He and the offense have nose-dived into the dirt in recent weeks, and it's difficult to see how any of No. 8's latest performances will convince Washington to make him the highest-paid player in the league.
It doesn't help when rumours like the one posited by Dan Patrick on The Dan Patrick Show (h/t CBS DC's Chris Lingebach) help make some possible sense of those struggles:
"I did a little research about the whole Kirk Cousins situation and what Marshall Faulk and Steve Smith, Sr. were saying about Kirk Cousins. Kirk Cousins is not well liked by his wide receivers. Not at all. So the behind the scenes intel is they're not big Kirk Cousins fans. I don't know what that means for Kirk Cousins staying in Washington, but I get the feeling now with the season over that Kirk Cousins is probably surveying the landscape, saying, ‘You know, Jacksonville might be a good place for me to go.'"
Patrick's point about Cousins' wandering eye is telling since the 29-year-old will surely know he can command top dollar should he opt to test the market. Remember, if the Redskins don't give him the megabucks deal he wants, the cost of tagging him for a third season in a row will be "nearly $34 million," according to Kevin Seifert of ESPN's NFL Nation.
With so many other needs to fix, can the Redskins justify this number? It's tough to say yes when the team is 5-8 with its current quarterback.
There is also the fact the market may contain Drew Brees, who even at 38, would be worth prying away from the New Orleans Saints. Even if it can't happen, the context Cousins is comfortably ensconced in this season crumbles when you take a look at what Case Keenum is doing for the Minnesota Vikings.
Keenum is thriving, despite being a career backup before this season. The tutelage he's getting from offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who should be a candidate to replace Jay Gruden as head coach of the Redskins, has helped.
Minnesota has proved what a difference astute coaching and smart game-planning can make for a quarterback, regardless of his natural talent or supporting cast.
The signs point to Cousins playing football in another city in 2018, making the search for a new starter under center Washington's top priority in the offseason.
All free-agency information per Spotrac.com.