Is the lockout over?
Oh well. Time for the speculation to begin.
If you've read my articles before, you know I'm something of an optimist. I love the Redskins, and I really want them to do well. I believe that having a positive attitude towards the team (that they will do well) is better than believing they'll do poorly (and then getting upset when they do what I thought they'd do.)
But even I can temper my expectations for my team. I understand that the team is in a rebuilding mode, and that they are a long ways off of being competitive in a meaningful way. But I do think they're closer to being good (or at least being decent) than they are to being horrible.
So, since the lockout rages on and I need something to soothe my mind, let's take a lot at 11 bold-but-realistic predictions for the Redskins 2011 season.
Why 11? Because I like to go one step beyond.
When Redskins general manager Bruce Allen came out and said that the Redskins were going to be aggressive in free agency, a lot of fans collectively groaned. There are some fans that wish we'd never sign another free agent, much less aggressively pursue anyone.
But, when Allen said the Redskins were going to be aggressive, I believe he meant that the Redskins would be aggressive in signing players in positions they couldn't address in the draft.
More surprising to me than the Redskins not drafting a quarterback was the fact that they only drafted one offensive lineman—and in the seventh round. When free agency opens up, that is the hole they'll be attacking most aggressively.
While everyone else piles into the Nnamdi market, the Redskins will make moves to help their offensive line. Last year, the Redskins wanted current Denver Broncos right tackle Ryan Harris but when they couldn't pry him away, they went after Jammal Brown instead.
With Brown currently not under contract, and with the Broncos drafting another tackle in the second round of the 2011 draft, one of the first names signed to spanking-new contract will be Harris, who Mike Shanahan originally drafted in 2007.
Davin Joseph and Robert Gallery are two other names that may end up in the burgundy and gold.
There's a lot of doom and gloom about the current offensive line. There shouldn't be. The line that ended the season last year won't be the one start starts this year.
There is no doubt that Ryan Torain was an absolute beast last year at times. But when you look at him closely, despite having some very good games, one has to wonder how good a fit he really is for the Shanahan system.
There's a reason why we talk about "one-cut running backs" when it comes to the Redskins. The definition of being a "one-cut back" is finding a hole, making a cut and accelerating through it. That's the bread and butter of the Redskins zone blocking scheme and their stretch plays.
A few too many times, instead of cutting through a hole, Torain decided to take the ball to the outside. Since he's not really a speed guy, taking it outside instead of simply hitting a hole and accelerating was actually detrimental instead of productive. And aside from the Bears, the other teams that Torain had 100-yard rushing games against (namely the Bucs and the Colts) didn't have the world's best run defenses.
Then you have to take into account that he wasn't the best blocker in the passing game either.
Mike Shanahan's praise of Torain has always been sort of tepid; in interviews, he always seemed to give more praise to Keiland Williams, who he practically gushed over. Why? Because, even though he didn't have the same production, Keiland was much better at hitting holes and at pass protection.
For that reason, I think fifth-round draft pick Evan Royster will end up making the Opening Day roster.
Royster fits the mold of what Shanahan wants in a running back a tiny bit better then Torain does—which isn't a slight against Torain; he's very talented. But if Royster proves to be a better pass protector and shows better field vision, then Mike Shanahan could flip Ryan Torain around for a draft pick to another running back-needy team.
Or, none of this is true, but Torain gets injured in training camp or preseason.
Yes, I know. There are more than a few lingering doubts about John Beck's ability to play, but what little I've seen of him, I like, and I think his skill set fits the offense well. Mike Shanahan has done a lot with lesser quarterbacks before, and stability at the position is key.
It seems less likely to me that Donovan McNabb will have the kind of success everyone is predicting wherever he goes. This will be the second new system he has to learn: new terminology, new concepts, new players and new coaching staffs.
Likewise, no matter where he goes, he will ultimately end up in the same position that ended his tenures in Philadelphia and Washington: younger, less dramatic players with more upside (potentially; the jury is still out on John Beck).
Therefore, I think Beck will end up having a better statistical season than McNabb does, wherever he may end up. McNabb will perform poorly after not being ingrained in a playbook very long, and will end up being benched before he completes a full season.
Donovan McNabb doesn't go to the Vikings. McNabb's going to want to be a starter, and he's going to want to be paid like a starter.
The idea of potentially having to re-sign Sidney Rice, sign their first-round quarterback Christian Ponder and their second-round tight end Kyle Rudolph, re-sign some of the veteran players and then still have to have enough money to re-sign Adrian Peterson next season will scare them off of signing McNabb—unless McNabb is willing to take way less money than he thinks he's worth.
If Elias kept stats on how many times a particular player was held, Brian Orakpo would have to rank among the top of the league in 2010. This is not the ranting of a homer; this is reality. He got mugged on a weekly basis it seemed.
Now, with Ryan Kerrigan added to the linebacker core, teams can't decide to simply chip to Orakpo's side. With Kerrigan grabbing some extra attention and with a second year in the system (not to mention a summer working out with DeMarcus Ware), Brian Orakpo will be an absolute beast and a monster to deal with, week in and week out.
Not to mention he's got a giant chip on his shoulder: He's tired of his team losing; he's been left off lists of the league's best pass-rushers; he was left off the Top 100 Players of 2011. Yeah, Rak is angry.
An angry Orakpo is a good Orakpo.
Rak will rack up double-digit sacks for the second time in his young career and make his third consecutive Pro Bowl. He'll put the league on notice and show everyone what happens when you ignore him.
And fans, we'll love it.
Despite all the drama of last season, Santana Moss was once again one of the most productive players on the Redskins offense.
It's been weird (and irritating) to see all the fans talk about how Moss should leave, because he "deserves to go to a winner," especially considering that the wide receiver who would be considered the "veteran" would be Anthony Armstrong. Even as a fan considering buying an Armstrong jersey, going into a season without Moss makes things all the more...daunting.
Moss has said it on his Twitter, to numerous reporters and blogs that he wants to return. The Redskins will sign him to a deal that works for both parties and allows him to retire as a Redskin, and Moss returns for one of his most productive seasons.
Moss shows that while he may not be a speedster, he's still got a lot left in the tank. With Leonard Hankerson able to command some attention and with Armstrong in his second year in the system as the deep threat (and we can't forget guys like Terrence Austin and Niles Paul), Moss returns and has another quiet, yet very productive, season.
Nnamdi Asomugha is the biggest free agent available on the market.
Aside from maybe inviting him to Redskins Park to talk to him, the Redskins will not aggressively pursue him.
His asking price will be too high (yes, even for Dan Snyder) and the Redskins won't tie up that kind of money (with Bruce Allen now managing the salary cap) when there are so many holes in the team and he's not really a scheme fit for what defensive coordinator Jim Haslett does.
Jim Haslett's scheme (and Pittsburgh and Green Bay's, for comparison's sake) use a lot more zone coverage than man, which is what the Raiders play. He's probably the best corner in the world, but one has to wonder if the 'Skins would be limiting his effectiveness.
Cornerback is a glaring hole, but I'm not quite sure Asomugha is the best way to fill it.
Word to those not high on Roy Helu: When Mike Shanahan moves up in a draft to get a running back, you might as well add him to your fantasy team.
Remember, Terrell Davis was a sixth-round draft pick; Olandis Gary was a fourth-round pick; Mike Anderson went in the sixth round; Ryan Torain was a fifth-rounder; and Peyton Hills was a seventh-rounder. Sure, there's Maurice Clarett in there to kind of screw things up, but he gets overtaken by Clinton Portis and Tatum Bell.
Shanahan knows running backs. The offensive line will be improved (see slide No. 1), and Helu is a perfect fit. He also has some blazing speed, and would be the first Redskins running back in a long time to really have some breakaway speed to rip a big-time run.
Helu has a great work ethic and is a high character guy. He'll slowly become the team's featured back and by the end of the season, the Redskins will have a new star running back.
Sadly, Nebraska Ned will not overtake Southeast Jerome.
For a third-round receiver on a team that no one thinks has any chance of winning anything, there does seem to be some healthy buzz around Leonard Hankerson.
The former Miami product has immediately endeared himself to the Redskins fanbase as a hard worker and a high character guy, and he seems to have the potential to be a steal.
I'd compare him to last year's breakout wideout Mike Williams. No matter who is throwing him the football, Hankerson will make the adjustment, come in and make an impact. Even if the Redskins aren't doing well, he'll still get attention for being a bright spot on offense and he'll be in the running for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Even if he doesn't win, Hankerson will put the NFL on notice that he'll be a big-time player for years to come and make all those teams feel sorry that they passed him by.
Yes, yes, I was on the "RUN THE BALL, KYLE!" bandwagon last season.
But after a few months and looking at some games, I realize that it wasn't that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan didn't want to run the ball. It was that he was frequently put in a situation in which running the ball wouldn't help; situations where putting points on the board was necessary to close out the game, or passing more was necessary to get them back into the game.
And you have to give the guy some slack: He was not working with what he was working with in Houston. A patchwork offensive line, only four viable weapons (Cooley, Moss, Armstrong and Davis on a good day) and a quarterback that struggled with the offense are not ideal situations for an offensive coordinator.
This year, with some fresh blood at the receiving positions, what should be a better offensive line and some young running backs, Kyle's play-calling will be a lot more even.
It'll still trend towards the pass—for a team that's used to the Joe Gibbs, one-back system and ground-and-pound, the team will never run the ball enough—but the ratio of pass-to-run will come down a lot more. And with a quarterback Kyle actually likes, the offense should look more like the Mike Shanahan offense we thought we were getting last year.
Oh, and he'll still jump routes.
But a year in the scheme and finally having a safety in OJ Atogwe that can help cover up some of the bigger risks he takes mean D-Hall will have more opportunities to flip the field position and be a playmaker. In recent years, Hall seems to have matured a bit and has emerged as a leader on the defense and isn't as overrated as people like to pretend he is.
Understanding his place in the defense will mean he has more opportunities to make plays, and he'll become a piece of a secondary that will look a whole lot scarier than it did before.
He'll still occasionally give up the big play, but altogether, he'll play much better than he did last year and lead the league in interceptions.
And then everyone will complain when he makes the Pro Bowl.
I know. We have no quarterback. We have no offensive line. We have too many old people and yet too many young people. We're a team in rebuilding mode, and we just need to hunker down and accept that we're going to lose.
The fact is, even a moderate improvement on the offense and defense could put the Redskins back on the winning track. I'm not saying they make the playoffs by any stretch, but winning is still feasible and within reach.
The teams we face next season have a combined record of 121 wins and 135 losses from last season. Only three of the non-divisional opponents we face made the playoffs in 2010—the Patriots, the Jets and the 7-9 Seahawks.
The quarterback situations on all those teams are all fluid: The Panthers and Vikings seem poised to start rookie quarterbacks; the Cardinals and Seahawks seem likely to reach out and sign free agents, who will have a truncated training camp in which to digest new playbooks; Alex Smith seems likely to return to the 49ers, but his play has been anything but consistent and he'll be learning yet another new offense; Chad Henne will be learning a new offense as well, and he has also struggled with consistency.
Even the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Sam Bradford will have to digest a new playbook in a limited amount of time.
If the Redskins have one thing going for them, it's continuity—something that a lot of the teams they face do not have. New head coaches, new quarterbacks, new coordinators abound everywhere on the teams they face.
Assuming Rex Grossman is re-signed, that is two quarterbacks who already know the offense. A whole team in one offense and one defense for more than one season, who will make improvements in free agency.
Looking at all the factors, the Redskins looked better poised for a bounce-back season than to be dwelling in the cellars of the NFL.
I'm not predicting we make a Super Bowl run at all. But an 8-8 or 9-7 season isn't at all out of reach, all things considered. Another touchdown here and field-goal kick there last season would've flipped the season from a 6-10 season to a 10-6 season.
The Redskins are closer to being decent (not good, mind you, but competitive at least) than they are to being dreadful. With (hopefully) less team distractions, an influx of youth and talent and teams potentially being worse off than we are (hey, win's a win, no matter who you beat or how you do it), the Redskins seem poised to have a bounce-back season.
And that's probably the most bold prediction of them all.