The Washington Football Team headed into the 2021 offseason as the defending champions of the NFC East, but that didn't necessarily mean a whole lot given that the team won just seven games in 2020.
Washington also entered the offseason with uncertainty at several positions—most importantly quarterback following the release of Alex Smith.
Washington headed into free agency with the most cap space of any playoff team from the NFC, per Vic Tafur of The Athletic. The team hasn't used that $39.3 million to go on a spending spree like the New England Patriots.
But in first adding veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and then a new weapon for that quarterback in wide receiver Curtis Samuel, Washington has strengthened the franchise's biggest weakness and established itself as the clear front-runner in the NFC East in 2021.
Fitzpatrick was the first big free-agent domino to fall in the nation's capital, inking a one-year deal that could be worth up to $12 million, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. It marks the ninth different team for the 38-year-old, who spent the past two seasons with the Miami Dolphins.
Given all those different teams and coaching staffs, Fitzpatrick has played in just about every offensive scheme you can think of. But Arif Hasan at The Athletic believes that "Fitzmagic" has the skill set to thrive in Scott Turner's offense in D.C.
"More than anything else, Fitzpatrick loves to challenge defenses, often throwing deep or intermediate against tight coverage. He also happens to be remarkably decisive, was one of the quickest quarterbacks in time to throw last year and has been among the top quarterbacks in the statistic over the past few years. Despite his age and experience, he shows some fairly nimble footwork in the pocket and tends to find a way to avoid turning pressure into sacks and can get rid of the ball on time to his target. He's almost purpose-built to be a Turner quarterback, if it wasn't for the constant interceptions. On the other hand, what's life without risk?”
Fitzpatrick's penchant for turnovers is a legitimate concern. He's tossed a whopping 169 picks over his career and hit double-digits in the category no one wants nine times. But since a disastrous final season with the New York Jets in 2016, Fitzpatrick has settled down a bit in that regard—four years in a row with more touchdowns than interceptions and a plus-21 TD-to-INT ratio over that span.
What Fitzpatrick also brings is both a better arm than either Alex Smith or Taylor Heinicke displayed last year and a willingness to use said arm to challenge defenses vertically. In news that should surprise no one, that will appeal quite a bit to Norv Turner's son.
And now, Fitzpatrick and Turner have a new wide receiver to terrorize opponents with.
A couple of days after signing Fitzpatrick, the WFT bolstered the passing-game weaponry at his disposal, agreeing to terms on a three-year deal with former Carolina Panthers wideout Curtis Samuel.
Samuel, who converted to wide receiver in the pros after playing running back at Ohio State, has steadily improved since entering the NFL in 2017. His fourth season with the Panthers was his best, with the 5'11", 195-pounder setting career highs in receptions (77 on 97 targets) and receiving yards (851) while topping 1,000 total yards for the first time in his career.
Granted, at 5'11" Samuel is a little undersized to play outside receiver. But that's not what he does best anyway. Samuel is a mismatch in the slot or catching the ball out of the backfield. He's more than capable of serving as a third-down running back, too. Samuel has caught passes of 40 or more yards in each of the past three years and has averaged 6.6 yards per carry running the ball in his career.
As Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said last November, there isn't much that Samuel can't do at a high level.
"He doesn't say very much, doesn't complain, doesn't make excuses; he's just got a tough mindset. And he does whatever needs to be done," Rhule said, via Alaina Getzenberg of the Charlotte Observer. “You can coach him. If he says something to me, I listen. I have a lot of respect for him. He's so versatile, to be able ... to have someone who can run and catch and get open and block, to do it at his level might be rare, and it's a lot of credit to him.“
It's not like Samuel will be alone in the Washington offense, either. After topping 1,100 receiving yards on 87 catches in his second professional season, Samuel's old Ohio State teammate Terry McLaurin has established himself as both a true No. 1 wideout and one of the top young receivers in the league.
Running back Antonio Gibson averaged 4.7 yards a carry and eclipsed 1,000 total yards as a rookie in 2020. Tight end Logan Thomas exploded for 670 receiving yards and six scores on 72 grabs last year despite shaky QB play.
Per Pro Football Focus, Washington's offensive line ranked sixth in the NFL a season ago—and after applying the franchise tag to All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff, that line returns intact in 2021.
It's one of the best assemblages of talent Fitzpatrick has ever had around him. Maybe the best.
It's also an offense that isn't going to be forced to carry the team.
Led by a D-line anchored by 2020 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young and that is full of former first-round talent, Washington finished second in total defense and pass defense, fourth in scoring defense and sixth in sacks last season. It was the defense that got Washington into the postseason, and said defense already addressed its biggest personnel loss this offseason (Ronald Darby) by signing cornerback William Jackson III.
Now that defense has help. And Washington has much more balance than the team did in 2020.
It's that balance that really makes this team frightening in 2021. The Philadelphia Eagles are a train wreck of a team in the opening phases of a rebuild and in salary-cap hell after trading Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts. Last year, the New York Giants looked like a playoff contender one week and one of the worst teams in the league the next. The Dallas Cowboys are loaded with skill-position talent, but the offensive line regressed badly last year and only four teams allowed more points per game.
Washington has the best defense in the NFC East hands down. And now the offense isn't far behind the Cowboys in terms of firepower. The team has a top-10 offensive line, a dangerous wideout duo in McLaurin and the newly signed Samuel, solid options at running back and tight end in Gibson and Thomas…and a quarterback in Fitzpatrick who can take full advantage of all that talent.
The limitations that were placed on the Washington offense by its revolving door of mediocrity under center last year are gone. Fitzpatrick is better than Dwayne Haskins. And Kyle Allen. And Heinicke. And, while he was a great story given the circumstances of his return, Smith.
Turner can take the training wheels off, open up the playbook and turn all those weapons loose. Let 'er rip.
The result of that will be the best Washington team we've seen in the better part of a decade. And maybe a contender to do more than just win one of the league's weaker divisions.