The 2016 NFL season is just around the corner. As such, Sportsnaut will be previewing all 32 teams before the games begin in September. Continuing the series, we remain in NFC East to visit the Washington Redskins — a team that has a lot of hopes riding on quarterback Kirk Cousins to replicate his 2015 campaign.
Before we look ahead, let’s take a glance at some key developments.
Washington Redskins 2016 Preview
Head Coach: Jay Gruden (second season)
Key arrivals: CB Josh Norman, SS David Bruton, DE Kendall Reyes, TE Vernon Davis
Key departures: CB Chris Culliver, QB Robert Griffin III, RB Alfred Morris, LB Keenan Robinson, DT Terrance Knighton
1. Is Kirk Cousins the long-term answer at quarterback?
Ah, the $20 million question. Cousins and the franchise couldn’t agree to a long-term deal this offseason, and after the deadline passed we found out why. Apparently he was offered just $16 million per year by the club, which is far from what we’ve grown to expect for a top young passer.
So, for one season, he’s going to earn $20 million on the franchise tag. Cousins understands why this is the case, and so do we: Washington isn’t sure he’s the long-term answer.
It’s not hard to see why this is the case, either. Discounting the final 10 games of the 2015 season, Cousins has been mediocre, at best, as an NFL quarterback. Taking away his 23 touchdowns and three interceptions in that stretch, the former Michigan State quarterback had previously thrown 24 touchdowns and 27 interceptions.
Not only that, but even last year, Cousins wasn’t exactly a rock on the road.
Kirk Cousins' 2015 splits show a certain unevenness. Should Skins' fans be worried? pic.twitter.com/NInEFv1FXL
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) July 28, 2016
With this in mind, it’s going to be very interesting to see how Cousins handles things in 2016. He’ll either be viewed as a franchise passer, worthy of the big bucks, or he’ll be labeled a one-year wonder, leaving Washington to look elsewhere.
2. How good is Josh Norman, really?
Nobody can deny the fact that Norman was one of the NFL’s top cover corners in 2015. It’s an indisputable fact.
But what nobody can definitively say at this point is whether or not last year’s effort is the new norm for him or if it was just a ridiculous flash in the pan.
Obviously Washington thought it was the former, given the team’s willingness to pay Norman the big bucks this offseason (details here) after Carolina abandoned the rights to his services him like used tissue paper.
If he is that same guy, then he and Baushad Breeland have a chance to do something special on the corners for this defense. If not, then we can just chalk the team’s decision to pay Norman up as just one more bad Redskins personnel move — one in a long, long line of them.
3. Can the defense carry Washington?
One of the interesting things about Washington’s offense is that we have no idea how good or bad the running game will be. Matt Jones had some good and bad spots during his rookie season, and behind him, there isn’t anyone who has much bankable experience.
So, imagine for a second that the running game falls apart and Cousins reverts back to his old, turnover-prone ways. The only way Washington wins in this scenario is if the defense is just that damn good.
Some have suggested this is the case. General manager Scot McCloughan has done an outstanding job bringing in talent up front, and the addition of Norman would appear to solidify the back end (though questions at safety do still exist).
The loss of Junior Galette was huge, but Washington has a young player who could do a fine job in his stead (more on that in a second).
On paper, this defense does appear to have some dynamic potential to not only shut offenses down but to also create turnovers and score points.
Preston Smith, outside linebacker
Washington experienced a setback when outside linebacker Junior Galette tore his Achilles tendon and was lost for the year. Thankfully, Preston Smith appears ready to take over as an impact player on the edge.
Head coach Jay Gruden recently praised the young linebacker.
“He’s bigger, he’s stronger, and he’s faster this year,” Gruden said, per Master Tesfatsion of the Washington Post. “I think he’s going to be a heck of a pass rusher for us here for a long time, but out here it’s going to be real important for him to get even better.”
One of the reasons Smith could excel is that he has a ton of help up front. Guys like Trent Murphy, Ryan Kerrigan and Chris Baker will keep opposing offenses busy, allowing Smith one-on-one chances to get to the quarterback.
Last year he had a huge final few games, registering four sacks in the last three contests, totaling eight on the year. This was likely just a sign of things to come.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The offense appears poised to take the next step passing the ball. In addition to Cousins’ breakout second half last year, the team brought in rookie Josh Doctson to play with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Paul — a tremendous trio if all stay healthy.
As we mentioned above, the defense looks really good on paper and appears to have the personnel to shut down both the run and the pass. With uncertainty in Philadelphia and New York, and with Tony Romo’s health always in doubt for Dallas, the division could be there for the taking in 2016.
REASON TO DOUBT
It seems unreasonable to assume Cousins will come close to replicating his ridiculously good 10-game stretch to close out last season. On top of that, he is likely to find less than ideal support from the running game, as we mentioned could be the case.
Also, rookie receiver Doctson is getting off to a late start after injuring his Achilles this offseason, and the team tends to end up on the short stick on the injury front more often than not these days, it seems.
Prediction: 9-7, first place in NFC East