After taking a handful of days to catch up on rest (and forget what it was like to watch Jake Fromm play quarterback in that painful New York-Washington Week 18 finale), Pete Hailey is here to pass along one thing he learned this past season about each position group on Ron Rivera's roster.
First up, he tackles the offense (but not actually, since he's never really tackled anything)...
Quarterback: Ron Rivera can’t bide his time here any longer
In his first year in charge, Rivera tried to make it work at quarterback with the previous regime's first-round choice, Dwayne Haskins, as well as the previous regime's major trade acquisition, Alex Smith. The former passer is now literally a former passer for the club, while the latter steadied things enough in 2020 but was never going to be the real solution.
So, in his second round as head coach, Rivera opted to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick, hoping that the aging vet could provide enough of a spark for an offense and a team that could really use it. Instead, Fitz's stint lasted all of six throws before he suffered a hip injury, resulting in Taylor Heinicke leading the group the rest of the way.
With his third campaign on the horizon, Rivera's got to go big at QB. No more incumbents and no more stopgaps. He must make a serious investment at the spot, one way or another.
He understands that, too.
"Are we in position to do it?" he said to NBC Sports Washington's JP Finlay last week, referring to doing something drastic under center. "I think we've put ourselves in pretty good position."
If you're reading this story, you know the guys who have been discussed, from stars like Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson to other established signal callers like Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo to the various college prospects who'll be selected on the draft's first night to the currently-complicated Deshaun Watson. Some of those targets are far more tangible than others, yet Washington has to investigate them all.
Since 2020, Rivera's attempted to build up the rest of his depth chart so everyone else can make the quarterback look good. He's got two seven-win seasons to show for it. It's time for him and the front office to do things the other way around and go after a QB who has legitimate skills and a legitimate future.
Running back: Antonio Gibson is getting really damn good at this
Not everything about Gibson's 2021 was encouraging — he lost four fumbles and his yards-per-carry average dropped .7 yards to an even 4.0 — but he certainly put together plenty of stretches where he performed like a true, and scary, NFL running back.
There was his outing against Tampa Bay, for example, an afternoon where he only had 64 yards but earned every single one of them (and ensured Buccaneers defenders felt every single one of them as well). His 29-carry, 111-yard performance on Monday night versus the Seahawks also featured an additional 7 catches for 35 yards, which is just monstrous usage.
But no game of his stands out more than the Week 18 finale in New York, where the actual result was meaningless but his progress was still awfully noticeable.
"I took everything that I learned over these last two seasons and it clicked," Gibson said after churning up 146 yards at MetLife Stadium.
Gibson was rightfully scrutinized for his turnovers this year and can definitely still get better with his patience and reading of the offensive line. However, focusing on his present shortcomings is a distraction from the overall truth, which is that he's set to fully, undoubtedly and massively break out in 2022.
Wide receiver: Terry McLaurin’s production should be marveled at even more
Time for a brief first-person aside, and please, understand there's a reason I'm going here.
There's this video game on Nintendo Switch that my girlfriend and I play called Overcooked. Essentially, you act as cooks in various kitchens and you're tasked with getting orders out to customers in increasingly difficult levels. It's tremendous fun and also leads to an occasional squabble when the virtual kitchen is failing that introduces an awkward vibe in the real-life apartment.
Now, when you're on a roll in Overcooked, you get multipliers on successful orders that cause your score to inflate quicker. For instance, if you knock out three-straight cheeseburgers before the timers run out and those meals expire, you'll receive 1.5 or even double-points for your efforts.
That's how I think we have to view McLaurin's stats so far as a pro. Like, his catches, yardage and touchdowns should come with multipliers considering the unenviable conditions he's posting them in.
In 2021, McLaurin had 77 grabs for 1,053 yards and five end zone visits. Yes, those are nice numbers, but with the mediocre quarterbacks he paired with — don't forget Garrett Gilbert started a contest for Washington! — and the lack of any other threat across from him, he probably should be credited with, approximately, 96 grabs for 1,592 yards and seven scores.
That feels fairer for McLaurin.
What No. 17 has achieved since joining the organization has been impressive, but there's always the question of what he'd be achieving if he was fortunate enough to experience even a modicum of consistency around him. Hopefully, 2022 will be the year that question is answered.
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Tight end: It’s not just Logan Thomas anymore
Two tough injuries prevented Thomas from continuing his emergence at tight end. That said, his absence shoved his backups into more prominent roles, and to their credit, they took advantage of their chances.
At first, Ricky-Seals Jones got the nod, and from Weeks 4-10, RSJ registered 22 receptions for 211 yards in place of Thomas.
Then, when Seals-Jones went down, fourth-round rookie John Bates took over as the top tight end for basically the rest of the schedule and showed decent pass-catching chops while doling out a plethora of rewind-worthy blocks.
None of this is to claim that Thomas wasn't missed; Washington ranked 29th in the NFL when it came to scoring touchdowns in the red zone, and a healthy Thomas would've absolutely cured much of those struggles.
The takeaway is that there's promising depth behind Thomas in Bates (Seals-Jones, meanwhile, is a pending free agent who likely could be re-signed rather easily) and even the intriguing Sammis Reyes, who should be more comfortable, you know, playing football next season.
No one will label that crew as a bunch of Travis Kelce clones, but it sure is a solid collection of players to lean on.
Offensive tackle: The edges look secured
For so long, Washington entrusted Trent Williams and Morgan Moses to stabilize left and right tackle. While the team's newest pair of edge blockers doesn't compare to the Williams-Moses duo, it does seem like a potentially formidable partnership in its own right.
Charles Leno Jr., who fell into Rivera's lap last May, scooped up a three-year contract extension thanks to his reliability on the left side of the offensive line.
As for Sam Cosmi, he'll have to prove he can stay healthy on Sundays — he made just nine starts as a rookie — but the Texas draftee graded out positively when he was able to suit up at right tackle.
Whoever ends up quarterbacking this offense in September and beyond will appreciate the protection that comes from Leno Jr. and Cosmi.
Interior offensive line: Brandon Scherff should be allowed to walk
Scherff is due for a loaded contract when free agency commences. Sadly, it's just getting harder to argue that Washington should be the squad to hand it to him.
The 30-year-old mauler is Washington's lone All-Pro of the 2000s and he's been sent to the Pro Bowl five times. Those awards indicate how dominant he can be as a guard.
They also overshadow the fact that he's often absent from his starting gig.
Since 2017, Scherff has missed 24 games across five seasons. Under Rivera alone, he's been sidelined for nine.
Despite that, Washington apparently offered Scherff a gargantuan deal last offseason, yet he and his camp turned it down; he went on to make $18 million thanks to his second-consecutive tag.
Scherff is a stud and will request compensation to match his reputation in March. He also maintains that he wishes to stick with the team that drafted him in 2015.
Whether he really means that or not shouldn't ultimately matter. Washington should let him go elsewhere and identify a cheaper and more available replacement to slide into right guard.