The Redskins went heavily for defense in the NFL draft last month. The raw numbers show a slight tilt towards the defense, with six of the 10 picks going on that side of the ball. But the value of the picks they used on defense really tells the story. As valued by the Jimmy Johnson draft pick trade chart, the Redskins used picks worth 1,596 points on defense and 126 points on offense.
And that’s good because the Redskins defense needed a lot of help. You can pick almost any key defensive stat and the Redskins’ performance in 2016 generally ranged from mediocre to awful. They couldn’t stop the pass (opp. 7.4 yards/pass attempt, 21st in NFL) or the run (4.5 yards/attempt, 26th) or opponents on third down (36.6%, 32nd).
How good could the Redskins’ record have been with even an average or slight above-average defense. Certainly, they would have recorded the one additional win they needed to make the playoffs. But it goes deeper than that. Better defensive play could have meant wins over the Cowboys (2 times), Lions, Bengals, and Cardinals.
That’s enough lamenting the past. How much better can the Redskins defense be after the draft and after bringing in four key free agents on defense?
The likely answer is better, but it is not reasonable to expect the defense to morph into a dominant unit, or even a top-10 group.
Looking at the free agents in isolation, their net effect was just a little better than break even. Defensive linemen Terrell McClain and Stacy McGee should be competent. But the Redskins lost Chris Baker to free agency and they cut Ricky Jean Francois so the two free agents need to replace their top two defensive linemen. That is about a wash.
Even if D.J. Swearinger is not a natural free safety he should be a moderate upgrade over David Bruton and the others who tried to man the position last year.
MORE REDSKINS: Defensive depth chart has lots of moving parts
The wild card is inside linebacker Zach Brown. The Redskins have not had a player with his speed and athleticism at the position in the seven seasons they have been running the 3-4 defense. If they can figure out how to utilize him he could have a substantial impact. If they plug him in and have him do what they’re always had the inside backers have done, his influence will be minimal.
Before moving on from free agents it’s appropriate to mention OLB Junior Galette, who has not played a snap since signing in August of 2015. He is the ultimate wild card; the Redskins could get a dozen sacks from him or he may have little to no impact.
The bottom line on the free agents is that fans should know better than to expect much out of an influx of defensive free agents. If you have any questions, just Google Albert Haynesworth or Adam Archuleta.
As far as the draft, it is reasonable to expect first-round pick Jonathan Allen to have an immediate impact on the line? Whether he starts or comes off the bench, Allen will inject youth and athleticism to a line on a team that has not invested a first-round pick in the position since 1997.
Second-round pick OLB Ryan Anderson can help but don’t expect him to explode onto the scene. Since sacks became an official stat in 1982 only seven players who were drafted in the second round or later got double-digit sacks as a rookie. It hasn’t been done since Mark Anderson of the Bears got 12 sacks in 2006 after Chicago drafted him in the fifth round.
No doubt, Anderson can give the pass rush a boost and he should get better over the next couple of seasons. The same can be said of Fabian Moreau, who may not be ready to fully practice until well into training camp. His 2017 impact is likely to be minimal. Fourth-round safety Montae Nicholson and seventh-round defensive backs Josh-Harvey-Clemons and Joshua Holsey are going to have to compete to make the team and their biggest impact could be felt on special teams.
This all should add up to improvement for the defense in 2017. That’s improved, not transformed or dominant. That still may be enough to put an extra win or two on the board.