In less than a year, the Redskins completed a stunning turnaround, ascending from a laughingstock in 2014 to a division champion in 2015. But now comes the difficult part: taking that all-important next step and improving from a franchise that was fortunate to get into the playoffs to one that can do some damage once it gets there. And that work begins right now for Jay Gruden, Scot McCloughan and the players.
In the coming weeks, Redskins reporters Tarik El-Bashir and Rich Tandler will examine the 25 biggest questions facing the Redskins as another offseason gets rolling.
Are the Redskins set at outside linebacker?
El-Bashir: I’m not sure you can safely say the Redskins are set at any position on defense, but I do believe they’ve got a solid, young foundation with Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and Trent Murphy manning the position.
Kerrigan overcame knee and hand injuries to lead the team with 9.5 sacks and 46 quarterback hurries, which ranked fifth among all 3-4 outside linebackers, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Smith came on strong down the stretch and led all NFL rookies with eight sacks in the regular season before recording a sack for a safety in the Redskins’ Wild Card loss to the Packers…and he’s just starting to scratch the surface. Murphy, meantime, made some modest strides late in his second season on defense, recording two sacks and a forced fumble in December.
The X-factor in all of this is the health and contract status of Junior Galette, who missed the 2015 campaign after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon in training camp. Galette is set to become a free agent, but both he and GM Scot McCloughan have indicated that the expectation is that the sides will work our a deal. The only question, then, is how healthy will he be? Galette expects to be 100-percent in time for OTAs, but there’s always some doubt until it actually happens.
If the team believes Galette, who had a combined 22 sacks for the Saints in 2013 and '14, will be good to go, then a foursome of Kerrigan, Galette, Smith and Murphy sounds pretty good. But if there’s one thing the Redskins learned last season, it’s this: because of injuries, you can never have too many quality reserves.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that I believe the Redskins are in decent shape at outside linebacker. So I wouldn’t be in favor of making a significant investment in a free agent, but I’d be all for using a draft pick to bolster a premium position—especially with McCloughan making the selection.
Tandler: Although I’m generally in agreement with Tarik here, I do see some red flags that might add to the urgency of getting some upgrades at the position.
The first is Galette’s Achilles. He could be 100 percent “healthy” by OTAs or, more realistically, training camp but still not be his old self, the guy who posted double-digit sacks in 2013 and 2014. His game relies on explosion and if Galette is even a little bit less explosive his effectiveness as a pass rusher could diminish significantly.
One more thing on Galette—while I believe he was sincere when he told us that he would definitely return to the Redskins and that McCloughan thinks a deal will get done, that’s no sure thing until he actually signs a contract for 2016.
And there is no guarantee that Preston Smith will have a linear career progression. We’d like to think that his career will follow a linear progression and that he’ll add a few sacks next year. But Brian Orakpo had 11 sacks as a rookie and his total dropped to eight in his second year. We can’t rule out a sophomore slump for Smith.
But injury problems and performance declines can happen to any player at any position. It would be great to have every position stocked with top-notch players but even the best teams aren’t in a situation like that. I think that outside linebacker is in a state where the Redskins can leave well enough alone but keep an eye out for a draft-day bargain or low-cost free agent to serve as some insurance.