Over the next few weeks, JP Finlay and Rich Tandler will grade each position group’s performance in 2016, break down the current personnel situation and evaluate the unit's outlook for 2017. We’re starting things off with a look at the running backs.
Starters: Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith
Backups: Trent Murphy, Lynden Trail
Injured/Reserve: Junior Galette, Houston Bates
Free agents: Junior Galette
Rewind: Though the Washington defense struggled mightily in 2016, the outside linebackers performed relatively well. The team tied for ninth in the NFL with 38 sacks, with more than 60 percent of that production coming from the outside 'backers.
Ryan Kerrigan led the team with 11 sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl. Kerrigan played through a litany of injuries and sealed an important December win with a strip/sack of Eagles QB Carson Wentz. While many expected a big year from second-year man Preston Smith, it was actually a breakthrough season for third-year pro Trent Murphy that stabilized the outside rush for the 'Skins.
Murphy's eight sacks and particularly strong start to the season caught some by surprise and delivered on the promise he showed at Stanford. Smith actually regressed in Year 2 with five sacks, after a disruptive eight sack campaign as a rookie.
For the second straight season, many Redskins fans were excited to see Junior Galette rush quarterbacks for the Burgundy and Gold. And for the second straight season, those fans were disappointed when Galette sustained an Achilles injury in the summer and was lost for the year.
Fast forward: Looking ahead to next season it seems a relatively safe bet to again expect at least 20 sacks from the combination of Kerrigan/Murphy/Smith, but coaches should want much more. Smith needs to develop more pass rushing moves and not rely on athleticism as much, where Murphy's late season dip in production could be attributed to nagging injuries.
If Kerrigan continues his double-digit sack pace, and there's every reason to believe he will, and Murphy or Smith can break through to 10 or more sacks, then the Redskins pass rush would be one of the more potent in the league. A jump of five sacks or more from the trio seems quite doable, especially if Smith can return to his rookie form, and that would put the 'Skins D in the QB-terrorizing territory of Denver and Seattle.
And all of that is before we even mention Junior Galette, who posted to his Instagram account he has re-signed with the team.
Washington absolutely cannot count on Galette this fall. It's tough, but reality. After two straight lost seasons - granted to relatively fluky injuries - any production from Galette needs to be viewed as a bonus, not expected.
Keep in mind, however, his last two healthy seasons in 2013 and 2014 he posted 22 sacks for the Saints. Galette has elite speed off the edge that the trio of Kerrigan, Smith and Murphy don't possess. Or he at least had it before the injuries. The focus for Galette needs to be making it in uniform Week 1, not sack numbers.
Beyond those four, it's still entirely possible Scot McCloughan will draft an edge rusher. In the first round or the fourth round, the 2017 Draft is loaded with talent that could play outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme.
New defensive coordinator Greg Manusky is expected to be more aggressive than his predecessor Joe Barry, which could be helpful especially for a player like Smith. Another factor to consider is Murphy will be playing in a contract year.
While the 'Skins outside linebackers have proved capable of getting to the passer, the group routinely misses assignments in the run game and does a poor job of containing the edge. Maybe some of that is scheme, but the guys have to get better in that arena.
A good unit in 2016, the Redskins outside linebackers have the potential to be great. Maybe Manusky will harness that.
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