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NFC East 2015 preview: Will Washington return to winning ways?

Questions have plagued this team in recent years, but for better or worse they may find some answers this season.

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Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For Jay Gruden, this will be his second year as head-coach. Robert Griffin III, well, this is his fourth year as quarterback. In 2012, this looked like a team on the verge of being a perennial contender, but that all derailed when Griffin suffered a string of incapacitating injuries. With Gruden, the task is simple. Win. Griffin's mission is a little less straightforward. He has to win, but win with poise. Both men are out to prove that they are the key to a winning formula, yet both will have to work within each other's limits.

Add to this a new general manager, an aggressively turbulent ownership and scrutiny from a tired major-market media group, and you're in for an interesting season, regardless of which way the cookie crumbles.

In this, our second of three parts detailing the New York Giants' division rivals, we look at Washington. They finished 3-13 in 2013 with a marginal increase to 4-12 last year. To stay afloat in a competitive NFC East, they'll need major improvement from both sides of the ball. Today, Chris Pflum walks you through the quarterback troubles on offense and Alex Sinclair takes a look at Phase 1 of the long-term strategy for rebuilding an ineffective defense.


(By Chris Pflum)

Despite the poor team record, Washington's offense wasn't all that bad last year. The Redskins finished 13th in the league with an average of 358.6 yards per game. On a per game average, their 252.9 passing yards and 105.7 rushing yards were good for 11th and 19th in the league.

That all means that the Redskins were able to move the ball down the field. However a large part of their overall record had to do with their 18.8 points per game, which was good enough to be ranked as the 26th scoring offense in the NFL. Simply put, you aren't going to win many games if you can't score more points than your opponent.

The issues with Washington's scoring offense is not in their primary weapons. DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and Alfred Morris are all talented players, each capable of threatening a defense and tallying points. Instead, their issues have more to do with their offensive line and the quarterback position.

The first part of the equation, the offensive line, was at least partially addressed in the draft. Washington spent the fifth overall pick on the big, mauling tackle out of Iowa, Brandon Scherff. Scherff is expected to start at right tackle and provide a bookend to Trent Williams. They also drafted Alabama guard Arie Kouandjio to -- hopefully -- step into one of the guard spots and further solidify an offensive line that has been very shaky outside of left tackle.

The second, and bigger, problem with the Washington offense is the quarterback position. It's an old saw in the NFL that if you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterback. That goes half-again for Washington, as they had three different starting QBs in 2014. Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins, and Colt McCoy all saw significant snaps under center last year - starting seven, five, and four games respectively. But while having a trio of options to choose from, Jay Gruden might not have any clear answers at the position.

Colt McCoy was the most efficient passer of the bunch, completing 71 percent of his 128 attempts, for four touchdowns to three interceptions. Meanwhile Kirk Cousins was the most productive, scoring ten touchdowns on 204 attempts. However he was picked off nine times and only completed 61 percent of his passes. Robert Griffin III, who was drafted to be Washington's "Franchise Quarterback" following a monumental trade, completed 68.7 prcent of his 214 pass attempts, but he only notched three touchdowns to four interceptions, and was sacked a staggering 33 times.

While each of the three players have traits of a successful NFL starter, each carries with him some significant issues. McCoy is safe but non-threatening, he might not lose you the game, but he hasn't shown the ability to carry the team to a win. Cousins is much more of a big-armed pocket passer. Of the three, he's shown the ability to get the ball in the endzone, but also the highest propensity to give the ball to the other team. Griffin can certainly move the ball, but he struggled getting it into the end zone, and gets hit much more than the other quarterbacks, meaning durability is a definite concern.

Until one of those three QBs steps up and becomes a complete NFL starter, it is difficult to say that the Washington offense has truly improved. They likely haven't gotten worse, and the addition of Scherff and Kouandijo will help bolster pass protection and their running game, but it is incredibly difficult for an NFL team to go further than their quarterback can carry them.


(By Alex Sinclair)

Defensively, this team is still lacking the firepower necessary to pit them against the top offenses in the league, but the key parts added in the off-season put them in a much better position than last year. The 2014 iteration of the defense was a floundering mess that could neither gain pressure at the front or provide reliable coverage on the back end.

This year, they appear ready to at least put up a fight. On the line, they've added some good pieces that should provide an immediate impact. Nose-tackle Terrance Knighton is here on a one-year prove yourself deal that he hopes will act as a springboard towards a big contract in 2016. This, combined with the addition of Ricky Jean-Francois, allowed the team to pass on Leonard Williams, the consensus top-defensive player in the draft, so that they could land the shiny prize of Brandon Scherff. After all, the line itself wasn't that bad. Jason Hatcher was the third-best 3-4 defensive-end in terms of pass-rushing productivity last year, though the difference between him and the top guy was huge. Hatcher's 40 total quarterback pressures are only one-third of J.J. Watt's league-leading 119 pressures.

Knighton, Hatcher and Paea are a formidable trio that should pay out immediate dividends. This is smart roster construction from new GM Scot McCloughan. Football fans aren't used to seeing that kind of thing from the team who still refuse to cut their losses on the high-risk, high-cost RG3 project. The defense is by no means "fixed", but a project as immense as this could never be turned around in just one year. The linebackers and the secondary could still pose problems, but the bandages should hold for now.

For example, Brian Orakpo departed for the Music City and left Trent Murphy as a pre-draft presumed starter at outside linebacker. Murphy was a second-round pick a year ago but failed to show much promise during his rookie campaign, gaining just 24 pressures from 273 pass-rushing attempts. To supplement this position, McCloughan added another second-round pick to their group of edge-rushers. Preston Smith out of Mississippi State will push Murphy for the starting spot opposite 'Sharknado 3' star Ryan Kerrigan.

Second-rounders often feel jilted and eager to prove themselves as top players in the league. It's not an ideal situation for the team at linebacker, but having competition between Murphy and Smith will get the most out of both players. It's a stark contrast to how we can look at the 2015 secondary where overpaid veterans face little competition from younger investments.

Chris Culliver and Dashon Goldson each have contracts that net them over $4 million each, and somehow DeAngelo Hall also still earns that much. These three players alone make up nearly nine percent of the overall team cap for this year and gives an impression of a team in desperation, struggling to do whatever they can to get marginally better. Signing Culliver and trading for Goldson add some stability but the performance gained is unlikely to exceed the expenses of both. They may present an overall improvement over last year, but their relative ceilings are middling at best.

Still, the fact remains that this defense looks markedly better. Minor improvements in each area do tend to add up to a larger overall progress for the team. This unit is tasked with simply not being a liability. It's seems like a low benchmark to fulfil, but it's worth keeping in mind that many teams each year fail to reach this. Going back as far as the system allows (2007), the defense has never achieved a positive culumlative PFF grade for a season. Maybe 2015 could be the year that they finally go green.