This season in Washington is mostly about the development of Robert Griffin III. Zuma Press/Icon SMI
After a disappointing 2011 campaign, the Redskins consoled themselves with dreams of a dramatically retooled roster. They traded a king's ransom for the second pick in the draft, which they used on Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. They prepped for a targeted free agent spending binge using the cap space they'd carved out in the previous two seasons.
And then, just 12 hours before free agency was to commence, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell yanked the rug from under the Skins, penalizing the team $36 million in cap space ($18 million this season and $18 million next season) for moves the Skins made in the league's uncapped 2010 season. The league office told the Redskins brass that the team had broken no rules and had done nothing wrong, but that they would be penalized anyway for violating the league's illegal agreement to limit player salaries during that uncapped year, and for gaining an "unfair" competitive advantage in future years. Yeah, I'm still bitter.
Abruptly left with far fewer free agent dollars, Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen turned to plan B, which basically involved not signing the guys they'd hoped to sign, and signing "bargains" instead. We'll see.
Here's a quick rundown of the team, unit by unit:
Quarterback: The change from one RGIII (Rex Grossman) to another (umm...Robert Griffin III) is the move that grabbed the most attention all offseason. Now it's time to see if Griffin actually is an improvement over Grossman. While hopes and expectations are astronomical for Griffin, keep in mind that rookie QBs aren't usually winners. Griffin is likely to struggle at times this season -- Skins fans need to keep that in mind. The other rookie, Kirk Cousins, looked good in preseason and showed the makings of a solid NFL backup. Unit: IMPROVED
Running Back: Washington went into last season intending to lean heavily on Tim Hightower, whom they acquired in an offseason trade. Backing him up were a couple rookies: Evan Royster and Roy Helu Jr. Then Hightower wrecked his knee, and Helu and Royster each were productive runners when given the opportunity to play. This season, Hightower's knee still isn't right, so they cut him. That leaves Royster, Helu and rookie Alfred Morris to share the position. The coaching staff released a depth chart, but pay no attention to that -- they plan to play whoever they think is doing the best work. They won't even say who's going to start Sunday (my guess is Morris). Despite the lack of a household name, there's no reason to worry: Shanahan has a long history of finding productive runners for his offensive system. Unit: ABOUT THE SAME.
Offensive Line: I went into the offseason thinking this was actually the team's biggest need -- even ahead of QB. Perhaps because of the salary cap penalty, perhaps because the line actually performed decently in the last few weeks of the season, the Skins added some depth, but didn't bring in the 2-3 new starters I thought they needed. The line that ended last season is basically the one that will start this one. Washington even brought back Jammal Brown, who's been struggling with a bad hip for the past 3 years. I'm going to call the line slightly improved because they added some depth, but the line is still past-due for a major overhaul. Unit: SLIGHT IMPROVEMENT.
Wide Receiver: The team added two new starters in Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and they're getting back Leonard Hankerson, who had been showing signs of production before hurting his hip last season. Santana Moss, long miscast as the team's #1 receiver, is going to be playing in the slot more often -- a perfect role for his size and physical abilities. Dezmon Briscoe -- a guy who caught 6 TD passes as a rookie -- is on the roster as a 5th receiver. Unit: IMPROVED.
Tight End: A week before final cutdowns, Washington released TE stalwart and fan favorite Chris Cooley. It was a sad moment, but unsurprising given Cooley's injury problems the past few seasons and his high salary. Fred Davis is back from his substance abuse suspension on a one-year "show me" deal. Niles Paul converted from WR, and is exciting coaches with his speed, agility and pass-catching ability from the TE spot. Logan Paulsen is an earth-moving blocker. Unit: IMPROVED.
Defensive Line: This is basically the same group as last year with one big exception -- last year's 2nd round pick, Jarvis Jenkins. Jenkins hurt his knee in the 2011 preseason and missed the entire season. He's a load at DE in the 3-4 and will be pushing starter Adam Carriker for playing time. Chris Baker replaces the Chris Neild as the reserve nose tackle. This is a position Washington addressed last year, and the free agents (Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen) still look terrific along the line. Unit: SAME.
Linebackers: Like the defensive line, the linebacking corps is largely unchanged. Like the d-line, that's a good thing. The front 7 was a strength, and the Skins didn't try to fix what wasn't broken. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are back on the edges. They re-signed the ageless London Fletcher in the middle. Rising star Perry Riley is back as well. Improvement will come from the individual players getting better: Orakpo working on his pass rushing skills; Kerrigan building on an outstanding rookie year; Riley returning as a full-time starter. Unit: IMPROVED.
Cornerback: The starters are the same -- DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson. The backups have changed, and maybe Cedric Griffin is a slight upgrade over what they had last year. Richard Crawford is a rookie who showed promise in camp, but...like all rookies...hasn't seen real NFL action yet. CB remains a relatively weak part of the Washington roster. Unit: SAME.
Safety: In many ways, the Skins have never really recovered from the murder of Sean Taylor. Last year, Washington hoped to pair Laron Landry with Oshiomogho Atogwe, but neither guy could stay healthy. The team parted ways with both during the offseason. They likely hoped to use some free agency money to address the position, but ended up pulling Brandon Merriweather and Madieu Williams off the scrap heap. Merriweather hurt a knee in preseason and the team is likely back to Reed Doughty. Second year man DeJon Gomes is pushing Williams for that free safety job. Unit: SIGNIFICANTLY WORSE.
Special Teams: The only change from last year's group is kicker Billy Cundiff replacing Graham Gano. I didn't see the point in that change (Cundiff is basically an older version of Gano), but it can't be viewed as a step back. Sav Rocca is a solid punter. Brandon Banks is back as the punt and kickoff returner, which makes lots of fans happy...but not me. I thought Banks made more bad plays in the return game than good, and that he frequently cost the team field position with poor decision making and his lack of size and strength. I'd have rather seen them go a different direction in the return game. Unit: SAME.
Overall, the Redskins should be better this season than they were last year. They're better on offense, and their defense should be solid again -- if the secondary can hold up. They're not as far along as they could have been if they hadn't been hammered with that preposterous salary cap penalty. I seriously doubt they'd have gone into the season with such a gaping hole at safety and without adding a starter or two on the offensive line.
Still, let's keep in mind that Washington is starting a rookie QB. I expect the Skins to make progress this year, although it may not show fully in the team's record. This season is primarily about one thing: the development of Robert Griffin III. If Griffin is on the path to NFL greatness, Washington is likely to be a relevant team for the next 10-15 years. If not...they're in serious trouble.