Now that the emotional rollercoaster of the 2020 Washington Football Team season is over, it’s time to take an honest look at what we have and where this team needs help.
Most NFL teams that lose in the first round of the playoffs spend the ensuing offseason scheming on how to take the next step. But one step forward won’t cut it for the Washington Football Team.
After all, this is a 10-loss team, if you count the Wild Card defeat. A winning season in 2021 would be their first since 2015, and you better believe that the other teams in the woeful NFC East have plans to improve this offseason as well.
At the highest level, Washington will have all of the hindrances of winning the division, including a lower draft pick (19th) and tougher schedule for 2021, such as games at Atlanta, at Green Bay, and the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Seahawks at home.
Fortunately, they have money to spend, with $40.5 million under the estimated salary cap of $198.2 million. That’s currently more than all other teams in the division, combined, giving D.C. the best opportunity to reload quickly with the right talent.
Finding the right talent in free agency has always been the Achilles’ heel for this organization, but head coach Ron Rivera showed that he has the guts to get the guys he wants. Dwayne Haskins got a pink slip, while Taylor Heinicke started an NFL playoff game, basically coming off his couch.
Washington would be smart to bring Heinicke back in 2021, giving him a chance to compete for the starting job. Kyle Allen will also be back from injury, for what that’s worth, but he failed to impress in a similar sample size.
Time seems to have finally caught up with Alex Smith, who is deserving of the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award. While Smith was a clear upgrade over Haskins, he could no longer do the things that made him successful in San Francisco, Kansas City, and early in his tenure in Washington.
Even though retirement will cause his two years of dead money ($16.2 million via Spotrac) to count against next year’s cap, that still saves the team significantly on his $39.5 million salary over the next two seasons.
On the defensive side of the ball, Washington will likely watch Ryan Kerrigan leave in free agency for a starting job elsewhere, and will need to bolster depth in the pass rush. While Kerrigan, the franchise leader in sacks, became a role player behind Chase Young and Montez Sweat, he was an excellent glue guy and insurance policy in case of injury.
Those both leave with him in free agency.
Elsewhere on defense, Landon Collins, Greg Stroman, and Deshazor Everett will return from injury to bolster the secondary and special teams. After years of investing top draft picks on defense, Washington is seeing the fruits of its patience pay off in a dominant way.
On special teams, it’s time to bring in competition for kicker Dustin Hopkins, who finished with a sub-80% mark on field goals and a long of just 51 yards. Especially if Washington intends to rely on defense and smaller margins of victory, they need an automatic kicker.
The last area of consideration is on the coaching staff, which was largely brought on by Rivera last offseason. While coaches rarely get shuffled after a playoff appearance, it’s fair to look at the numbers.
Rivera, himself, was sensational, navigating organizational tumult, embracing cultural change, more than doubling the team’s win total from the previous year, making the playoffs for the first time since 2015, all while battling cancer. You can expect to see his influence grow with the team’s success.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was similarly stellar, delivering top-three performances in yards, scores, and opposing quarterback passer ratings.
On the flip side, offensive coordinator Scott Turner needs help this offseason, particularly in the area of game preparation. Washington finished third-to-last in the NFL, averaging just 8.4 first-half points all season. To put that stat in perspective, Washington was the only team in the bottom 11 that made the playoffs.
The last time that a team with a losing record won a division and made the playoffs was Ron Rivera’s Carolina Panthers in 2014. The good news is that he also won the NFC South in 2015, with 15 regular-season wins, riding that momentum all the way to the Super Bowl.
Imagine if he can double the team’s seven wins again in 2021? In Ron we trust.
Brian Tinsman has covered D.C. sports since 2011, both from the team marketing and skeptical fan perspectives. Tweet your criticisms @Brian_Tinsman.