Here's five takeaways from Redskins head coach Jay Gruden from the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
1. While the team has top-end talent along the offensive line, this offseason will present challenges as a few pieces will still be recovering from injuries and there may be a new starting left guard.
While the Redskins have two Pro Bowlers – Trent Williams and Brandon Scherff – along the offensive line and Morgan Moses has entrenched himself as one of the league’s best right tackles, the unit was battered by injuries last season.
Every offensive lineman missed time last season except for Moses, testing the team’s depth and impacting the offensive unit as a whole.
“I am a big, firm believe in offensive line play,” Gruden said. “And we obviously got blown up last year with the injuries. But I think if everyone is healthy, we have a very good offensive line with Trent and Morgan and Ty Nsekhe at tackle and T.J. Clemmings and at guard – we have to address the left guard – but Arie [Kouandjio] came in and did some good things and obviously Brandon Scherff. And I feel really good about Chase Roullier’s performance there.”
While Williams, Moses and Scherff are all under contract for the 2018 season, the Redskins will soon have to make decisions on both Shawn Lauvao and Spencer Long, two pending unrestricted free agents.
Roullier proved last season he can be a starting center in the NFL, but the starting left guard could be a new face for the Redskins.
“We’ll see where we are with Shawn Lauvao,” Gruden said. “But like I said, Arie Kouandjio got some time in there and [Tony] Bergstrom [got] some time in there, Chase Roullier could probably play left guard if need be, so we have a few positions of need that we have to address. And then the tackle position, we just have to get those guys healthy.”
2. Gruden wants stability at the running back position. That likely means bringing another competitor into the unit.
When Doug Williams spoke with reporters on Wednesday, he didn’t skirt around the issue of the running back position. The Redskins had nine different backs on the active roster at various points throughout last season, a product of injuries that made game planning a week to week challenge.
Williams knows the group must get better, as does Gruden, who was adamant about the fact that the team needs stability at the running back position.
“We’ve got to get Chris Thompson back healthy and then we obviously have to get some running backs in here that can play 16 games somehow,” Gruden said. “We’ve got some backs in house that we feel good about. But we might have to add another piece to come in here and compete for that job.”
They certainly have the depth in place – thanks to Byron Marshall and Kapri Bibbs contributing at the end of the year and putting enough on tape to carry some momentum into this season. While they are mostly third down running backs, the Redskins still have Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine, the latter coming off his rookie year.
Gruden seems determined to find another competitor for those two players and confident that Thompson will return last year’s breakout form.
“I think a first-second down banger -- we have Samaje and Rob Kelley, maybe another one in there to compete in that role on second down and maybe an all-purpose guy would be nice,” Gruden said. “Returner? I don’t know, there are a lot of options. But whoever it is, we intend on giving them a great opportunity to compete for a lot of carries.”
As for the way that top running backs have been taken more in the first round over the last few years has more to do with the individual player and a recent history of immediate success – think Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Leonard Fournette. It’s unlikely the Redskins take a running back in the first round, but another strong class of backs could have Washington thinking about adding a legitimate competitor early.
“It’s never really been an undervalued position, there’s just a lot of backs that people feel can do similar type things,” Gruden said. “But Zeke Elliott doing what he did in Dallas and Fournette doing what he did and [Alvin] Kamara -- I think there’s a heightened awareness about, ‘Hey these guys can come in right away so maybe they’ll go a little higher now.’”
3. As the Redskins try to improve their defensive play in 2018, Gruden believes second-year safety Monte Nicholson will play a big role.
While Nicholson wasn’t expected to be an impact player for the Redskins in his first NFL season after being selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Michigan State product quickly became a productive player at the safety position.
On Saturday, April 29, 2017, the Washington Redskins selected safety Montae Nicholson with the 123rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
After playing just three defensive snaps in the regular season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, Nicholson started six of his final seven appearances of the season, recording 24 tackles with one interception before being placed on Injured Reserve after suffering a concussion in Week 11 against the New Orleans Saints. The 22-year-old also dealt with shoulder injuries throughout his debut season.
Now healthy entering his first full NFL offseason, Gruden sees Nicholson as someone who can be a play-maker at the backend of the defense.
“Montae, I really think, is an important piece,” Gruden said. “Very similar to the way Jordan Reed is on offense, Montae is on defense. He can cover so much ground, he makes all the defensive backs a little more comfortable and take a little bit more chances because he’s back there roaming. So we need him back there.”
Gruden added that having Nicholson back in the lineup will let D.J. Swearinger settle into a more concrete position.
“I think when we have a defined role for him, I think he’ll be much better and much more comfortable,” Gruden said. “But having to play free, strong, make all the calls, I think we put a little bit too much on his plate. Not that he couldn’t handle it, but I’d like to try to identify his role a little more clear this year instead of having him move around.”
4. Having Jonathan Allen, Mason Foster and Matt Ioannidis all healthy will be major steps in re-tooling the run defense.
It could be argued the impact of Jonathan Allen was felt more in his absence, after the first-round defensive lineman sprained his Lisfranc and was placed on Injured Reserve. The Redskins had stayed consistent with their run defense through his first five games but began to fall apart once he came off the field.
The team allowed 134.1 rushing yards per game overall in 2017, which ranked last in the NFL, and opponents averaged 4.5 yards per rush. Couple with injuries to linebacker Mason Foster and Matt Ioannidis, and the drop off was understandable. The narrative that it must be fixed has been well-read by Gruden.
“There’s a lot of reasons for the downfall of the run, but at the end of the day we have guys that should be able to step in here and play the run better. Safeties, linebackers, corners might have to crack plays and make tackles, which we didn’t do a great job of from time to time. It’s not just on Jonathan Allen’s position, it’s on the entire defense to stop the run.
“[Defensive coordinator] Greg Manusky is well aware of that—he’s been told many, many times by many, many people that we have to be better at stopping the run,” Gruden added. “Having Jonathan Allen back will be a huge plus for us – adding another piece in there will be very beneficial. We have to address the middle linebacker position with Zach Brown being a free agent, Will Compton being a free agent. But we’ll get that done.”
5. Washington will allow quarterback Trent Williams to test free agency.
Two weeks from today, free agency will officially begin and perhaps no player will be more coveted that Cousins.
Selected in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Redskins, Cousins has spent his entire career to date in Washington.
Over the last three seasons, the Michigan State product has started every game under center for the Redskins, but Gruden understands the business side of the process after Cousins spent the last two years playing under the franchise tag, which likely means he’ll be somewhere else moving forward.
“I think we played this tag game for a couple years now it seems like and I think it’s time for us to get some stability at the most important position in sports, and that’s quarterback,” Gruden said. “It’s very important to let Kirk move on and if Washington’s not a place he wanted to be, it’s time to move on and get some continuity at quarterback.”
Gruden added that eventually adding another quarterback who could play on a long-term deal “means a lot for the team.”
“It’s an important process for us to have a quarterback in a position where he can grow with the football team,” Gruden said. “We can grow with [him] and move on.”
Gruden added that even though Cousins likely won’t be returning to Washington in 2018, he’ll “root for him except when [he] plays the Redskins.”