By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) – Quick, without Googling, name the last quarterback the Washington Redskins drafted in the first round prior to this past April. Here’s a hint, he’ll be standing on the opposing sideline. That’s right, Jason Campbell. Now for extra credit, name the last quarterback the Bears drafted in the first round. Here’s a hint, he’ll be standing on the opposing sideline. That’s right, Rex Grossman. In total, four first-round quarterbacks will be on the field this Saturday night when the Bears host the Redskins.
For the second straight week, the Bears will play a team with ties to their current franchise quarterback, this time the link is Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan. In 2006, Shanahan felt strong enough about Jay Cutler’s skills that he traded up with the St. Louis Rams to draft him. This past April, Shanahan felt strong enough about Robert Griffin III’s skills that he traded up with the St. Louis Rams to draft him. I see a pattern here.
For years, Redskins owner Dan Snyder has run the Redskins like a fantasy football team, signing over-the-hill free agents to bloated contracts, and hiring and firing coaches like it was a bodily function (seven coaches in 13 seasons). For all this wheeling and dealing, the Redskins have very little to show, compiling a 91-117 record, and one playoff win since 2000.
Recently, it appears the Redskins have attempted to wean off their free-agent fixation and are building a nucleus of talent via the draft. Some might argue that the Redskins mortgaged a portion of their future by trading 2013 and 2014 first-round picks to acquire Griffin, but that’s a small price to pay for a franchise quarterback. Don’t forget, the Bears paid the same price to acquire Jay Cutler.
Obviously, there’s a risk associated with drafting a quarterback high in the first-round of the draft, but for a team like the Redskins, when the down-side is being the team you’ve been for the past decade, it’s worth it. Recent NFL history has proven that you can’t sustain a January playoff run without a premier quarterback.
Griffin has all the physical gifts to succeed in the NFL, mobility, a strong arm, accuracy, and a quick release. In Shanahan’s version of the West Coast offense, mobility is essential, as quarterbacks are asked to move quickly on stretch run plays, but also require the footwork and sleight-of-hand to give a ball fake, then roll-out on naked/waggle/boot play-action pass plays.
The Redskins didn’t completely kick their free-agent habit, signing former Colts wide receiver Pierre Garçon to a 5-year $42.5M contract, of which a staggering $21.5M is guaranteed, and former 49er Josh Morgan to a 2-year $11.5M deal. Yes, Garçon had a modicum of success with the Colts – specifically when Peyton Manning was healthy – but that is a hefty price tag for a receiver who will never dictate coverage.
Tight end Fred Davis is a budding star, who could become Griffin’s go-to target. Shanahan’s play-action passes require receivers to run drag routes across the field that mirror the quarterback, so Davis stands to see several targets this season. Veteran Chris Cooley isn’t what he used to be, but his versatility should keep him on the roster, and he can still be productive with a set package of plays.
Much to the chagrin of fantasy football owners, Shanahan made the running back by committee concept popular while in Denver, and the running back situation in Washington is no different. The Redskins stable of mediocre backs is led by Tim Hightower, who is returning from an ACL injury, second-year players Roy Helu and Evan Royster, and rookie Alfred Morris. Hightower is the most gifted of this group, but how well will he bounce back from his injury? Look for he and Helu to share the load this year.
Whoever is toting the football will be running behind a young offensive line that has a lot of question marks, particularly on the right side. Left tackle Trent Williams is loaded with talent, but he’s one bong hit away from a year long suspension. Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger is returning from an ACL and MCL tear, but if he is successful in his recovery, the Redskins have a nice foundation on Griffin’s blind side.
Veteran Will Montgomery returns at center, right guard Chris Chester is more of a finesse player, and right tackle Jamaal Brown’s deteriorating hips may prevent him from playing at all this season. The key to a zone-blocking scheme is getting your front five to operate in concert, showing the same look for the first few moments of a play, whether it’s a run or a pass. So the uncertainty across the offensive line will be a limiting factor.
When you’re dealing with a rookie quarterback, a pedestrian group of running backs, a mixed bag of receivers, and a banged-up offensive line, it’s hard to find much optimism. Add it all up, and the Redskins are going to struggle to put points on the board in 2012.
Defensively, the Redskins have some legitimate young building blocks to work with, none bigger or better than outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. Despite the fact he’s yet to reach double-digit sacks in a season, Orakpo is on the precipice of becoming an elite NFL pass rusher. In a division that features some of the NFL’s best pass rushers – Dallas’s DeMarcus Ware, New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul, and Philadelphia’s Jason Babin – Orakpo has some lofty competition.
The Redskins paired Orakpo with Ryan Kerrigan last season, and the Purdue rookie didn’t disappoint, notching 7.5 sacks, 63 tackles, a team-high four forced fumbles, and an interception returned for a touchdown. Impressive numbers from a rookie who went from a hand-on-the-ground 4-3 rush end to a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker. Kerrigan’s presence will alter opponent’s protection schemes and should free up Orakpo for more one-on-one matchups. The Redskins should be able to create some serious pressure off the edge in 2012.
Inside-linebacker London Fletcher is still a force against the run who can contribute on first and second down. However, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will have to find ways to either get Fletcher off the field on passing downs, or find a replacement in nickel packages, as Fletcher is a liability in pass coverage.
Speaking of pass coverage, the Redskins secondary is a mess. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall is the poster child of the free-spending Redskins. Heading into year four of a 6-year $55M contract, Hall is a gambler who will come up with a big play here and there, but will also get burned. Last season, Hall allowed 67 percent of passes thrown his direction to be completed, qualifying him for the sixth worst mark in the NFL. Josh Wilson – the starter opposite Hall – has developed into a reliable player, adept at breaking up passes.
The safety situation in Washington is the biggest concern. Gone are last year’s starters LaRon Landry and OJ Atogwe, to which most Redskins fans say good riddance, but are their replacement players upgrades? Doubtful. The Redskins signed free agents Brandon Merriweather and Tanard Jackson. Merriweather is listed as a starter, but Jackson is buried on the depth chart.
On a defense that likes to gamble, disciplined safety play isn’t as important, which is why the Redskins went the route they did in free agency. However, in a division with serious receiving threats, you can count on several deep shots over the top to test that discipline.
If the Redskins are able to generate a consistent pass rush off the edge, it will minimize the need to blitz with their inside linebackers, which could help with coverage over the middle of the field. If they aren’t able to generate this pass rush, the secondary will remain their Achilles’ heel.
Surely, the first two seasons of the Mike Shanahan era haven’t worked out as expected, notching an 11-21 overall record and just four divisional wins. The Redskins have suffered three straight double digit loss seasons, so there’s nowhere to go but up. However, with a rookie quarterback and a roster lacking blue-chip talent, the Redskins will remain in the basement of the NFC East in 2012.
When the Bears have the ball, all eyes will be on the left tackle position, specifically J’Marcus Webb against Brian Orakpo, which could get ugly in a hurry. Mike Tice will be sure to cycle in Chris Williams as well to see how he fares against Orakpo, as someone must emerge in the left tackle “battle”.
When the Redskins have the ball, the Bears first team defensive line must have a better showing this week. Against a banged-up, patchwork Redskins line, if the Bears are unable to get pressure on Griffin with their front four, it could be panic time in Chicago. The Bears defense flows quickly to the ball, so watch their discipline, as it will be tested by Shanahan on bootleg and play-action plays.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.