‘Skins Have Depth This time it’s for real
OK, so you have heard this before. Or something similar. It’s a rite of NFL training camp for the Washington Redskins to make public declarations that they’re more talented than in the past, that this proves they have done good work building the roster and that they will be able to withstand misfortune because of their improved depth.
And then the season starts, things go wrong, and holes appear everywhere, inviting water to sink the breathless preseason optimism.
So let me grab a shield before throwing this out one more time. Maybe I should whisper it, too: They’re praising their depth again, and this time, it’s true.
Make them take a lie-detector test. Invite your most skeptical friend over to ask them the toughest questions possible. I’m not willing to say Washington is the most talented team in the league — or even in the top 10. But when I look at the team’s depth — meaning the balanced distribution of talent across the depth chart, the number of legitimate position battles, the breakdown of players capable of making a meaningful contribution on the field — I don’t see a roster anymore that belongs in the bottom half of the NFL. This is an aboveaverage roster. This team isn’t
overflowing with talent, but it isn’t three injuries from being in trouble. Consider it functional NFL depth.
It has taken three sensible, disciplined offseasons to get to this point. Some of the credit belongs to former general manager Scot McCloughan, who enhanced this effort during his two-plus years on the job. But the franchise started making strides before McCloughan arrived, and since he was fired, it has remained committed to a process that involves reasonable drafting, underrated free agent signings and a heavy emphasis on player development. The result is a team that McCloughan would laud as being full of “football players” — good, hard-nosed athletes who love the game. The players aren’t flashy, but they have ability and play with an edge.
The team has gotten away from what hindered it for
much of Daniel Snyder’s 18 years as the owner. During his time, Snyder has made plenty of splashy, high-priced signings, but it made the team a top-heavy mess. There was too much pressure on a few stars to mask weaknesses, which hardly ever works in football. Washington was good enough to be intriguing until something went wrong. Then it would crumble because its product was too flimsy.
It’s funny because, even though this team is built in a more sustainable manner, star power might be the thing holding it back. Washington could use a couple more top-50 caliber stars. It has a lot of C-plus players, but to be really good, it could use a few more all-pro talents. That’s an issue to solve in the future, and fortunately, the roster features some young players (Jonathan Allen, for instance) who could develop into such forces. But it goes to show that, even when building the so-called right way, there’s always a need to supplement your approach
with other methods. Still, Washington is much better off operating this way.
“We feel really good about the depth that we have on this football team in general, and there will be some great battles,” Coach Jay Gruden said. “It’s our job to make sure we give everybody ample opportunity to make the team and make plays. Special teams will be a big role also. Who performs best on that? If it’s close, the better special teams player will probably win out.”
The advantages of depth are even greater than special teams and intrasquad competition, however. Football has become such a game of multiplicity and speed. Position rotations and subgroups are more important than ever, especially on defense.
You could argue that there aren’t 11 defensive starters anymore. Factor in defensive line rotations and personnel adjustments (nickel corner, dime linebacker) on passing downs, and you really need about 15 starting-caliber players.
And then you can talk about quality backups.
A year ago, Washington didn’t have good depth, but it was improving in that area. The depth was decent enough that outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan played the fewest snaps of his career. He played 786 snaps in 2016, which was 71.2 percent of the defensive plays. As a second-year player in 2012, he played 1065 snaps, 99.1 percent of the time. But even with the reduced playing time last season, Kerrigan finished with 11 sacks, the secondhighest total of his career, and he was a more consistent factor throughout the 16-game schedule.
Kerrigan, who turns 29 in August, hasn’t missed a game during his six seasons. But as he approaches his 30th birthday and 100th NFL game, it’s vital that Washington continues to take measures to extend his career and put him in the best situations to make disruptive plays. Last season was a positive step. Although Kerrigan takes pride in being available
and playing as much as possible, he recognized the advantage of being in a rotation last season.
“I could,” he said. “I know, heading into the latter part of November and into December last year, my body felt a lot fresher than it normally did at that time of year. I could definitely see the benefits of it. It was helping me out to stay a lot fresher down the long haul of the season.”
Over the past two years, I have thought Washington was disturbingly thin in the front seven. The talent on the defensive line was weak, and the linebacker options were suspect. Look at the front-seven options now, and it speaks to how far the team has come. It could have a few legitimate NFL starters on the bench, including rookie outside linebacker Ryan Anderson, who could be a foundational defensive player for the franchise.
Throughout the roster, there are only a couple of areas of significant concern, at least in terms of depth, right now: cornerback
(because you can never have enough) and backup center. That doesn’t mean Washington has great talent everywhere. But it has multiple options in most areas that are at least serviceable.
“You look around the different position groups, the different rooms, and you’re like, ‘There’s not really many holes,’ “Kerrigan said. “We’ve got a lot of depth, a lot of capable guys. I think it shows on the practice field.”
Gruden can look at defensive line coach Jim Tomsula fiddling with options and holding an open competition with his players and joke, “Well, hopefully, there’s a method for Coach Tomsula’s madness right now.”
Later, Gruden added: “We have a lot of good pieces. We just have got to figure out the right ones.”
In the past, Gruden hoped he had good pieces and tried to convince you to believe with him. Now he talks matter-of-factly. Maybe next year, depth won’t even be worth celebrating. Maybe it can become that normal.
Rookie outside linebacker Ryan Anderson, working on a drill during training camp, could be a foundational player, Jerry Brewer writes, and yet he might not be a starter.