We don’t know when, where or under which circumstances Ron Rivera’s first season as coach of Washington’s NFL franchise will begin, thanks to the coronavirus. But with Rivera’s first draft behind him and most of the league’s marquee free agents accounted for, we can make a couple of guesses as to what the year will look like.
First, don’t be in a rush to buy Super Bowl LV tickets. And second, if you’re a gambler, prepare to take the under on most Sundays.
At his introductory press conference on Jan. 2, Rivera said he had little patience for rebuilding. But aside from first-round draft choice Chase Young, there hasn’t been a lot of sizzle to Rivera’s acquisitions as he tries to resurrect a dysfunctional 3–13 team.
That may well be because players no longer consider D.C. a promising destination--not after two decades of mediocrity under owner Daniel Snyder. When Kendall Fuller (a Maryland native) is your marquee free-agent signee, it suggests that you’re not on the same plane as, say, the Chiefs or Patriots.
That’s not the worst thing. Snyder’s tenure is best known for overpaid, underachieving signings. Perhaps lower-profile free-agents like cornerbacks Fuller and Ronald Darby, guard Wes Schweitzer and running back J.D. McKissic—and acquiring quarterback Kyle Allen via trade—can be part of a more methodical team construction.
Likewise, aside from No. 2 overall pick Young, last weekend’s draft added some depth but didn’t exactly reap a bounty of immediate contributors. The player to watch might be former Liberty University receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, who could compete for a starting spot right away.
Young certainly will. There seem to be no red flags to indicate he won’t be a force right away. And unlike many highly touted rookie pass rushers, he won’t necessarily see constant double-teams, not with some combination of Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis, Daron Payne, Montez Sweat and (presumably) Ryan Kerrigan lining up beside him.
Of course, before Young and his mates can rush the passer, they’ll need to force opponents into passing situations. That will require a vast improvement for the league’s 31st-ranked run defense in 2019, which allowed 146 yards per game on the ground And as much praise as Young gets for his sacks, there was little pre-draft talk about his ability to stop the run.
If the front four plays up to its lofty expectations, it can cover for some gaps in the back seven. Rivera and coordinator Jack Del Rio will need the defense to hold its own, because the offense doesn’t look all that intimidating.
Coming off an uneven rookie season, Dwayne Haskins has to learn a new offense without in-person off-season workouts with his teammates.
If Haskins can beat out Allen (who’s far more familiar with new coordinator Scott Turner’s offense), he’s likely to have a rookie left tackle (Saahdiq Charles) protecting his blind side. Lining up behind him is likely to be either 35-year-old Adrian Peterson or Derrius Guice, who has suffered two season-ending leg injuries in two years as a pro.
Washington doesn’t have a proven NFL tight end. And coming off a stellar rookie season, Terry McLaurin is bound to see far more double-teams unless another receiver breaks out.
That could be fourth-round pick Gandy-Golden, who has the size (6–4, 223 pounds) to be a dependable mid-range target. Gandy-Golden didn’t always face great competition at Liberty, but he caught 10 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown against BYU in 2019 and six passes for 60 yards and a score against Virginia.
Rivera and Turner clearly hope third-round pick Antonio Gibson can give them the versatility out of the backfield that Christian McCaffrey provided them in Carolina, but that’s pretty ambitious. This looks like a team that will struggle to score consistently and will lean heavily on a defense that underperformed in 2019.
It was interesting that on the same weekend Washington welcomed the player (Young) it hopes becomes its face for the 2020s, it traded away its best player of the past decade (Trent Williams). All teams go through transitions, but the successful ones usually enjoy some continuity.
Look for incremental improvement in D.C. whenever the 2020 season kicks off. But don’t expect a ton of points on either side of the scoreboard.