Redskins positional previews: Defense
This position is in a better spot than it’s been in several years, but whether the current collection of talent is good enough remains to be seen.
First-round pick Jonathan Allen should be an instant-impact player along the line — he’s got the size and strength to jump into an NFL role immediately. Likewise, Ziggy Hood showed he’s still got something left in the tank last year, and enters camp with a spot in the rotation secure, if not a starting spot.
The Redskins, needing improvement on the defensive line, made two free-agent signings this offseason. Terrell McClain arrives from the Dallas Cowboys, where his numbers steadily improved over a six-year NFL career. Stacy McGee played for the Oakland Raiders, and has the potential to be one of the team’s top free-agent acquisitions — he’s turned some heads during offseason workouts. By virtue of their contracts, both are locks to make the roster this year.
The Redskins will also likely make room for two second-year players who showed promise in their rookie seasons.
Matt Ioannidis, a draft pick out of Temple, will continue his development, while Anthony Lanier looks to build on a breakout rookie season. Lanier could be one of the team’s best undrafted finds in years.
On the roster bubble, Joey Mbu has received more snaps than expected during offseason workouts, meaning the coaches perhaps see something in him. Ondre Pipkins is already a fan favorite among undrafted players, while A.J. Francis, like Mbu, was on the practice squad last year, giving both those players a leg up on the competition.
One potential wild card is Phil Taylor Sr., a first-round draft pick six years ago who was cut by the Browns toward the end of his rookie contract, and hasn’t caught on in the NFL since. He’s got size and speed, but his recent history indicates that he’ll be a long shot to make the roster out of training camp.
There’s plenty of young potential across the board, which should make fans happy, but this group might still be a year away from flexing its muscles.
Will make the roster: Jonathan Allen, Ziggy Hood, Anthony Lanier, Terrell McClain, Stacy McGee
On the bubble: A.J. Francis, Matt Ioannidis, Joey Mbu, Ondre Pipkins, Phil Taylor Sr.
Not likely to make the roster: Brandon Banks
Trent Murphy will start the season with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy, which makes this a more interesting competition than it would otherwise be.
The Redskins have enough talent to withstand the loss of Murphy, and may opt not to fill his roster spot, but if they do it could be a good opportunity for Houston Bates or Lynden Trail. Bates has defied the odds since making the team out of rookie tryouts, and has been an impact special teams player when he sees the field. Trail is the tallest player on the team at 6-foot-7, and has been on the practice squad developing.
The spotlight, though, will belong to the stars, and Ryan Kerrigan leads both the unit and the team as the franchise’s most recognizable face. Murphy came on strong last year, and will look to reclaim some of that momentum when he returns from suspension.
Will this be the year for Junior Galette? The pass rusher has missed each of the last two seasons with a torn Achilles, and is itching to finally make his Redskins debut.
This needs to be the year for Preston Smith, a second-round draft choice who has occasionally shown sparks of elite playmaking, but has also faded into the background just as often. Smith will always find a home in the NFL, but he’s running out of time to make a case for a big-money contract extension.
Joining the group this year is current second-round draft pick Ryan Anderson, out of Alabama, who has been getting work in nickel formations and other specialty situations — with the talent in place in front of Anderson, the team can afford to ease him in over the course of the season.
Will make the roster: Ryan Anderson, Junior Galette, Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Murphy, Preston Smith
On the bubble: Houston Bates, Lynden Trail
Not likely to make the roster: Nico Marley, Pete Robertson, Zach Vigil
The signing of Zach Brown this offseason was one of the most divisive free-agent moves. Many Redskins fans, citing his Pro Bowl appearance, viewed it as one of the steals of the offseason. Others, including this writer, see an average inside linebacker who drew very little interest from around the NFL.
The truth will emerge in time, but first Brown will have to earn his playing time by overtaking one of last year’s starters, Will Compton or Mason Foster.
Most likely, Brown and Foster will form a rotation, while Compton and Martrell Spaight will alternate at the other position, with play-calling responsibilities. It’s something Spaight has been trained in, and Compton held the role for the Redskins last year.
That leaves Foster and Brown, both veteran NFL players, fighting for playing time. Both should be able to make an impact, though a lot of their success will depend on what schemes new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky orders up. He’s promising lots of blitzes, but that’s an easy thing to do during the spring and summer.
Will make the roster: Zach Brown, Will Compton, Mason Foster, Martrell Spaight
On the bubble: Chris Carter, Josh Harvey-Clemons
Not likely to make the roster: None
It’s a make-or-break year for Bashaud Breeland, who now has two rising stars breathing down his neck.
Breeland excelled from the slot position early in his career but has struggled in his transition to outside cornerback, which is where he ultimately wants to be, across from Josh Norman.
For now, Breeland will play the No. 2 role, with Kendall Fuller in the slot, but given the skillset of the players, don’t be surprised if that changes at some point either before or during the season. Fuller’s rookie campaign was rocky as he returned from microfracture surgery, but he’s looked fluid and sharp during offseason workouts, and the Hokies alum could turn heads this year.
Fans will have to wait to see Fabian Moreau make his Redskins debut. The rookie from UCLA is rehabbing a torn pectoral injury, but like Fuller, the prospect of a little missed time made him too good of a value to pass up in the draft. Moreau will re-join the team mid-season, which gives the Redskins enough time to see if he’s good enough to make Breeland expendable.
Behind those players are Quinton Dunbar, Joshua Holsey and Dashaun Phillips, all of whom can make a case for a roster spot. Holsey can be moved to the practice squad the easiest, which will help the Redskins keep as much of their young talent as possible.
Will make the roster: Bashaud Breeland, Kendall Fuller, Fabian Moreau, Josh Norman
On the bubble: Quinton Dunbar, Joshua Holsey, Dashaun Phillips
Not likely to make the roster: Tevin Homer, Lou Young
If it all unravels for the Redskins defense this season, safety is the one position we’re likely to point at as the culprit. The Redskins needed to get better this offseason at safety, and did by adding D.J. Swearinger, but one player alone is unlikely to transform what has been a dismal unit.
Will Blackmon and DeAngelo Hall are NFL veterans who have converted from the cornerback position in the hopes of extending their careers, but can’t be counted on to have a meaningful impact.
Cravens played his rookie season at inside linebacker, and will move to what many feel is his natural position. He seems likely to win the starting job at some point on raw athleticism alone, but there’s likely to be a learning curve once he’s thrown into the NFL fire.
Montae Nicholson, the team’s fourth-round draft pick, is hoping to participate in training camp as he continues to rehab a torn labrum. If he can’t, he’ll start the season on the physically unable to perform list.
Will make the roster: Will Blackmon, Su’a Cravens, Deshazor Everett, DeAngelo Hall, D.J. Swearinger
On the bubble: Josh Evans, Montae Nicholson, Fish Smithson, Earl Wolff IV
Not likely to make the roster: None