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Redskins Defense is better than you think, but won’t improve much in 2014

The Redskins defense was crucified for it’s performance in 2013.  Crucified.  I’ve seen some bad defenses through the years here.  2003. 2006. 2010.  I can’t remember any defense getting the brunt of the venom from Redskins fans quite like this year’s unit did.  Every player on the unit was under fire at some point for their performance, from the best to the worst.  Jim Haslett was on the wobbily chair all year.

And then at the end of the season, the Redskins fired Mike and Kyle Shanahan and brought back Jim Haslett under a new head coach.

Speaking only about the on-field performance, this is justifiable.  Like, honestly, it’s justifiable based only on performance.  The Redskins defense rated higher than the offense did by DVOA.  Strictly based on unit performance, Jim Haslett outperformed Kyle Shanahan in three of the last four years.

Now.  These stats don’t consider a number of things.  They don’t consider the effect of the 2012 injuries to Orakpo and Carriker (which is good for Haslett).  They don’t consider Mike Shanahan’s mandate to play very conservative zone coverage, which also penalizes Haslett.  They also don’t consider the effect of voluntarily putting the quarterback on the bench for three games and playing those three weeks with a weak quarterback.  That hurts Kyle Shanahan.  As do the injuries to Jordan Reed and Leonard Hankerson.  There are, in my estimation, more reasons to be optimistic about the offense than about the defense.  It’s strictly the past performance that favors the defense.

In 2013, the reasons the offense rated so far ahead of the defense by yardage, and thus in the minds of many fans were two: 1) ignoring the effect of turnovers on points scored (both the offense turning the ball over and the defense forcing turnovers) and 2) the fact that the Redskins played the 2nd rated schedule of offenses and the 31st rated schedule of defenses, the widest spread in the league.  Nine times last year the Redskins had the better defense of the two teams on the field.  They had the better offense by DVOA three of sixteen times.  Kirk Cousins started one of those three games.

Enemy number one in the 2013 season for the Redskins was the special teams and there wasn’t a number two.  But the third worst offender is that the Redskins offense, and passing game in particular, was simply not good enough given the schedule they played.  The defense did struggle (the Redskins were 3-13, mind you), but given the mismatched talent throughout the defensive side of the ball, I can’t see any evidence for a case that the defense underachieved.  They met a reasonable set of expectations for a unit whose highest paid player was a 38 year old linebacker at the end of the line and needed to split time with Nick Barnett, who was available in July.

The biggest problem in 2014 is that the defense is being ravaged by free agency.  Eight key players are eligible to test the market: OLBs Brian Orakpo and Rob Jackson, CBs DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson, ILBs Perry Riley and Nick Barnett, S Brandon Meriweather, and DL Chris Baker.  Now: the Redskins do have enough cash available to get every one of those guys back in 2014, if that was their chosen course of action.  But one of the issues the Redskins had with the defense this year was the overall age of the unit.  You had the guys in their mid twenties like Orakpo, Meriweather, Jenkins, Wilson, and Kerrigan, and the three age 29/30 guys Hall, Bowen, and Cofield.  But there was also Fletcher, Doughty, and Barnett (and Carriker who didn’t play) right in the middle of the defense, and they didn’t bother to bring back Cedric Griffin, who was teh third corner in 2012 and was good in that role because of age.

Here’s the complete list of starters under the age of 29 that are under contract with the Redskins in 2014: Ryan Kerrigan.

Now, that doesn’t include guys like Baccari Rambo, David Amerson, Phillip Thomas, and Jarvis Jenkins who could all concievably win starting jobs in 2014.  It’s just the nature of having 7 unrestricted free agents out of 11 starters, and 3 of 4 starters under contract are much tenured (or, uh, old as they say).

The problem of being older on one side of the ball is very complicated and difficult to solve in a single offseason.  The first step is going to be bringing back Brian Orakpo.  He is going to be the most expensive piece of the offseason puzzle, because he’s the best pass rusher on the free agent market in a year where no top line quarterbacks are hitting the market.  Orakpo could get more money than any other player in this free agent class.  Expensive, but worth it.

Perry Riley is ideally a third inside linebacker and special teams ace, and shouldn’t be too difficult to re-sign.  He’s unfortunately would start for Washington if/when he re-signs, but is worth more to the Redskins than to someone else. Generally when you have a guy who is a priority for your organization who isn’t a priority for any other organization, he comes back.  You could say the same thing about Chris Baker.  Better as a second teamer, but Jarvis Jenkins is going to need some legitimate competition, and he can provide it.  He’s not going to generate a ton of serious interest and could be back.

Cornerback is more interesting.  David Amerson seems capable of being given the RCB job in his second season (he was a very young rookie), but the Redskins are going to have to go outside the current organization to get a top corner.  The corner market is robust, but there aren’t a ton of great no. 1 types out there.  The Redskins are expected to be the main suitor for Aqib Talib who is likely to leave the Patriots.  Talib was drafted by Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden in Tampa.  If the Redskins are priced out of the Talib sweepstakes, bringing back DeAngelo Hall or trying to pursue Brent Grimes are options.  The Redskins seem certain to go grab a top cornerback and making that corner the highest paid member of the defense.  It’s probably going to be Talib.

The Redskins can also need to address safety and linebacker.  Brandon Meriweather didn’t play well enough to be a long term solution on the back end of the defense, and ditto for Nick Barnett.  London Fletcher isn’t here anymore.  Safeties Jairus Byrd and TJ Ward, and likely LB Brandon Spikes would likely all be Redskins targets and nice pieces they can acquire in free agency and build around, but there’s no guarantee that any player of the three could be acquired for a reasonable price.  Spikes would be the most immediate impact player, Byrd is probably the best player of the three.  The Redskins need as much young help as they can get.

You can see the problem.  The Redskins need every piece.  They need Talib.  They need Spikes.  They need Ward.  They need Byrd.  They could really benefit from bringing Hall back.  They still need a nickelback.  Randy Starks could add another piece to the defensive line.  However, keeping expectations realistic means understanding that not all these quality starters are going to flock to Washington for below market deals.  If the Redskins can get one or two signed, that’s plenty of work for a single offseason.  The key will be taking 4th, 5th, and 6th round draft picks and turning them into defensive cornerstones.  They can start with last season’s picks: Amerson, Rambo, and Thomas.

They also need to make their money last.  The one guy who it makes sense to meet his asking price is Orakpo.  There’s no great alternatives if he signs elsewhere.  With every other position, there’s alternatives.  So there needs to be some degree of mutual interest and salesmanship (selling the Washington Redskins) going on.  If you just overpay every player to get him to sign to fill a hole, the cap flexibility goes away, and it’s business as usual under Dan Snyder in Washington.  Some players who could really help the 2014 defense are going to say no.  That is okay.  There will be a draft, I promise.

It’s also why the offensive fix is so much easier.  They need to get a big, physical receiver or two.  They need to get a lineman or two.  The rest can be fixed internally.  It’s not overly expensive and can be righted in one offseason.  Defensively, I think the Redskins are going to benefit from playing a weaker schedule of quarterbacks.  But this is a multiple-year fix.  Expectations on this side of the ball need to be couched.  They aren’t where they need to be right now, and won’t quite be there by the fall.  They just need to move in the right direction.

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