This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Washington appears to have a franchise QB, several explosive playmakers and an improving D. There are plenty of positives, but they struggled against worthy competition, failing to beat a single opponent that ended the season with a winning record. Such matchups will be paramount in the team's search for another playoff berth.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
THE MATT JONES SHOW
The Washington coaching staff rode Alfred Morris as the No. 1 running back over the past four seasons, but the change in bosses from Mike Shanahan to Jay Gruden in 2014 laid the groundwork for Morris' departure this offseason. After ranking in the top four in rushing yards in both 2012 and 2013, Morris totaled 1,825 yards with Gruden at the helm, as the offense experimented with other backs along the way. Receiving no interest from Washington after the team's wild-card loss, Morris has moved on to Dallas, giving Matt Jones the first shot at the lead role. The 2015 third-rounder has the size, speed and receiving ability to be an every-down back. As a rookie, though, he was hurt a handful of times, resulting in four absences (including the playoff game). The injury front and a timeshare kept Jones to 144 rushes for 490 yards and three touchdowns, but he made an impact as a pass catcher, hauling in 19 of 25 targets for 304 yards and another score. Due to the unproven members also in the backfield – Chris Thompson, Mack Brown and Keith Marshall – the top job appears to be Jones' to lose.
LOTS OF RECEIVERS TO FEED
Possessing a wealth of receivers, Washington will put its faith in Kirk Cousins to drive the offense. Perhaps the No. 1 playmaker is TE Jordan Reed, who overcame his checkered medical history last season and posted career highs with 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 games. Injuries weren't as kind to DeSean Jackson. A strained hamstring suffered in the season opener sidelined the veteran wideout for the next six contests, and another absence in Week 17 ensured career worsts in receptions and yards. No matter, he can still stretch defenses, and Cousins' best spell of play occurred with Jackson in the fold. Moving down the depth chart, Cousins also must keep Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and rookie Josh Doctson in the loop. A possession receiver, Garcon has exceeded 1,000 yards one time in his eight-year career. Crowder himself profiles as a speedy slot receiver who can cause headaches for defenses, but only eight of his 59 catches went for 20-plus yards in 2015. Rounding out Cousins' options, the 6-2 Doctson has the speed and hands to become a red-zone favorite of the QB.
WILL JOSH NORMAN ELEVATE THE DEFENSE?
The defense in the nation's capital has been treading water for a number of years, and 2015 was no different. Ranking 28th in total defense, the Redskins struggled against both the pass (25th) and rush (26th), but there were a few positives. In his second campaign, Bashaud Breeland flashed potential, grading as Pro Football Focus' No. 8 cornerback in coverage before the final three weeks of the season. Additionally, OLB Preston Smith finished his rookie year with eight sacks and 35 pressures, and DE Chris Baker recorded a career-high six sacks. Despite these bright spots, status quo reigned in the offseason until Josh Norman unexpectedly reached the open market in April. Acting fast, Washington inked the stud cornerback, whose playing style should mesh well with defensive coordinator Joe Barry's zone coverage schemes. While Norman, Breeland and 2016 third-round pick Kendall Fuller blanket opposing receivers, a pass rush led by Smith should have more time to pursue the QB. One glaring issue remains, though. The run defense will likely still suffer due to a porous D-line and lack of talent at ILB.
KEY JOB BATTLE
This season, Kirk Cousins will have more wideouts at his disposal than ever before, with veterans DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon expected to lead the charge. It's who will step up and claim the role of No. 3 wideout that offers one of the most intriguing job battles in the Redskins' offense. Based on athleticism (131-inch broad jump), speed (4.5 40-yard dash), and size (6-2, 202 pounds) alone, it's no secret first-round selection Josh Doctson is in the driver's seat when it comes to claiming the the spot. However, the rookie's offseason Achilles injury could make way for either second-year pro Jamison Crowder or Ryan Grant to step up and fill the void. Both Crowder and Grant proved to be viable receivers last season when called upon due to various team injuries, leaving the Redskins with plenty of options to consider this fall.
Grabbing the top QB job out of camp, Cousins surprised everyone with 4,166 yards on 69.8 percent passing and 29 TDs in 2015. The performance was notable for his heightened comfort as the season wore on, including a 19:2 TD:INT ratio in the final eight games. With most of his weapons returning, Cousins will attempt to pick up where he left off.
RISING: Matt Jones
Slated to take over for departed RB Alfred Morris, Jones boasts a varied skill set that should keep him on the field early and often. Furthering Jones' cause is relative inexperience within Washington's backfield.
FALLING: Pierre Garcon
Garcon's yards per catch has decreased in each of the past four seasons, and he hasn't eclipsed 1,000 yards in a campaign since 2013. With more mouths to feed in the passing game, his target count could take a dive.
SLEEPER: Josh Doctson
Both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon will be unrestricted free agents next offseason, which likely prompted the Redskins to select Doctson in this year's draft. Expect him to be groomed for a starting role.
THE INJURY FRONT
Chris Thompson, RB – After two seasons riddled with injuries, Thompson was finally able to stay the course last year, participating in 13 games. However, after the season concluded, Thompson underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The 25-year-old could be on the sidelines for the beginning of training camp, although it doesn't appear as if his Week 1 status is in any danger.
Josh Doctson, WR – The Redskins are expecting big things from the 22nd overall pick of April's draft, but they may have to put those expectations on hold as Doctson has dealt with an Achilles injury for much of the offseason. While reports speculate the rookie will be ready for training camp, the injury's long-term concern isn't to be taken lightly.
Niles Paul, TE – Paul's 2015 campaign ended in the very first preseason game, when he suffered a season-ending dislocated ankle. Fast-forward a year and Paul is still questionable for training camp. While his continued recovery remains an issue, the Redskins have moved ahead with Jordan Reed as their top tight end, leaving Paul with a much smaller role as the season approaches.
Josh Norman, CB – After a contract stalemate led to the Panthers removing the franchise tag from the 2015 All-Pro, Norman found fewer suitors than he would have at the outset of free agency. Within days, the Redskins pounced, but it remains to be seen how he'll mesh in a new system. At the very least, he should be motivated to face Odell Beckham and Dez Bryant twice per season.
Ryan Kerrigan, OLB – Kerrigan was relatively quiet on the sack front during the first half of last season, yet he notched six of his 9.5 in the final seven contests. The five-year pro has thus attained 7.5 sacks in each campaign, while surpassing 50 tackles every year but 2015, when he nabbed 42. With Preston Smith also on the outside, Kerrigan has the bodies around him to repeat his previous output.
Preston Smith, OLB – Smith made his presence felt immediately as a rookie for the Redskins in 2015, registering two tackles, a sack, and two forced fumbles in his very first game. By season's end, Smith cemented himself as a key cog in the defense, racking up eight sacks while logging 48 percent of the defensive snaps. With a year under his belt, there's no reason to think Smith's numbers shouldn't rise.
Josh Norman – CB (from Panthers)
Shutdown corner arrives to bolster back end of defense.
Josh Doctson – WR (Rd. 1, No. 22 – TCU)
Joins crowded receiving corps, but leaping ability will be an asset.
VERNON DAVIS – TE (from Broncos)
Veteran tight end has seen better days on pass-catching front.
Keith Marshall – RB (Rd. 7, No. 242 – Georgia)
Despite ACL injury on medical record, still displays blazing speed.
ROBERT GRIFFIN – QB (to Browns)
One-time franchise QB relegated to third-stringer last season.
Alfred Morris – RB (to Cowboys)
Jumps to division opponent after output slipped four straight years.
CHRIS CULLIVER – CB (FA)
Tended to nagging injuries before sustaining ACL, MCL tears.
DASHON GOLDSON – S (FA)
Team leader in tackles was nonetheless released after one season.