This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Redskins are betting that Paul Richardson and Derrius Guice will help Alex Smith repeat Kirk Cousins' success from a statistical perspective, but better fortune with injuries in the trenches will be the real key to breaking the pattern of mediocrity in Jay Gruden's tenure as head coach.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
BANKING ON SEAMLESS TRANSITION TO SMITH
Finally freed of the Kirk Cousins contract drama, the Redskins traded a third-round pick along with one of the NFL's better slot cornerbacks (Kendall Fuller) to the Chiefs in exchange for Alex Smith, who then received a four-year, $94 million extension. The series of events from the past few years suggests that the Washington front office views Smith and Cousins as comparable players, despite the wide statistical gap between the two prior to last season. The 34-year-old Smith altered his reputation for the better with a career-best campaign in Kansas City, where he was surrounded by Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Long known as a checkdown maven, Smith finished fourth with 27 completions on throws beyond 20 yards downfield, though nine quarterbacks (including Cousins) had more attempts in that range. While Smith obviously won't have Hill or Kelce at his side in Washington, he does have a proven stable of targets to catch short and intermediate passes, led by Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder and Chris Thompson. Coach Jay Gruden's passing attack likely will focus on the type of high-percentage throws that defined Smith's career prior to 2017, and there's also some hope that Josh Doctson and Paul Richardson can help the veteran sustain last season's success flinging the deep ball.
WILL THE INJURY BUG EVER STOP BITING?
Coach Jay Gruden's four seasons in Washington largely have been defined by two qualities: prolific passing stats and lengthy injury reports. The medical issues reached a nadir last year when 45 players made at least one start, with only six able to start all 16 games. The Redskins finished worst in the league in Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost (AGL) metric, after ranking 28th in 2016, 31st in 2015 and 24th in 2014. Although the rate of injury typically evens out over time, the persistence of the issue in Washington forces us to consider the possibility that the team either has a substandard training staff or a penchant for acquiring injury-prone players. The Bears and Panthers are the only teams to display similar consistency in AGL during that span, with Carolina in the top 10 each year and Chicago sharing Washington's misfortune near the bottom. Given the deluge of injuries in combination with a schedule that Football Outsiders measured as third-hardest in the league last season, it's not too difficult to envision the Redskins jumping from 7-9 in 2017 to 9-7 or 10-6 this year. Of course, the upcoming schedule also appears challenging, and we can't safely assume the team will get healthier campaigns from the likes of Jordan Reed, Chris Thompson, left tackle Trent Williams, linebacker Mason Foster and defensive end Jonathan Allen.
RESTORATION OF RUSHING GAME FALLS ON GUICE
The Redskins proved completely incapable of running the ball after Chris Thompson suffered a broken fibula Week 11 last season, with rookie fourth-round pick Samaje Perine taking 86 carries for 276 yards (3.2 average) and no scores over the final six games. Injuries to the offensive line played a role, but there was no hiding Perine's shortcomings in terms of instincts and elusiveness. Washington responded by drafting Derrius Guice at No. 59 overall, landing a first-round talent who seemingly slipped as a result of concerns about his strong personality and lack of pass-catching experience. He did dip from 7.6 yards per carry as a sophomore to 5.3 as a junior, with his stat line suffering from an ugly slump while he dealt with a nagging knee injury from mid-September to mid-October. After bouncing back late in the season, Guice ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at 224 pounds at the combine, eliciting comparisons to Marshawn Lynch for his angry running style and size-speed profile. Thompson is locked in for passing downs, but Guice becomes an immediate favorite to pace the team in carries, ahead of Perine and 2016 leading rusher Rob Kelley. There's potential here for an excellent ground attack if the rookie takes to the playbook quickly and the Redskins get better injury luck with their capable offensive line.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Jordan Reed
Despite missing 28 games in five seasons, Reed typically has been the heart of the Washington pass attack, averaging 5.2 catches per game for his career. He's expected to recover from December toe surgery in time for training camp, and the difference between having him for 14 games or six games could make (or break) Alex Smith's campaign.
RISING: Jamison Crowder
Fellow wideouts Josh Doctson and Paul Richardson may be superior in terms of size and speed, but Crowder has proven to be the much better football player. A potential breakout in 2017 was derailed by a nagging hammy.
FALLING: Chris Thompson
Thompson fractured his fibula after taking on more work last season, justifying Washington's hesitance to expand his role in the first place. He likely will be limited to passing situations now that Derrius Guice is around.
SLEEPER: Samaje Perine
Guice is the most talented running back on the roster, but Perine could end up leading the team in carries for a second year in a row if his rookie teammate is held back by injuries or a poor understanding of the system.
KEY JOB BATTLE – BACKFIELD SNAPS ON EARLY DOWNS
A first-round talent in terms of pure running ability, Guice fell to 59th overall in April's draft due to some mixture of concerns regarding his personality, medical record and pass-catching ability. Many are assuming he'll step right in as the Week 1 lead back, and while we wouldn't bet against that happening, the Redskins likely will make him earn the role in a competition against Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley. There's little question Guice is the most athletic of the trio, but the door will be open for his teammates if he struggles. His lack of experience catching passes – 32 receptions in 35 games at LSU – is less of a problem, considering neither Kelley nor Perine has shown much aptitude in that regard. If Thompson is healthy and productive, the Redskins should be able to deploy Guice in a role that allows him to stay in his comfort zone as a north-south runner with limited responsibility in the passing game. It helps that the Redskins should have a strong offensive line if left tackle Trent Williams and right guard Brandon Scherff stay healthy.
Alex Smith – QB (from Chiefs)
Hoping to prove 2017 breakout wasn't just product of KC teammates.
Paul Richardson – WR (from Seahawks)
Likely headed for modest volume as deep threat in safe passing game.
Derrius Guice – RB (Rd. 2, No. 59 – LSU)
Best talent in this backfield since Clinton Portis' heyday.
Da'Ron Payne – DT (Rd. 1, No. 13 – Alabama)
Run stuffer showed pass-rush potential in 2018 national title game.
Kirk Cousins – QB (to Vikings)
Averaged 4,392 passing yards, 31.3 total TDs the past three seasons.
Ryan Grant – WR (to Colts)
Finally proved useful in 2017, but possession skill set was redundant.
Terrelle Pryor – WR (to Jets)
Caught 20 passes in nine games last year while battling ankle injury.
Trent Murphy – DE (to Bills)
Second-rounder in 2014 had nine sacks in 2016, missed all of 2017.
THE INJURY FRONT
Jordan Reed, TE – Reed hurt his big toe last offseason and never got back to full strength, eventually adding a hamstring injury that landed him on injured reserve. While the hamstring healed on its own, Reed needed surgery on his toe and subsequently missed offseason workouts, OTAs and June minicamp. Redskins coach Jay Gruden is optimistic the tight end will be available for training camp, but it seems to be far from a sure thing. It's also fair to wonder how long he'll stay healthy if/when he gets there, as his troublesome medical record includes a lengthy history of concussions. Vernon Davis has proven to be a capable replacement starter, but he doesn't fill Reed's shoes as a high-volume pass catcher.
Chris Thompson, RB – Combining improved efficiency with an increase in snap share, Thompson enjoyed a breakout 2017 season before a fractured fibula ended his campaign after 10 games. The broken bone alone wouldn't be a huge concern, but Thompson also suffered ligament damage in his leg/ankle, requiring a lengthy rehab process which held him out of practice all spring. On the bright side, Gruden sounded optimistic in early June when he said Thompson is making "unbelievable progress" and should be ready for training camp. Indeed, Thompson himself said that he'll be limited at its outset. While his passing-down role is secure, Thompson could dip back toward his 2015-16 usage if Derrius Guice is a big upgrade on Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley. Any loss of explosiveness also would be a major problem, considering Thompson's breakout last season was largely the product of a handful of big plays.
Rob Kelley, RB – Kelley had his sophomore NFL season derailed by ankle and knee sprains, averaging just 3.0 yards on 66 touches in seven games before landing on IR in November. He seems to have made a full recovery, with no report of any limitations during OTAs or June minicamp. Kelley will have time to make his case during training camp, but his power-based skill set feels redundant on a roster that also includes Perine and Guice.