The first step occurred Thursday; some of the harder ones remain if the Washington Redskins want to improve their defense by more than just a little bit. It’s not just about the coordinator, it’s about finding the right pieces to make it work no matter who’s the coach.
Make no mistake: Coaching does matter. A very good coordinator, with strong assistants, can help any defense achieve a certain level of play, maxing out. The Redskins needed a talent boost defensively; the talent they did have did not max out. So coordinator Joe Barry is out.
But this now puts the spotlight on head coach Jay Gruden and general manager Scot McCloughan. This defense will require probably two offseasons to become the sort of unit they want.
When McCloughan took over, the Redskins needed to be rebuilt, especially on defense. Even good GMs have misses, which is why it takes time and patience to restock talent, especially when it comes to the draft. A good draft will yield two, maybe three, quality starters for a playoff team and about the same number of others who contribute. Free agency, more often than not, has been fool's gold in Washington.
In the past two drafts, the Redskins have thus far found one full-time defensive starter -- linebacker Preston Smith. He didn’t develop in Year 2 the way they had hoped; he’s still young and talented. Maybe Su'a Cravens becomes a quality starter at safety; there’s a lot to like. Maybe Kendall Fuller develops into a starting cornerback. Maybe others will develop (I’m intrigued by end Anthony Lanier). There’s time for these classes to produce. They haven't helped a whole lot yet.
The Redskins opted for two offensive players in the first round of the past two drafts. Guard Brandon Scherff made the Pro Bowl in his second year. We have no idea if receiver Josh Doctson can play because of his Achilles issues. In both cases, McCloughan stuck to his philosophy of drafting his best available talent. Multiple executives have told me the same thing over the years: Drafting strictly for need only gets you in trouble. Their line: You never know when something becomes a need and the key is to build depth and find good players. Scherff has become one; Doctson has yet to show anything. Doesn’t mean he won’t, just means he hasn’t. Obviously, neither will directly help the defense.
"We’re getting there, but we’ve had, what, two first-round picks since I’ve been here? One of them hasn’t played a down -- or played [two] games] -- and the other one is a guard," Gruden said. "We have got to make sure we do well in the draft the next year or two and make sure that we continue to add to the talent that we have. We are in sync. We have a very good view of what we look for in a football player -- very similar -- and that won’t change. I have a lot of respect for the work that Scot puts in. Together we’ll come up with a plan and get the right players in here."
You can perceive Gruden’s first comment as a zing; it’s also just the truth. The point: They haven’t drafted an impact player -- guards can be good; it’s not an impact position. They did not have a first-round pick in Gruden’s first season.
Free agency misses
A big problem, too, has been free agency. McCloughan took a shot in his first offseason signing the following defensive players: cornerback Stephen Paea, lineman Stephen Paea, safety Jeron Johnson, nose tackle Terrance Knighton and lineman Ricky Jean Francois. He also traded for safety Dashon Goldson.
Only one of them played for Washington this past season (Jean Francois). My sense: McCloughan was surprised and disappointed how this group panned out. Paea looked like a good signing based on his 2014 tape; he did not play that way in Washington. Culliver’s knee injury ruined any chance of him succeeding.
It hasn’t helped that another 2015 signee, pass-rushing linebacker Junior Galette, has hurt both his Achilles and hasn’t played a down.
Last offseason, the Redskins added cornerback Josh Norman, safety David Bruton and end Kendall Reyes as their main signings. The latter two couldn’t play, both were hurt and were eventually released off injured reserve. Norman played well. It's obviously not just about players signed early in free agency; the Redskins found others who can help -- lineman Ziggy Hood and defensive back Will Blackmon, for example.
This past season, the Redskins’ offensive players accounted for $82 million in cap space. The defense accounted for $43 million. It’s more even with the draft: Eight of McCloughan’s 17 pick have been on defense.
Based on multiple conversations throughout the season, the Redskins know the talent level on defense must improve. They know there’s more work to do aside from just changing coordinators. They just have to now get it done.