2017 NFL Preview: Once again, Redskins trying to steer through some drama

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

Lost in the Washington Redskins’ offseason drama – and that’s never in short supply – was how last season ended.

The Redskins were in a great spot. Win in Week 17 against the New York Giants, who had nothing to play for since their playoff seed was already clinched, and Washington would be in the playoffs. Yet, Washington blundered through a home game. Trailing 13-10 in the final two minutes at New York’s 43-yard line, Kirk Cousins threw an interception that effectively ended the Redskins’ season. A Giants defensive touchdown on the final play officially finished it. No losses are good, but this loss was exceptionally bad.

We’re close to viewing the Redskins in a different light headed into this season. Washington won the NFC East two seasons ago. They were in position to make the playoffs last season. Back-to-back playoff appearances would have shaped our perception of them. But they were manhandled at home by a Carolina Panthers team that had little to play for in Week 15, and then looked terrible against the Giants in the finale when New York couldn’t have had much motivation.

Then the offseason happened.

The firing of general manager Scot McCloughan was clumsy, baffling and doesn’t make the Redskins any better (Yahoo’s Charles Robinson had all the details here). Washington actually had a quiet, uneventful offseason last year, but the McCloughan debacle was a reminder that things are rarely calm in Washington.

Then there’s the ongoing Cousins drama. We’ve never seen a contractual situation with a quarterback play out quite like this. Cousins has been paid nearly $44 million over last season and this season and the Redskins still haven’t figured out a way to lock him up long term. The 2018 franchise-tag price for Cousins would be $34.47 million. That’s a roughly 40 percent higher salary than Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who is the highest paid player in league history. This issue has been hanging over the franchise for a while and it’s still up in the air (again, for the gory details, here’s Robinson’s story on that). Maybe the Redskins figure it all out by the July 17 deadline for tagged players to sign a long-term deal, but it’ll cost them a fortune to do so. Through the offseason there has been practically no indication it’s going to get done, either.

What we do know is that Cousins is still with Washington for 2017. It’s harder to figure if the Redskins can take advantage of that.

The way Washington finished last season is alarming. Two brutal, ugly losses at home to teams with little to play for is a bad way to head into the offseason. Then the offseason brought some changes that might not bode well.

Washington lost offensive coordinator Sean McVay when the Los Angeles Rams hired him to be the youngest head coach of the NFL’s modern era. Teams lose coordinators all the time, but McVay was critical in Cousins’ success the last three years. It won’t be easy to replace him.

The Redskins also lost their two starting receivers in free agency. Losing Pierre Garcon shouldn’t be a crippling blow (though the San Francisco 49ers thought enough of him to pay him a five-year, $47.5 million contract), but DeSean Jackson might be. Jackson had 1,005 yards last season, and more importantly he was a constant deep threat who threatened defenses. Maybe Terrelle Pryor replaces some of that value, but Jackson is one of the best deep receivers in NFL history. Washington was second in the NFL last season in yards per pass attempt, and Jackson was a huge reason for that.

Washington’s 2016 season that looked promising for a while, then it ended with a thud. The offseason was a debacle. Now it’s time to see if the Redskins can steer out of the skid. It can never just be easy with this franchise, can it?

The loss of DeSean Jackson could really impact the offense. Losing defensive end Chris Baker isn’t great for the defense, and neither was cutting defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois. But Washington did make some solid additions. Ultra-athletic Terrelle Pryor had a nice 2016 season in Cleveland and could become a very good receiver, and it was puzzling that all he got in free agency was a one-year, $6 million deal. Defensively, Washington grabbed linebacker Zach Brown when no market developed for him. Brown was second in the NFL in tackles last season. Defensive tackles Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain are good additions up front. Safety D.J. Swearinger, signed from Arizona, has finally established himself as a productive strong safety. The draft seemed quite strong, with Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen a potential steal with the 17th pick and college teammate Ryan Anderson an exciting pass-rush prospect in the second round. Grade: B-minus

Last season, the Redskins were fantastic on offense (fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVA per-play metric) and bad on defense (25th in DVOA). Joe Barry was ousted as defensive coordinator, replaced by Greg Manusky. Manusky says he’ll have a more aggressive scheme, becoming the 5,395th straight new defensive coordinator in NFL history to promise that. Some personnel additions could really help. Inside linebacker Zach Brown plays a devalued position but he did have a fine season with the Buffalo Bills last year. The new linemen will help, especially if Allen’s shoulders are healthy and he plays like the top-10 talent he was projected to be. Cornerback Josh Norman is one of the league’s best players, though Washington needs Bashaud Breeland to be more consistent on the other side. A nice improvement for the defense isn’t out of the question.

The Redskins’ passing game has been very good the past couple years, so why does it feel like it could all derail in a hurry? Losing play-caller Sean McVay might be a huge blow. DeSean Jackson allowed great flexibility in play-calling because he’s such a dangerous deep threat, and he’s with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers now. Terrelle Pryor has played receiver just one year and had little interest in free agency; he’s no sure thing. Tight end Jordan Reed is great but he’s always an injury risk. Reed missed four more games last season. And would it surprise anyone if the contract issue and potential trade drama finally affected Kirk Cousins?

I was a die-hard Kirk Cousins skeptic, but I don’t know how you can still be one. The last two seasons he has thrown for 9,083 yards, 54 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. Last season he had 4,917 yards, coming just short of being just the sixth quarterback ever with a 5,000-yard season. He is a good deep thrower, and he has become a much better decision maker. He might not be in the top tier of quarterbacks, but he’s not far off of it. You could do a lot worse than Cousins at quarterback, which is why his future with Washington is such a big deal.

Receiver Josh Doctson was a first-round pick last season, a fine all-around prospect. But injuries to both Achilles tendons set him back. He had just two catches for 66 yards in two games. That didn’t matter too much because he was blocked on the depth chart anyway, but now the Redskins could use him. Jamison Crowder is coming off a nice season out of the slot, and Pryor is a good deep threat with the ability to be more. Doctson could be the true No. 1 the Redskins need. He has a ton to prove after doing almost nothing as a rookie (minicamp reports said Ryan Grant was working ahead of him in practice) but the Redskins should be rooting for him to succeed.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Although Samaje Perine was merely a fourth-round pick, he’ll get every chance to break camp as Washington’s feature back. Incumbent Rob Kelley is a back without pedigree – he was undrafted – and he didn’t go anywhere down the stretch, averaging 3.5 yards a carry from December onward. Perine made a positive impression in his first team minicamp, and given the pass-first nature of Jay Gruden’s offense, there should be generous running lanes against nickel defenses and uncrowded fronts. Perine is merely the No. 41 back off the board in early Yahoo ADP, costing you a pick in the 107 range.”

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Washington wasn’t just a passing team with no running game. The Redskins averaged 4.5 yards per carry, which was tied for the seventh-best mark in the NFL. They just didn’t run very often, finishing 27th in the NFL in rushing attempts. Maybe that changes some with Jay Gruden calling plays again. Gruden’s three seasons as Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator, the Bengals were 10th, 17th and 8th in rushing attempts. Robert “Fat Rob” Kelley said this offseason he was told to lose weight by Gruden because the team will run the ball more. Kelley had a solid season after taking over as the lead back in late October, with 704 yards. The team picked up Samaje Perine in the draft (which pushed Matt Jones down the depth chart). There’s no superstar back but the Redskins are an efficient running team, and we might see more volume from the running game this season.

WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP FOR TERRELLE PRYOR?

Pryor, one of the best athletes of this generation, had 1,007 yards last season despite a frightening quarterback situation with the Cleveland Browns. He hit free agency and got … one year for $6 million? Kenny Britt, a perennial underachiever, got $32.5 million over four years. Robert Woods, who has never had a 700-yard season, got $34 million over five years. Clearly there’s some skepticism about Pryor repeating. But what if Pryor gets better? What he did last season, succeeding at receiver after failing at quarterback in the NFL, is practically unprecedented. The best comparison is Marlin Briscoe, who moved from quarterback to receiver in 1969 after just one season at quarterback, and became a Pro Bowler. So you have to assume there’s still room for growth with Pryor. Pryor gets a massive upgrade at quarterback, he’s a tremendous athlete and he had 1,000 yards while he brand new to the position. I think Washington got a steal.

Washington should feel it can win the NFC East. They did it two seasons ago and were a win away from being a playoff team last season, even with a bad defense. The defense should be better and the offense should still be good, even with some losses. The division is tough but Washington has proven to be playoff-caliber. That should be their goal again.

How about this: Kirk Cousins doesn’t sign an extension before July 17, he makes another run at 5,000 yards and the Redskins again don’t make the playoffs because their defense isn’t good enough. Oh, and the Redskins win just enough to place them outside the top 10 in the draft and they lose a chance to draft a shiny new quarterback. Then you’d be looking at losing Cousins or overpaying him to a historic level, without a playoff appearance the past two seasons despite paying Cousins about $44 million, with no backup plan in place. Sound fun?

Washington is probably better than it gets credit for, and we’d probably view the Redskins in a different light had they handled business in Week 17 and were coming off a second straight playoff berth. But even if Washington is a bit underrated, the division is brutal, the schedule is tough and the offseason was pretty weird. The Redskins will barely miss the playoffs again, and then who knows what will happen with Kirk Cousins in the offseason.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!