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Arizona Cardinals Opponent Preview: Washington

The Skins made the playoffs in 2015, can they build towards greater things in 2016?

NFL: Washington Redskins at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals take on the Washington Redskins this year, a playoff team in 2015.

Hogs Haven took the time to fill us in on their expectations for the 2016 season.

What do Jay Gruden and company have to do in order to defend their division title?

They’re hearing all about how much better the Cowboys’ and Giants’ chances are to win the NFC East, so the first thing they need to do is clip all those stories to their locker room bulletin board. They need to remember that the NFC East is up for grabs and that nobody has repeated as division champion since Philadelphia did it in 2004 -- Washington hasn’t accomplished the feat since the 1983-84 seasons. On the field, they can’t defend their title without defending the run. They were somewhat woeful at this by the time the 2015 season came to a close, and I can’t see them winning enough games to repeat without solving that problem. They can’t count on their divisional opponents blowing a handful of leads at the ends of games (Giants) or losing their elite quarterback (Cowboys) again.

Kirk Cousins’ emergence as a quality starting QB was one of the bigger surprises of the season. Was Cousins’ 2015 for real or does he come back down to Earth a little?

I have been somewhat firm in my steadfast belief that Kirk Cousins is “for real,” and that we should expect to continue to see this season what we saw last year. If he was successful in just picking up where he left off in his last 10 games in 2015 (27 touchdowns/3 interceptions), he would be considered very “for real.” I suppose you could characterize something less productive than that as “coming down to Earth” but the truth is he can be incredibly successful without hitting those kinds of numbers. The bigger problem is that his performance might be constantly viewed through the lens of what kind of contract he should get in 2017, and that distraction could be disastrous. Once again, this team will have an off-the-field issue to deal with -- this has not typically worked out well for Washington.

Matt Jones now has the keys to the backfield after Alfred Morris left in free agency. He has a more diverse skill set than Morris, although fumbles were a big concern in his rookie year. What’s a reasonable expectation for Jones this season?

Coming out of college, Matt Jones was dinged by scouts for his hand size. His hand measurements fell just short of the range that scouts preferred -- hand size has a direct correlation to the potential for fumbles. This has been given as the reason he fell to the bottom of the third round in the 2015 NFL Draft. Assuming he meaningfully addresses these problems, his role in 2016 could be huge. He is a far better pass catcher than Alfred Morris, and Jay Gruden loves to throw to the running back. Jones has speed and power, allowing him to wreak havoc once he has cleared the first level of the defense. A reasonable expectation for him on the ground should be in the 800- to 1,000-yard neighborhood (unless he is injured, it stands to reason he will get the carries), but I think his reception totals should increase significantly from 2015 when he had just 19 catches.

After Washington drafted Josh Doctson in the first round, it all but confirmed that Pierre Garcon won’t be back next year. Will Garcon keep a starting job this season or does Doctson overtake him at some point?

Well, first Josh Doctson has to see the field. Washington has been babying the you-know-what out of his Achilles injury and have set zero expectations on him at this point (through mid-August). It is very possible he will start the season on the PUP and not be on the field until midseason at the earliest. This is all because the team believes it doesn’t need him until the 2017 campaign, when they will be likely to part ways with both Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson (DJax decision will end up being all about money, as the team will have some young players coming up that will need to be paid). When healthy, Garcon is incredibly effective -- especially when defenses are keying on Jackson and Jordan Reed. I think Garcon keeps his starting job all season and puts together a fine stat line, feasting on defenses that force the ball to him. If Doc can get on the field in 2016, it will be very situational -- red zone plays, for instance -- and probably won’t threaten Garcon’s starting job. That said, Doctson has the chance to be a special player -- some had him as the best receiver out of the draft -- and Washington would welcome a meaningful contribution from him if he is able to earn it.

Fans got quite the pleasant surprise this spring when the Panthers rescinded Josh Norman’s franchise tag, freeing him up to sign with Washington. How much does that move change the secondary? Who’s set to be the No. 2 CB next to Norman?

Regardless of any weaknesses or holes in his game (depends who you believe!) Josh Norman’s addition is beyond huge for this team. Our secondary has been a weakness for YEARS. His talent is undeniable and his presence in the secondary makes the defense exponentially better. The second corner on Washington’s roster, Bashaud Breeland, is turning more into a 1b next to Norman. By all accounts, Breeland is having a very, very good training camp. While everyone expects Norman to follow Odell Beckham Jr. to whichever side of the field he goes, it doesn’t appear that the Washington defense is going to shy away from putting Breeland on the opponent’s top wideout.

We now get to see Norman vs. Odell Beckham Jr. twice a year. Who would win in a steel cage match?

I am partial to the defensive player. Beckham is an amazing athlete and an elite wide receiver, but he still comes off as a bit of a prima donna. Norman has a crazy long reach (33” arms) which would help him in a fight of any kind, but I think that the defender gets the nod here...they are generally looking to do more permanent damage than your average prima donna receiver (bias alert).

Who's the fan favorite player, the cult hero [think how John Kuhn used to be in Green Bay] and why?

Given the relative ...terribleness (a word among our fans) … of the team over the last 20 years, cult hero players have been our bread and butter. Colt Brennan, Marcus Mason and other backup/role player types have filled the role in the past. Thanks to the success of a division title and a roster with a generous amount of talent added, our fan favorite player is a cut above previous fan favorites (which is to say this guy will or should actually matter on the field). Su’a Cravens, the rookie S/LB hybrid from USC, has captured the hearts and minds of the burgundy and gold faithful. He has already displayed the kind of instinct for the ball that should help him win meaningful time on the field, as well as remind fans of the player whose number he has chosen to wear (Sean Taylor). It is not fair to compare the two at this point, as Taylor performed on Sundays and Cravens has yet to see his first NFL action, but Cravens has held the attention of Washington fans since he arrived at the start of camp.

How does the first month of the season go for Washington? The last month of the season? What's the final record going to be?

I am not a believer in the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Giants (shocker), but both teams should be better than last season. Washington gets both of them in the first month (along with a matchup against Robert Griffin III, which will certainly be a far closer game than it should be), so we will get to know a lot about Jay Gruden’s team early. I have them getting off to a 2-2 start, but a 3-1 finish, based on their history of finishing strong in years when they make it to the playoffs, which I believe will happen. I think they will need a 10-6 record to contend for the division title again, which would represent a one-win improvement over the 2015 effort. Based on my assumption that Washington is more than just one win better than last season, I am predicting they land on 11-5, which sounds very homeristic. There is a mountain of analysis out there you can use to refute my prediction, but if you look at the manner in which they came down the stretch (6-2) last season, and you consider that the team is far more stable than it has been in decades (core guys are locked up and coaches/schemes continue on), 11-5 is not as far-fetched as it might look.