Washington Redskins 2015 Year in Review: The Beginning of the Cousins Era
If it's not broken, don't fix it.
But if it is broken, you better fix it, and that's what the Redskins did in 2015.
After two straight years of finishing at the bottom of the NFC East, the Redskins began the 2015 offseason by naming Scot McCloughan the general manager, which paved the way for significant changes to the roster.
Rather than follow the same approach of his predecessors and going after big name free agents, McCloughan spent the early part of the offseason adding affordable players who could contribute right away.
He was also fortunate enough to begin his Washington career with the fifth pick in the NFL Draft, which he used on Brandon Scherff.
All of these moves culminated in the Redskins winning the NFC East with a 9-7 record before losing to the Packers in the Wildcard round of the playoffs. That loss was only the third home loss for the Redskins all of last season, and their six home wins were the team’s most since 2005.
Despite the improvement in their record and their first playoff appearance since the 2012 season, the Redskins weren’t represented by any players in the Pro Bowl and still have a few holes to fill if they want to go further in the playoffs next year.
What Went Right
Handing the reigns of the offense over to Cousins proved to be the right move, as he went on to have one of the best seasons of any quarterback in franchise history, setting multiple records along the way.
He even secured the best advanced metrics, as measured by our Net Expected Points (NEP), which compares a player or team's performance to expectation. This dates back to 2000.
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Cousins had the best NEP season for Washington since our metrics began, and he set even longer-standing records in some raw stats.
Cousins had the luxury of throwing to Jordan Reed, who wrote his own name over a couple franchise records.
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Reed's 11 receiving touchdowns were one shy of the franchise record for any position set in 1967.
Also catching passes from Cousins was fourth-round pick Jamison Crowder, who finished 2015 second in receptions (59) and fourth in receiving yards (604) among all rookies.
As I mentioned above, the Redskins used their first-round pick on Scherff, who started every game at right guard next to 2014 second-round pick Morgan Moses. Those two, along with Trent Williams led the Redskins’ offensive line that ranked 11th in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. Washington’s 27 sacks allowed was the fourth best in the NFL, after finishing 31st in 2014 with 58 sacks allowed.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line benefited from the play of Chris Baker, who racked up a career high 53 tackles and 6 sacks, while Ryan Kerrigan led the team in sacks for the second year in a row. The pass rush improved mightily toward the end of the season with Kerrigan amassing six sacks over the last seven games and rookie Preston Smith finishing with five sacks over the final three games.
Bashaud Breeland, whose 11 pass defenses were tied for the ninth most among all cornerbacks, received the highest grade from Pro Football Focus of any Redskins’ defender. The defense as a whole ranked ninth in the NFL with 26 takeaways, and their 15 fumble recoveries tied Carolina for the league lead.
Washington ranked 12th against the run, per our opponent-adjusted metrics, but their defense finished just 20th overall.
What Went Wrong
Injuries and starters failing to live up to expectations continued to hamper the Redskins throughout the season.
For the sixth time in his eight-year career, DeSean Jackson failed to stay healthy for all 16 games and only managed to appear in 10.
At running back, the issue was not with health but strictly poor performance. Among all NFL running backs with 100 or more carries in 2015, Alfred Morris’ -0.08 Rushing NEP per carry ranked 36th, while third-round rookie Matt Jones ranked dead last (-0.19). Jones also lost four fumbles and was relegated to the bench multiple times.
On defense, the new additions in the secondary struggled, and Washington finished the season ranked 24th (109.94) in Adjusted Defensive NEP. Dashon Goldson, who started 15 games, had only one interception all year and was graded as the 73rd best safety in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. Fellow newcomer Chris Culliver missed Week 2 due to suspension and appeared in only six games before tearing his ACL. He failed to record an interception.
At inside linebacker, Keenan Robinson and Perry Riley opened the season as the starters, but both struggled and were replaced by Will Compton and free agent addition Mason Foster midway through the season.
What’s to Come
With a successful season under their belt, the Redskins will look to keep their key pieces in tact and improve the less successful areas over the team.
Washington already used the franchise tag on Cousins, and Reed will be joined at tight end by Niles Paul who missed all of 2015 after a preseason Achilles injury. Reed missed five games due to injury in 2014, and Paul led the Redskins' tight ends with 507 receiving yards.
The entire starting offensive line and the top three wide receivers are still under contract, so running back is the only offensive position without an incumbent starter in place, as Morris is currently a free agent. We will see how confident the team is in Matt Jones this offseason.
The defense is less set in stone and will need to be addressed throughout free agency and the draft. DeAngelo Hall moved to safety toward the end of last season and will compete for a starting job there, which leaves a hole at cornerback.
Will Blackmon, who started 10 games last season, is a free agent, rookie Kyshoen Jarrett will return for his second season after playing both safety and cornerback in 2015, and undrafted rookie Quinton Dunbar will be back after converting from wide receiver to cornerback in training camp and starting two games. Whether any of those players will earn a starting spot to begin 2016 remains unclear.
Inside linebacker also remains a position of uncertainty. Of the four inside linebackers to start multiple games last season, Riley is the only player under contract for 2016.
In front of those linebackers, the defensive line currently has at least one hole to fill with 2015 signing Terrance Knighton currently a free agent again and Jason Hatcher reportedly considering retirement, so the Redskins will need to add players at all levels of the defense.
In a division with two new head coaches, the Redskins have a prime opportunity to repeat as the winners if they can fix their defense and rushing attack, while building on the recent success of their passing game.