While the defensive has improved of late, the defensive woes of this team are a serious issue issue this year. They have been for basically the entire Mike Shanahan tenure in Washington. Much of the blame for the defensive woes has fallen on Jim Haslett, but while he deserves some blame for their woes he’s not responsible for the lack of talent on this team. With the exception of a couple key players the Redskins are average to below average across the board on defense, so it isn’t surprising to see their performance follow suit as well. While many want to point to Haslett as the reason why this defense went from one of the league’s top units from 2004-2009, to one of the league’s worst units they last three plus years, that isn’t why this unit is struggling. The real fault is the lack of investment on the defensive side of the football, and transitioning to a 3-4 system slowly.
Under Joe Gibbs and Gregg Williams the Redskins invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball, including using their 1st overall pick in each draft during their tenure on the defensive side of the ball. That brought in S Sean Taylor, CB Carlos Rogers, LB Rocky McIntosh and S Laron Landry. To supplement them, the team brought in key veteran free agents like DT Cornelius Griffin, DE’s Andre Carter and Phillip Daniels, LB’s Marcus Washington and London Fletcher, and CB’s Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot. That is quite a lot of big name talent that was added in that four year period, and it doesn’t even include some of the moderate signings or failed signings during that period.
While not as successful, the Redskins continued to bring in defensive talent under Jim Zorn and Greg Blatche. They traded for DE Jason Taylor, and signed big name players Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall. They also drafted Brian Orakpo in the first round and corners Justin Tryon (4th) and Kevin Barnes (3rd) over those two years. They also used a supplemental 3rd rounder on DT Jeremy Jarmon. Though this group of guys with the exception of Brian Orakpo weren’t highly successful, they at least represented an investment in the defense.
Over the last four years under Mike Shanahan, that defensive investment just hasn’t been the same. The Redskins have used just one first round pick on defense, OLB Ryan Kerrigan. Two 2nd rounders in DE Jarvis Jenkins and CB David Amerson, and three 4th round picks LB Perry Riley, LB Keenan Robinson, and S Phillip Thomas make up the rest of their high draft pick investment. They traded for and re-signed DE Adam Carriker, but that was a minor trade, and though his production has been about the same as Jason Taylor it doesn’t even show the same level of potential impact. They signed DL Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen, corner Josh Wilson, and safeties O.J. Atogwe and Brandon Meriweather, but only Atogwe, Cofield and Bowen could be considered above moderate signings. That is a significantly less investment in the past four years compared to the 4 years under Joe Gibbs.
Now some might suggest that given all the resources spent on the defense under Joe Gibbs and Jim Zorn (worth noting that Zorn didn’t really have personnel say), it was simply the offense’s turn under Mike Shanahan. That simply isn’t true when you really look at it though. The Redskins drafted TE Chris Cooley (3rd), QB Jason Campbell (1st), RB Manuel White (4th), WR Devin Thomas (2nd), WR Malcolm Kelly (2nd), TE Fred Davis (2nd), and G Chad Reinhart (3rd) during that time period. Guys like Cooley and Campbell the Redskins traded up for using multiple resources. The Redskins also made trades with significant extensions for the following players: QB Mark Brunell, RB Clinton Portis, WR Santana Moss, WR Brandon Lloyd, RB T.J. Duckett (didn’t sign extension) and G Pete Kendall (didn’t sign an extension). Key free agents who were signed over this six year period were C Casey Rabach, G Derrick Dockery, WR David Patten, and WR Antwan Randle El.
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That is a pretty significant amount of resources spent on the offensive side of the ball over that six year period and shatters any idea that the offense was neglected during that time period. While the total lack of top 4 round draft selections came back to haunt the Redskins, the resources were more evenly distributed than what we’ve seen so far under Mike Shanahan.
Through either actual drafting or trades, the Redskins have spent three first round picks, two second round picks and two fourth round picks on quarterbacks Donavan McNabb, Robert Griffin the third and Kirk Cousins (this includes the 2014 first rounder). That is more than what the Redskins have spent on their defense in the draft under Mike Shanahan (and would still continue to be even if the Redskins use their 2nd-4th round picks next year on defense). In addition to those resources, the Redskins have spent a 1st on Trent Williams, three 3rd’s on WR Leonard Hankerson, G Josh LeRibeus and TE Jordan Reed and a 4th on RB Roy Helu Jr.. Also, the Redskins traded a 3rd round pick for OT Jammal Brown (and later re-signed him to a big deal). They did get a 5th round pick back in the deal, but giving up an early 3rd for a late 5th is losing quite a bit of value.
The Redskins have also spent significant financial resources on retaining guys like Moss, Davis, C Will Montgomery and G Kory Lichtensteiger, while signing key free agents like WR Pierre Garcon, WR Josh Morgan and G Chris Chester. That combined with their trades and draft pick usage shows a major investment in the offense over the defense.
Some may point that there was more significant carry over of players from the former regime on the defensive side of the ball (namely Orakpo, Hall and Fletcher), but that Mike Shanahan’s decision and part of the problem. On defense Mike Shanahan took a stop gap approach, retaining guys like Phillip Daniels, Rocky McIntosh, Andre Carter, Carlos Rogers and Laron Landry for a year or two without really trying to replace them or keep them long term. Shanahan could have done similar things on the offense in sticking with Jason Campbell over the failed McNabb trade, or just been content rolling with Clinton Portis over spending money on Larry Johnson. The Redskins could have found a cheaper (and healthier) alternative to trading for Jammal Brown.
By focusing the Redskins resources on the offensive side of the ball, the defense was ignored when attention was needed most. The Redskins were transitioning to a 3-4 defense, but were doing so without really bringing in the players needed to make the move. While guys like Brian Orakpo and London Fletcher could make the move pretty seamlessly, the move wasn’t pretty for pretty much everyone else in the front seven.
Defensive tackles Cornelius Griffin and Anthony Montgomery were let go, and Albert Hayensworth would be asked to play nose tackle, despite it being a poor fit for his natural pass rushing skill set. Back-ups Lorenzo Alexander and Jeremy Jarmon were asked to convert to linebacker. Jarmon had the toughest time as he was coming back from a torn ACL his rookie year. He was asked to cut significant weight to linebacker (not an easy thing to do when you are rehabbing), but during training camp they decided to move him back to the 5 technique (not his natural position). Defensive end Andre Carter was asked to stand-up and rush the passer from an OLB position, something he struggled with early in his career. Weak side linebacker Rocky McIntosh was asked to move inside to play a position he’d never played before and wasn’t a particularly good fit for. Defensive end Phillip Daniels didn’t have as hard as a transition, but he’d been in a 4-3 for quite some time and the responsibilities are definitely different.
Instead of making any real effort to go out there and bring in new personnel who were a good fit for the 3-4 the Redskins stuck with what they had. When other teams have made the 3-4 switch to the 3-4 they make significant improvements into their personnel to ensure they aren’t playing guys out of position. The Packers transitioned to a 3-4 under Dom Capers in 2009, they spent two first round picks that year on NT/DE B.J. Raji and OLB Clay Matthews Jr.. Over the next 3 drafts they used one 1st, three 2nd’s, one third and three 4th’s to bolster their defense. The Cleveland Browns this past year moved back to the 3-4 defense, and went out and brought in two major free agent signings in DE Desmond Bryant and LB Paul Kruger, while spending their first round pick on LB Barkevious Mingo.
You could look at just about any defensive transition (whether 3-4 to 4-3, 4-3 to 3-4, or a hybrid scheme change) and you will see that the key to it is ensuring you have the personnel to run it. The Redskins have done the bare minimum in their transition and it has cost them a defense capable of playing at a high level.
Many may want to point the “cap penalty” as the reason why this is the case, but really that is not true. The Cap penalty didn’t force the Redskins to sign guys like London Fletcher, Adam Carriker, Kory Lichtensteiger, Jammal Brown, Donavan McNabb to overpriced extensions. The cap penalty didn’t force the Redskins to franchise Fred Davis despite him coming off a suspension, or re-sign him for $2.5 million the next year when he’s coming off an Achilles injury. Nor did the cap penalty force the Redskins to overpay for free agents like Brandon Meriweather and Josh Morgan. In fact in most of these cases the presence of the cap penalty should have had the Redskins been smarter with their money, but that wasn’t the case.
Mike Shanahan hasn’t prioritized the defense and now this unit is incredibly thin and devoid of a lot of major talent. While you could hope that Jim Haslett gets more out of them, it’s hard to believe that any defensive coach could have this as a top 10 unit. Look around the league at the top defensive units and you will see teams that invest in their defense. The Jets are a perfect example under Rex Ryan. Not only did they have some good carryover players, but the Jets have been aggressive adding free agents and trading for top defenders. In 5 drafts (actually all have happened in the last 4 years) under Ryan the Jets have used 5 first round picks and two 3rd rounders on the defensive side of the ball. And that was a team that wasn’t making a transition or was devoid of talent to start. How can the Redskins possibly hope to be a top 10 unit, if they barely address that side of the ball.
Now Haslett should probably still be replaced at season’s end, either under Shanahan or if there is a new regime in place, but it is pretty clear that he was never given the resources to work with here in D.C.