As the NFL season gets closer, I will break down each position on the Redskins and look at how it compares versus the division, conference and the entire league. For most positions expect a deeper look at the back-ups in addition to the starter, but that isn’t as much of an issue for the QB position.
– Alex Smith has long been a good starting NFL quarterback, but last year was the first time he really looked like a top 5-10 QB in the league. Smith took his game to the next level finishing the year as arguably the top QB in the league, with finishes in the following statistical categories:
Looking at the numbers there is no doubt that Smith played at an elite level last year and he was a big reason why the Chiefs went 10-6 and won the AFC West, despite seeing their defense struggle. The question is can Smith do it again and bring that same level of production to the Redskins and their offense.
The simple answer would be no that Smith’s career season is unsustainable and well above his career norms where he typically finishes in the 15-25th in most major categories. Smith would generally finish high in completion percentage and INT%, but much lower in the other areas. He did this by playing it safe and dumping the ball off, playing more like a game manager type of QB. Now there was nothing wrong with Smith playing that way as the Chiefs (and 49ers before the trade) were typically a competitive team, but they won mainly due to an elite defense and running game. Last year though Smith took his game to a different level and he was more aggressive with the football. It paid off and Smith blew away his previous levels of production. The only other year that Smith put up even a close level of production was 2011 with the 49ers for 11 games before they replaced him with Colin Kaepernick. Even if you believe that last year wasn’t an outlier for Alex Smith and that he’s taken his game to the next level, it’s unlikely he matches his exact level of production last year, it still might be top 10-15 worthy, but it’s unlikely top 5 or even best in the league.
What is working in Smith’s favor is the situation that he is coming into. Jay Gruden has clearly established himself as one of the better QB coaches out there, having decent success with Andy Dalton in Cincinnati and turning Kirk Cousins into one of the top QBs in the league statistically over the last three seasons. Gruden’s offense is very quarterback friendly and should give Smith plenty of chances to continue to play at a high level. Smith will also benefit from a strong supporting cast on offense.
Last season the Redskins offensive line was decimated with injuries as Morgan Moses was they only player to start all 16 games and even he was hobbled with a pair of ankle sprains. Star LT Trent Williams missed 40% of the year due to injury and RG Brandon Scherff missed a pair of games, while being hobbled with injury in a number of other ones. Those injuries (among many others) led to a collapse of the Redskins offense down the stretch (the Redskins through 10 weeks were top 5 in most passing categories). If Williams, Scherff and Moses can stay healthy, they are three of the best at their respective positions and should ensure the Redskins have one of the better lines protecting Smith this season.
From a skill position stand point the Redskins surpass what the Chiefs had a year ago for Alex Smith to work with from a pass catching perspective. Last year Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing as a rookie, and Derrius Guice had a chance to be in the same ball park for the Redskins. Now with Guice out and Adrian Peterson in, the Redskins running game could take an even further back-seat to the passing game. Also in the backfield the Redskins have a clear passing game weapon in Chris Thompson (if he can stay healthy), which is something the Chiefs lacked last year behind Hunt. At tight end it’s pretty tough to beat having Travis Kelce, but if Jordan Reed is healthy (a big if) he comes pretty close. In addition Vernon Davis offers a good 2nd TE and back-up if Reed misses time again. Though no one receiver on the Redskins can match Tyreek Hill’s ability and production, there was a big drop off in WR talent for the Chiefs last year with Albert Wilson the only other wide receiver to crack 225 yards. The Redskins have one of the better slot receivers in Jamison Crowder, and big play receivers on the outside in Josh Doctson and Paul Richardson. Overall each of the Chiefs big three weapons may be better than their Redskins counter part, but Washington is far deeper and will be tougher for opposing defenses to match-up with.
Given the coaching, and a healthy offensive line and skill group, it is easy to see how Smith can remain one of the top 10 QBs in the league and keep the Redskins competitive throughout the year. The Redskins will need to rely on Smith more this season, which isn’t ideal, but it’s good to have a veteran to handle the work load.
– McCoy is probably one of the 40 best quarterbacks in the league right now if we are looking at immediate production ability and not long term upside. He would probably be able to start for the Bills this year and would be in the mix in a couple of other QB situations around the league. As a back-up QB he has some solid value as he’s experienced and shown enough to win a few games when he’s had chances. If Alex Smith were to go down for half the season or more, the Redskins would be in serious trouble. If Smith were to miss 3-5 games though, McCoy is the type of QB who could do enough to keep the Redskins competitive. Hogan has a little experience, but he’s unlikely to make the team and will more likely be on the practice squad as the 3rd QB.
– Carson Wentz was the top QB in the division last year before he got injured, but there are some questions about the sustainability of his production. Wentz’s 7.5% TD rate was only the 12th time since 2010 that a QB finished the year 7% or higher. Of those 12 seasons, only Aaron Rodgers has done it more than once in that time frame (3 times). Wentz relied heavily on the deep ball last year which led to the high TD% and he was able to keep his INT% low. Historically it is unlikely that both can continue that way and even if fully healthy Wentz was likely to see some regression. On top of that Wentz is coming off a serious knee injury which can limit a player their first year back.
As for the rest of the division Dak Prescott took a step back last year as he was not the same overall and especially when Elliott was on suspension and his LT was out. Prescott finished outside of the top 15 in most statistical categories last year and this year could be rough as well. The Cowboys lost three of their top 4 receiving weapons from last year in yards and TDs as Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Brice Butler are no longer with the team. They added some new names, but it could end up being a lesser group for sure. Eli Manning boosts probably the best skill position group in the division, but probably the worst offensive line. He could have a bit of a bounce back, but probably will be the weakest QB in the NFC East.
Even with a likely drop from his career year, Smith has a good chance of being the top QB in the division this year.
– Quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson should all enter the year as clearly better quarterbacks. Their track records and success speak for themselves, but it is worth noting that all three have a question mark. Rodgers may be the best QB in the NFL, and one of the best all time, but he’s also coming off a big injury and it’s the 2nd time in 5 years he’s missed significant time due to injury. If he were to miss time again, then obviously the Green bay QB situation takes a nose dive. Brees is another all-time great, and last season he was still playing at a high level despite the team not needing him to put up huge numbers. The issue is he’s 39 and father time is undefeated, eventually it will catch up with him and as we’ve seen with other great QBs (Peyton Manning, Brett Favre) it can come out of nowhere. Wilson is still in his prime, but the concern here is he just doesn’t have the talent around him any more. The offensive line is in shambles and they lost Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson in the offseason. His only reliable weapon, Doug Baldwin, is currently out and may be limited to start the year.
The rest of the conference is strong as well, to go along with the three elite QBs above, there is a very strong group of signal callers in the NFC. Quarterbacks like Matt Stafford and Kirk Cousins have put up high level production over the past couple of years. Matt Ryan and Cam Newton are more inconsistent, but they’ve both had spike years in the last three seasons where they were the best QB in the league. Jared Goff had a really good sophomore campaign finishing top 5 or 10 in a number of categories and just added Brandin Cooks as a weapon this offseason. Jimmy Garoppolo was great for the 49ers down the stretch and now he has a full offseason in the system with more talent around him.
While I don’t expect all nine QB’s listed above to be better than Alex Smith, probably at least 5 or 6, unless Smith can sustain his career year production. The NFC is definitely the far better QB conference at the moment, so finishing 5th-7th among this group could still easily put him in the top 10 overall.
– The AFC has talent up top at the QB position with a couple of the very best in Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, both of whom will likely be among the top 5 or 6 quarterbacks in the league. After that there are a couple interesting guys like Philip Rivers and a healthy Andrew Luck who can be top 10 caliber passers. I think you can make the case that Marcus Mariota could have a breakout now that he is in a new innovative system, with some talent around him. After those 5 options though the cupboard is pretty bare. There are some intriguing young QBs like DeShaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, but they likely aren’t going to be top 10 caliber guys.
Of this group I think only Brady, Roethlisberger and Luck if he’s healthy would be options above Alex Smith. It’s tough to discount Philip Rivers, but he has already lost TE Hunter Henry for they year and Henry was a huge weapon for Rivers last season. He won’t be easy to replace. So overall you are looking at Smith as guy who has a good shot of being in the top 10 and potentially higher with another huge year.
In the end Smith should be what the Redskins thought he was when they acquired him, a smart veteran quarterback capable of running a top 10 caliber offense and a strong fit for Jay Gruden’s system. Ideally the Redskins would have a more balanced approach, but Smith gives them a chance to still have a strong offense given his experience and the passing game weapons.