The Washington Redskins haven’t had a consistent defense in a long time. That could change in 2018.
It’s been a calling card for the Redskins’ franchise in recent years. The offense has managed to move the ball through turnover, but the defense, through most of Jay Gruden’s tenure, has been subpar.
It felt like that was going to change in 2017. The Redskins invested more in the defensive line, drafting Jonathan Allen at No. 17 overall and stocking up the wings by signing Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain in free agency.
The latter was cut earlier this offseason after failing to live up to expectations in his year with the Redskins. But the additions of Allen and McGee drastically improved the team’s depth and effectiveness on the line. Combined with the resurgence of Matt Ioannidis and Anthony Lanier, the team’s front seven flourished for a time. When Jonathan Allen went down, it all fell apart. But in 2018, with a clean bill of health and a brand new first-rounder at the position, the Redskins’ defensive line could be dominant.
The impact of the defensive line trickles down to the rest of the defense, which is why it’s not unreasonable to expect great things from a Redskins’ defense that is young, talented, and hungry for work. Who will benefit most from an upgraded cast and an extra offseason to prepare? Here are three players who have the most potential to break out.
CB Quinton Dunbar: Once signed as an undrafted free agent, Quinton Dunbar has ascended to a starting role in the Redskins secondary. The job isn’t his alone just yet; players like Fabian Moreau and Orlando Scandrick will have a chance to earn the No. 2 job.
But as it stands, Dunbar has an edge. He’s the only one in that group with extensive playing experience in the Redskins’ defense. While Moreau mainly took snaps at special teams last year, Dunbar was forced to come in to fill in for Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland, who were both injured at different points in the season. Dunbar held his own. He logged a Pro Football Focus grade of 80.0 on the season, falling in the “Above-Average” category. For a converted UDFA wide receiver who had little preparation to start, that’s not a bad achievement.
People like to give Moreau a competitive edge because of his combination of size and athleticism, but Dunbar is no worse than Moreau in this regard, and from a size standpoint, he’s better. Dunbar ran a 4.44 40-yard dash at 6-foot-2, 200. He’s quick, and he’s long. Those are two very good qualities for an outside corner to have. Judging by the trajectory of Dunbar’s career thus far, through three seasons, he should comfortably lock down the starting job for the Redskins this year. Learning from Torrian Gray, he is certainly a breakout candidate.
FS Montae Nicholson: 2017 fourth-round pick Montae Nicholson showed flashes last season, but he couldn’t find a way to stay on the field. Injuries sidelined him halfway through the season, and his loss was felt at the safety position.
No player matched Nicholson’s range and instinct on the back end last season. He didn’t often benefit from these traits at college with Michigan State, but after working with Torrian Gray for a summer, Nicholson surprised everyone by not only holding his own, but showing flashes of game-changing potential at free safety.
Nicholson’s interception against the Raiders is the most popular example, but Nicholson displayed a willingness to punish ball carriers and finish through tackles as well. Against San Francisco and Kansas City, these tendencies were evident. Nicholson is a complete safety, with the speed and size to be the consistent ball hawk the Redskins need in the secondary. He’s learning the ins and outs of the game this offseason, and as the game becomes slower for Nicholson, he’ll only play faster. With a strong front seven, the secondary’s job will inevitably be easier this season. If Nicholson can stay healthy, he can be a game changer.
OLB Preston Smith: Heading into a contract year, it’s up for debate whether or not Redskins edge rusher Preston Smith has done enough to warrant a hefty extension, such as the one that Danielle Hunter received earlier this offseason.
On one hand, some teams like to sign players who are projected to breakout, in order to lock up assets before their value increases. As the offseason slowly rolls to a close, however, it seems as if the Redskins will let Preston Smith play out the final season of his rookie contract, as opposed to extending him before the 2018 campaign.
That said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith break out this season. In past years, he’s logged 8.0 sacks twice and 4.5 sacks in 2016. With an incredibly strong defensive interior, Smith should be able to be finish more often. He has the length and the burst to do so, and he has been disruptive in the past, but the sacks haven’t come as often as they should. That might not change this year; there are plenty of mouths to feed on the Redskins’ line. But the factors lining in place are a perfect culmination for Smith to break out.
Other Breakout Candidates: Jonathan Allen, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Fabian Moreau, Joshua Holsey, Fish Smithson
Note: I consider last year to be a breakout year for Matt Ioannidis. He’s now a known quantity as an interior pass rusher, and after logging 4.5 sacks in the first five weeks of the season last year, he should easily top that, as long as the defense stays healthy. It’s a similar story for Anthony Lanier.