Grading the Washington Football Team’s roster part one: Offense
Previewing Washington’s offense heading into the 2021 season
Note: This is a two-part piece. Part one focuses on the offense, part two looks at the defense.
With training camp right around the corner for the Washington Football Team, now is a good time to take stock of the state of the roster. This time last year, I wrote a piece along with Ben Standig on The Athletic grading Washington’s roster using a color grading system. At the time, Kyle Smith was the VP of Player Personnel and he had just implemented a color grading system in Washington, so Ben and I graded the roster on a similar scale.
There are seven colors in this system: blue, red, purple, green, orange, yellow, and gray. Each player is evaluated and placed into one of those color categories based on performance, with their potential factoring in slightly too. Here’s what each color represents.
Blue - These are elite players that are among the best players in the league at their position.
Red - Starter level players with production to go along with it. These players can win games for their team.
Purple - Solid players that the team can win games with, but might not necessarily win games for their team. Often they might be red level players in one aspect of their game, like run defense, but struggle in another, like coverage. Ideally, this is the lowest level of player the team wants as a starter.
Green - Young players with talent and upside, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to prove themselves. They need development time before being moved to another category.
Orange - Back up players that can be replaced, typically needing a special teams role to make the team.
Yellow - Lack the ability to play on a consistent basis, but could potentially develop into a back up.
Gray - Injured players that can’t currently be evaluated due to a long-term injury.
With those in mind, let's take a look at how I’ve graded Washington’s 2021 roster ahead of training camp, starting with the offense.
Some might argue that Ryan Fitzpatrick should be a red, and if I based the grade purely on his last season, he might sneak into that category. But Fitzpatrick has a long career record of being a rollercoaster of a quarterback. Some weeks he’ll play lights out and others he’ll throw multiple interceptions. That type of inconsistency means he can’t be any higher than a purple. With Washington’s defense and improved weapons, having a quarterback the team can win with might be enough to repeat last season’s division title.
Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen both fall in the orange category, having both been essentially career back ups to this point. Ron Rivera keeps mentioning Taylor Heinicke as someone that can push Fitzpatrick in training camp, and he certainly earned the right to compete after his heroics in the playoff loss to the Buccaneers, but we also have to take into account his history beyond that one good game.
This position was a tough one for me because of Antonio Gibson. I think Washington likely sees him as a red level player, possibly with the potential to become a blue. I don't doubt that talent either, but I’m not sure he’s quite there yet. I think while he showed a lot of development last season, there’s still plenty of work to be done and he’ll likely see his role expanded to make use of his abilities in the passing game. If he stays healthy, I think he’ll develop into at least a red player by the end of the season, so I’m nudging him up from purple with that in mind.
J.D. McKissic played his role superbly last season. He was an excellent third down back and provided a security blanket as a checkdown option that could also pass protect. His running ability is underrated and he does a lot of the dirty work with jet sweep fakes and misdirection to keep the defense honest. He’s certainly a purple player for this team and I wouldn’t be shocked if he was capable of more.
Behind the main two, Washington has plenty of back up options. Payton Barber is the incumbent, along with Lamar Miller and undrafted rookie Jaret Patterson. I’ve placed all of them in the orange tier because none of them are likely to be anything more than just a back up that could be replaced. Barber played a valuable role as the short-yardage back last year, but I see no reason why Gibson couldn’t also handle those carries if needed. Patterson is the intriguing option in camp. Many thought he should have been drafted and could play in the league, but he’s facing an uphill battle to win the third running back spot on this roster.
Washington fans know just how good Terry McLaurin is and the rest of the league is starting to see it too. He’s establishing himself as one of the premier receivers in the NFL and is worthy of a blue grade. If he continues on his current trajectory, McLaurin should be in the discussion for being considered a top five receiver by the end of this season.
Free agent signing Curtis Samuel is a red and an extremely productive one. We’ll see if Offensive Coordinator Scott Turner allows him to play in the slot more often, where he thrives. That could potentially propel him towards the blue tier, but I think he’s a very solid red player for now.
Adam Humphries has carved out a role for himself in the NFL as a solid slot receiver. He’s not elite, but he’s a productive purple. Cam Sims developed and produced enough last year for me to say he’s more than a green. I think he’s a purple, but I’m not sure he’ll develop beyond that.
The green category is fully loaded here with a bunch of young, talented receivers that Washington will need to sort through and figure out who is worth developing and who isn’t. Rookie Dyami Brown oozes potential and could be a red player a year or two down the line, but the adjustment to the NFL is always tough for receivers. Fellow rookie Dax Milne may have a tough job making the team due to numbers, but could be a practice squad candidate that could develop into an Adam Humphries replacement in the future.
Steven Sims, Kelvin Harmon and Antonio Gandy-Golden could all be battling for one spot on the roster. Personally, I think Sims is the most talented and dynamic of the trio, but his drops last year and issues on punt returns have him on the outside looking in. Gandy-Golden has high upside with size and athleticism, but struggled to make much of an impression last season. His status as a fourth-round pick by this current regime could give him the leg up on the others, but Kelvin Harmon coming back from his knee injury could push him for that last receiver spot. They’re all still young players with potential that need more playing time before they can really be judged.
Logan Thomas surprised just about everyone but the Washington coaching staff last year. After transitioning from quarterback to tight end, Thomas had a breakout year and proved he could be a productive tight end in the NFL. I don’t consider him a red despite his production because I don’t think he wins against man-coverage consistently unless he faces a defender that struggles athletically. But he’s certainly proven he’s someone Washington can win games with, making him a purple player.
Behind Thomas is a lot of unknown. Rookie John Bates has some upside and could develop into another purple player down the road, but it might take him some time to get used to the NFL level. Sammis Reyes might be the best athlete on the entire team, but having never played football before, I’d be surprised if he made the team this year. The tight end position has a lot of small details required to play it well, and Reyes is still learning the fundamentals of the game itself. He’s a great story and terrific athlete, but he has a lot of work to do before he’s ready to play in the NFL.
The other tight ends on the roster consist of career back ups and journey. Ricky Seals-Jones and Tyrone Swoopes have flashed talent before, but never been consistent starters. Temarrick Hemingway displayed a few glimpses of potential in his limited time with Washington last year, but joins the other two in the orange category fighting for the third tight end spot on the roster.
Washington lost a purple level player in Morgan Moses this offseason, but replaced him with Charles Leno, another purple level player. Leno has been a solid, reliable starter in the league for a number of years now but does have his limits. He’s not a dominant tackle that can always be trusted on an island against the league's top rushers, so he’s not quite a red, but he can play to a red level a fair amount of the time.
Cornelius Lucas joins Leno as a purple, having shown last season that he could be more than a career back-up and be a player that Washington can win games with. I’m not sure he ultimately ends up as a starter for Washington, he has an interesting training camp battle with rookie Sam Cosmi for the starting right tackle spot, but he’s certainly a better than average back-up option as a swing tackle.
Cosmi was drafted in the second round because he has incredible upside with his size and athletic ability. However, he does have some technical flaws that need to be fixed if he is to succeed at this level. He has blue level upside, but has a long way to go to reach that potential. He may well end up as the starter at right tackle this year if he can beat out Lucas for the job. For now though, he’s all potential until we see him actually work against NFL competition, which lands him in the green tier.
Washington’s starting left tackle going into last season was Geron Christian, who was released alongside Morgan Moses earlier this offseason after losing his starting role to Lucas. He would have been be competing against David Sharpe, David Steinmetz and Rick Leonard for the fourth tackle spot, if Washington opts to carry a fourth tackle, but now Sharpe, Steinmetz and Leonard will have to battle in camp to try and convince the team to keep the extra tackle on the final roster.
This is where we see Washington’s second blue level player. Brandon Scherff has become one of the best guards in the league and is being paid as such, with Washington choosing to use its franchise tag on Scherff for the second year in a row. Scherff is a stout pass protector with fantastic athletic ability from the guard spot. That athleticism allows Washington to do some unique things with him in the run and screen game too, using him to reach and make blocks that most guards can’t. It appears as though this may be his last season in Washington, but for now he’s one of the team’s best players.
Wes Schweitzer lost a training camp battle to Wes Martin for the starting left guard spot last year, but saw time when Scherff went down injured at the start of the year. When Scherff returned, Martin was the one to drop out and Schweitzer kicked over to left guard where he remained for the rest of the season. He proved he was a capable starter when Washington leaned on the zone running scheme. Schweitzer combined well with center Chase Roullier and Scherff to make a formidable interior trio that generated plenty of movement in the run game. He’s not the greatest pass protector and won’t bulldoze anyone over in a gap run scheme, so he’s not a red, but in a predominantly zone running scheme, he’s a solid purple.
Ereck Flowers will battle Schweitzer for that left guard role, but if Washington sticks to the zone scheme that the team found success with last year, Schweitzer is a better fit due to his athleticism. Flowers is a bigger body and thus more of a power guard than a mobile one. He had an up and down year in Miami after a solid 2019 in Washington, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s only a back up this year.
Saahdiq Charles played just two snaps in his rookie season before suffering a season-ending injury. He has plenty of talent having played left tackle for LSU and Washington seems likely to kick him inside to guard now, but until he’s able to stay healthy and prove himself on the field, he’s all potential right now. He could end up knocking Wes Martin off the roster, who has fallen from starting left guard in 2020, to back up struggling to make the team in 2021.
Chase Roullier solidified his position as teams starting center and was rewarded with a new contract. Along with Schweitzer and Scherff, Roullier was part of an interior trio that solidified Washington’s offensive line done the stretch and enabled the team to lean on Antonio Gibson and the zone run game. Roullier isn’t a dominant player that wins games for Washington, but he’s certainly a sturdy, reliable starting center which merits a purple grade that is on the cusp of being a red.
Washington used a fifth round pick on Keith Ismael in 2020, believing he could eventually develop into Roullier’s replacement. But with Roullier signing a new contract, Ismael may now have to cross-train at different positions, playing some guard to make himself an option there. He was seen as a talent zone-blocking center coming out of the draft but never saw the field last season. Until we see him in action, he’s all potential and can’t be considered anything but a green.
Tyler Larson has a chance to make the back end of the roster due to his connections and history with this coaching staff. Larsen played with this staff in Carolina and could be a solid back up option with flexibility to play all three interior spots. He took second team reps at center over Ismael in OTAs and mini-camps, but we’ll see if that remains the case in training camp.
The big takeaway for me is the overall improvement in talent across the board. When Ben and I put together the grades for last year, Washington had two blues, no reds and just three purples, one of which was Adrian Peterson, who didn’t make the final roster.
Ideally, teams look to only start players considered purple grades or above and Washington had just four such players going into last season. This year is a completely different story though. The same two blue players remain, McLaurin and Scherff, but Washington now has two reds and 10 purples. That means Washington has 14 starting level players on offense, compared to just four last year.
2020 was a rebuilding year and had a lot of players in the green category that needed to play and prove themselves. A year on and Washington has now got a much clearer picture of its offensive personnel, transforming a few position groups from complete unknowns to potential strengths of the team.
There’s depth along the offensive line with young talent like Cosmi and Charles that could develop into red players and the receiver group has completely turned from a one-man show into a diverse group of speedy weapons.
Fitzpatrick’s play will ultimately determine just how far this offense can go in 2021, but the depth is significantly improved from last year and is set up in such a way that the offense could become a very good overall unit ready to contend when the team acquires its quarterback of the future in 2022.