Offseason workouts are basically done, and training camp is more than a month away. If there’s a time for Jay Gruden to dream about his Washington Redskins, it’s now. Closing his eyes and envisioning the future means he’ll either see a rookie or a journeyman as the starting quarterback, which could have anyone sitting up straight at 3 a.m. To soothe himself, the coach better look to the defense.
“I know it’s early,” Gruden said Tuesday, “but I like our defensive mentality, No. 1. I think we have a tough edge to us.”
Proclamations about football teams made in the gentle breezes of June are worth as much as a 400-level end-zone ticket to the fourth preseason game, which is to say about $1.57. But if you can’t make sunny predictions on days such as Tuesday — when Trent Williams’ absence from organized team activities didn’t seem quite as apocalyptic, when the sun shone, when first-round pick Dwayne Haskins and traded-for veteran Case Keenum spoke positively about a quarterback competition — then when can you?
So, let ‘er rip.
“We’ve got a lot of potential,” veteran outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “We look really good on paper right now. ... We have to put the work in each and every day. We have to not be sometimes-good. We have to be all-the-time good.”
I know, I know, this defense hasn’t been all-the-time good in more than a decade. I realize it’s dangerous to buy into stuff said by a guy who just came in off the street — in this case, new inside linebackers coach Rob Ryan, who told NBC Sports Washington that he “knew this was a top-five defense going in.”
Care to walk that back, Rob?
“I was actually trying to refer to last year,” Ryan said after one of Washington’s mini-camp workouts last week. “The Washington Redskins were top-five, until late in the year when all these injuries and everything happened. I know the team’s got a lot of talent here.”
The talent, we’ll get to. But even as we’re clearly considering the glass not just half-full, but allowing the liquid to reach the brim and be contained only by surface tension, let’s make sure we’re grounded in facts. Washington’s defense wasn’t top-five “until late in the year.” It was top-five until Week 8 — after which it gave up 992 yards over two weeks to Atlanta and Tampa Bay.
It’s nice of the new guy to be optimistic. Let’s just make sure we ground the optimism in facts. And the facts are that this team gave up almost 70 more yards per outing over the final nine games than it did over the first seven. There were some injuries, sure. But there’s what seems to be inbred inconsistency, too. That’s how you end up 17th in total yards allowed. That’s how you end up without a top-five defense since 2008. You’re sometimes-good, not all-the-time good.
Still, there’s no best-case scenario for this team that doesn’t involve the defense being its best unit, and that unit being among the best in the league. The case for that:
The front seven should be, as a floor, stout, and could be, as a ceiling, disruptive and elite. Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne are space-eating, first-round picks who clog things up. Kerrigan, even if he’ll be 31 by the time the season opens, was a first-round pick long ago and is coming off seasons of 11, 13 and 13 sacks. Matt Ioannidis is established entering his fourth season, and off the edge, here comes rookie first-rounder Montez Sweat, who looks just, um, wow. Who knows whether the heart ailment that reportedly caused some teams to take him off their draft boards will cause Washington regret? Right now, with those gentle June breezes wafting in all that optimism, he looks like a steal. Were there 25 players better than Sweat in the April draft?
“That guy, he’s got a chance to be a star in this league,” Kerrigan said. “The physical attributes he has are pretty rare.”
You think? He’s 6-feet-6 and 260 pounds, but can move. And bend. And chase.
Now, it’s not a perfect situation at inside linebacker, where neither Mason Foster nor Shaun Dion Hamilton is a star. Still, Gruden is right to say, “I think those guys up front set the stages for everybody.” If they’re not crushing quarterbacks and swallowing runners, well, Gruden likely will be making such evaluations from a different office next year.
“Now, you add a tone-setter in Landon Collins,” Gruden continued, and this is where it gets intriguing. If Washington is really going to be a three-and-out machine on defense, then the signing of free-agent safety Collins will look shrewd, not extravagant. Not sure what to make of the free safety, other than to say Deshazor Everett picked off a pass in 11-on-11 drills Tuesday that would have gone for a touchdown the other way.
And then we get to cornerback. Notice how long it’s taken to get to Josh Norman? There’s a reason for that.
By some combination of personality (intriguing) and contract (large), Norman has become a player who, when he opens his mouth, has his words transcribed and dissected ad nauseam. That’s what comes with being the highest-paid cornerback in the league, still a stunning fact about a player who has six interceptions in his 46 games wearing burgundy and gold.
But the fact that here we are, 900-something words into a piece about this team’s defense, and Norman only now comes up? It speaks to the fact that there are others here who can lead. It speaks to the fact that there are others here who can produce. And oh, by the way: Gruden went out of his way to say he has “been really, really, really impressed with that Fabian Moreau,” who has a chance to make an impact at cornerback alongside Norman.
While we’re here, let’s cherry-pick some stats to make you — and Gruden — feel even better.
A year ago, Washington was seventh in sacks and 10th in turnovers forced. They lost — who, exactly, from that group? D.J. Swearinger, the safety who talked his way out of town after blasting the defensive coaches in Week 16; inside linebacker Zach Brown, hardly a playmaker; and strong safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a half-year stop-gap. They added Sweat and Collins. Aren’t they ahead of where they were?
“Everything’s proved,” Ryan said. “I’m not big on predictions.”
Especially predictions made in June. Training camp opens July 25. For the next month and more, why not go through life thinking this defense could be really, really good?