Teams change every season. New coaches, new players, injuries, and retirements all force change. As a fan, the change offers renewed hope for success annually, but it can also bring with it some surprises (Morgan Moses) and some difficult partings (Ryan Kerrigan).
For some fans, the offseason is a time of hibernation with respect to football. They won't start to wake up from their NFL slumber until the preseason games begin, and their interest in the sport won't really come fully awake until Week 1 of the regular season in early September.
If you're reading this article in the first week of June, you aren't one of those fans. Your interest is year round. In March, fans focus outward on veteran free agents. In April, everything NFL is about the draft. By the end of May, any roster news has washed through, and it's a long six weeks until training camp.
June is an in-between time where we can no longer really look backward at last season -- that's firmly in the rearview mirror now -- but it's hard to talk in any detail about the upcoming season; it's too far away and there are too many unknkowns.
I thought that today it would be fun to do a little of both -- look at ten success stories on the Washington Football Team roster. This involves looking back to what was done in 2020 and earlier, but in the context of the excitement that each player brings to training camp, the preseason and the 2021 regular seaaon. While I have primarily focused on players that have been with the team for a while, I also threw in one 2021 veteran free agent just for fun.
No. 1 Logan Thomas
Washington’s starting tight end was one of three Washington players with over 100 targets in 2020. His 670 receiving yards were second most on the Washington Football Team. No other tight end on the roster was targeted more than 3 times or got more than 10 receiving yards on the season.
Thomas led the team with 6 receiving touchdowns — Terry McLaurin was next with 4.
Logan Thomas was 7th in the NFL in receiving yards among tight ends, and 9th in touchdown catches. In fact, he ranked inside the top-30 for all NFL players in TD receptions for the season.
But wait! There’s more. Thomas rushed the ball three times, picking up 2 first downs. He also completed his only pass of the season for 28 yards and a first down, and he had an important fumble recovery.
But statistics don’t do justice to Thomas’s impact on the team. He blocked — always willingly and usually effectively — often being in position to spring Antonio Gibson or JD McKissic with a ‘wham’ block as he motioned across the formation.
And once Logan Thomas got the ball in his hands, he didn’t give up until he had gotten every available inch that he could gain. It was common to see Thomas lowering his shoulder and bringing the hit to the defender when there was nowhere left to go — all in an effort to get the most out of every play.
(In this video, it's worth waiting for the slow motion replay at the 00:19 mark)
Logan Thomas was the only real weapon the team had at the tight end position in 2020. This season, despite the addition of John Bates, Deon Yelder, Ricky Seals-Jones and Sammis Reyes, Thomas is the unquestioned starter, and will be looking to build on a fantastic foundation he established a year ago.
No. 2 Kamren Curl
The 7th round pick had an incredible rookie year. Just look at what the coaches asked him to do:
The young man has incredible versatility and talent. PFF rated him #38 among all 2020 NFL safeties, giving him a solid ranking in a group that includes two starting safeties per team at the minimum (Kam himself was an injury replacement).
In 836 defensive snaps, Curl pulled down 3 interceptions — one of those returned for a touchdown. He had 4 passes defended, 2 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 5 QB hits, and 88 tackles. Curl played 73% of the team’s defensive snaps and 30% of the special teams snaps in 2020. In fact, Kamren Curl was probably the 2nd best defensive rookie to take the field in the NFL last season.
Not bad for a rookie 7th round pick. Can he do even more in 2021?
No. 3 Taylor Heinicke
Just because he was out of football for two years doesn’t mean he isn’t a great quarterback. Just look at the career trajectory of Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner if you need convincing. Heinicke was easily the most exciting quarterback on the roster in his two appearances in burgundy & gold last year.
He went toe to toe with Tom Brady in the playoffs last year and performed better against what may have been the best defense in the NFL than any other quarterback to face Tampa Bay in the playoffs. His gutty and dramatic return to the game after going to the locker room for an injured shoulder is also in important part of the Heinicke legend.
Heinicke showed up to OTAs in May looking like he’d spent every day since that playoff game in the gym. He hasn’t proven that he’s the man yet only because he hasn’t yet had the chance. If he gets onto the field for a few games...he’s gonna open a lot of eyes around the league!
No. 4 Chase Roullier
Pro Football Focus gave the center the highest pass-blocking grade of all the team’s offensive linemen in 2020. As the center, he has to call the protections for the line, meaning that he has to be cerebral as well as physically dominating. Roullier was drafted in the 6th round and earned the NFL Performance Escalator (a big pay raise in Year 4 of his contract) by becoming a starter midway through his rookie season and never giving up that spot. He played in 16 regular season games and a playoff game last year — 1,161 snaps! In those 16 games, he allowed 1 sack, 3 hits, 15 total pressures. PFF graded him the 6th best center in the league a year ago, and the 28-year-old is still getting better.
No. 5 Brandon Scherff
This is the list of Washington franchise All Pro players in this century:
- 2020 Brandon Scherff
That's a success story already!
In fact, the only real question about Washington's unquestioned starter at the right guard position is whether or not he'll be back in 2022 and beyond. The team wants him back, and according to numerous reporters, Washington has offered to make Scherff the highest paid guard in the NFL in an effort to sign him to a long term deal, but so far without success.
Though Brandon Scherff has said publicly on more than one occasion that he wants to remain in Washington, the lack of a long term deal has cast doubt on his commitment to staying with the team. It could simply be his agent doing his best to get the most lucrative deal possible for Scherff by delaying the point at which he signs his long-term contract as long as possible in order to maximize its value.
Regardless of the business side of things, there's no doubting Brandon Scherff's commitment to the team he is playing for right now.
Scherff has been at organized team activities in May and June, and head coach Ron Rivera often cites Scherff's leadership and hard work as models for what he wants to see out of every player. Whatever happens with Scherff in 2022, the all-pro remains an integral part of the Washington Football Team in 2021 and a bulwark on the offensive line.
No. 6 RB duo - Antonio Gibson/JD McKissic
As a rookie, playing in just 14 games (a few of them nursing a painful turf toe injury) Gibson put up 795 rushing yards at 4.7 yards per carry, and 436 of those yards (55% of the total) came after contact, which was 2nd among rookies behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Gibson’s 11 rushing touchdowns tied him for 6th in the league among all running backs, and ranked him #1 among all rookie running backs.
Gibson added another 247 receiving yards, giving him 1,042 yards from scrimmage in his rookie season.
Gibson seemed to develop as both a runner and receiver as the season progressed, making him scary to contemplate as a second-year player in an improved offense.
JD McKissic was second in the NFL behind Alvin Kamara last season in receptions and receiving yards, but according to PFF, McKissic was a much better pass protector than Kamara, with a blocking grade of 61.7 versus 52.5 for Kamara.
McKissic ran the ball 85 times for 365 yards (4.3 avg), giving him a total of 954 yards and 3 TDs.
McKissic also played 11% of the team’s special team snaps a year ago.
Like other players, McKissic’s impact can’t be communicated in raw statistics. He added excitement to the game with his explosiveness and elusiveness. McKissic picked up 25 rushing first-downs and 32 receiving first-downs, meaning that he moved the chains on average, every third time he touched the ball.
His second season in Washington, as part of a more high-powered offense, should be fun to watch.
No. 7 William Jackson III
William Jackson is new to Washington, but not to the NFL. He calls himself a shutdown cornerback, but then, so do the Washington coaches, who are enthusiastic about what the veteran will add to the defense and how he will enable Jack Del Rio to be more creative.
Jackson received the 34th highest grade from PFF for the 2020 season, but among the 42 cornerbacks who played at least 500 snaps last season, Jackson was 6th in reception % allowed (52.2) and 8th in snaps per reception allowed, giving up just one pass for every 14 coverage snaps played. That was playing on a bad Cincinnati defense. Jackson should be able to accomplish even more in Washington behind the Football Team’s high-powered defensive line.
Jackson is known best as a press man corner, but both he and the Washington coaches agree that he is versatile enough to be an every-down boundary corner who plays man or zone coverage with great effectiveness. The signing of Jackson was an early signal that Jack Del Rio's defense would have a new look and coverage style in 2021, and those thoughts were given a boost when Washington used an early draft pick to add another press man cover specialist, Benjamin St-Juste, to the roster.
Some people feel that the addition of Jackson, St-Juste, and first-round drafted rookie linebacker Jamin Davis may be enough to move last season’s 5th ranked defense to the top of the NFL in 2021.
No. 8 Terry McLaurin
In 29 games as a pro, Terry McLaurin has 2,037 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns at 14.0 yards per average.
Terry has accumulated those stats catching passes from Case Keenum, Dwayne Haskins, Colt McCoy, Kyle Allen, Alex Smith and Taylor Heinicke, and generally without any legitimate receiving threat on the other side of the offense.
Terry is a hard worker, a quiet professional, and a team captain. He exploded on the scene as a rookie, and diligently did what was necessary in one of the NFL’s worst offenses a season ago.
In 2021, with a new quarterback and his college teammate Curtis Samuel as part of the offense, it may be time for Terry McLaurin to put himself among the elite of the NFL receivers.
No. 9 DL draft picks 2016-2019 Payne/Allen/Ioannidis/Sweat/Settle
With these five gifted players, it’s hard to separate their contributions. Allen is the veteran leader; Sweat is the most athletic; Ioannidis and Payne are each strong as an ox; Settle is full of energy. Together, they dominate the opposition and the strength of the group is greater than the sum of its parts.
They can stop the run, rush the passer and set the tone for one of the best defenses in the NFL. No single individual stands out over the rest because every member does his part, but it’s worth noting that, from a statistical standpoint, Montez Sweat was the team sack leader with 9. Further, Sweat had the most tackles for loss with 14, and the most passes defended among the DL with 6. Sweat tied with Payne for the lead in DL interceptions — they had 1 each — but Sweat returned his for a TD (you’ll remember the play against Dallas). Montez Sweat had the best statistical production of all the Washington DL players.
No. 10 Chase Young
There is one player missing from that defensive line: 2020 second-overall draft pick,Chase Young.
In 2020, he won defensive rookie of the year, and his raw stats were pretty impressive, but it was his infectious energy, his clear support for teammates on defense, offense and special teams, and his leadership that got him voted to captain by his teammates in his rookie season that may have really stood out.
It would have been nearly impossible for Chase Young to live up to the incredible expectations that were placed on him last year when he was drafted #2 overall by Washington, but he managed to do it.
Young recorded 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He defended 4 passes, forced 4 fumbles, and recovered 3 fumbles, returning one of them for a touchdown. He did all this while often drawing double-teams from the opposing offense.
In 2020, Young was a dominating force that made other players around him better.
That was when he was a rookie; now that he knows what to do, he should hit the ground running in 2021 and have an even better season.