2018 NFL Preview: Redskins coach Jay Gruden believes in Alex Smith, and he better be right

Shutdown Corner

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Washington Redskins emerged from the Kirk Cousins contract debacle as well as could reasonably be expected.

And if you believe Jay Gruden, the team upgraded when it traded for Alex Smith.

“Yeah, without a doubt,” Gruden said. “I don’t want to compare two players, but we’re always trying to be better at every position. We got better.”

It’s a double-edged sword for Gruden. He probably doesn’t have the job security to oversee a long rebuild with a bad quarterback. But by proclaiming the Redskins got better at quarterback, he has left himself no outs if it doesn’t work. His seat has to be considered warm coming into this season, and he can’t buy himself more time by blaming a bad quarterback situation in Washington’s post-Cousins world. He told the world Washington improved in that spot.

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It always seemed Gruden and the Redskins had a strange relationship with Cousins. The “How you like me now?” moment a few years ago seemed to reveal tension beneath the surface over the lack of appreciation for Cousins’ skills. The front office never gave him the contract offer he knew he could get on the open market (he got that mega-deal from the Minnesota Vikings). Gruden always held back praise for Cousins. After the season was done, Gruden made a comment that’s ridiculous from an NFL coach.

“You’re 7-9, you know it’s hard to say, ‘Wow, this guy really was outstanding,'” Gruden said.

That’s inane. Cousins played remarkably last season given the injuries and lack of talent around him; downgrading his performance based on the team’s record is delusional. He’s the only reason the Redskins weren’t picking in the top five of this year’s draft.

But when former Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan said in an interview with 104.3 The Fan in Denver after the season that he didn’t see a “special” player in Cousins, we can probably assume many decision makers still with the team share that feeling. For whatever reason, the Redskins never embraced Cousins as much as everyone else did.

And it’s possible Washington is right. They were around Cousins every day and know his limitations. Cousins was quite productive, and the Vikings believe Cousins is a franchise quarterback, but for a few years the Redskins have been telling us through their actions that they didn’t love him. When Gruden says Smith is better than Cousins, it doesn’t seem like predictable praise for a new player. He seems to genuinely believe it.

There are reasons to like Smith. He led the NFL in passer rating last season, albeit with a far better supporting cast than Washington will give him. Gruden listed all of the things he likes about Smith, and it seemed like more praise than he gave Cousins in six seasons.

“It’s not one thing, it’s everything. It’s the entire body of work,” Gruden said, according to ESPN. “He’s very good at the intermediate ball. He’s good with the quick game. He can run zone reads, the [run-pass options]. Very exciting. … The ability to ad-lib, make plays that aren’t there and keep plays alive. Coaching him for the first time will be exciting because I don’t think there’s a limit on what he can do. He has all the things you want a quarterback to be able to do.”

This means there are no more excuses. Gruden could freeze out Robert Griffin III for Cousins and be given a pass for a few years. But you can’t offer that kind of praise for a new quarterback after another change and then not show improvement. Gruden is 28-35-1 as Redskins coach. While you can never predict what a team will do when it comes to head-coaching decisions – see: Lewis, Marvin – it seems like a good bet that Gruden better have some quick success with Smith, because he won’t survive otherwise.

There’s more to team success than quarterback play (you wouldn’t know it from Gruden’s ignorant “7-9” comment about Cousins). The Redskins aren’t bad around their new quarterback, but they’re not great either. The defense is good, a bit underrated, though it won’t scare anyone. The receivers could be good if some things break right, but that group is largely unknown. The run game should be much better with rookie Derrius Guice, but we don’t know.

This is a middle-of-the-road team expecting its improvement to come from ditching a quarterback with 13,176 yards and 81 touchdowns the past three seasons.

Gruden better hope he’s right about how good Smith can be.

Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith came over from Kansas City in an offseason trade. (AP)
Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith came over from Kansas City in an offseason trade. (AP)

Let’s ignore the missteps that led to the Kirk Cousins departure and focus on where the Redskins were at the end of last season. They were without a quarterback and had no obvious path to get one. In that context, ending up with Alex Smith was a fine outcome, though they paid a hefty trade price giving up a good cornerback in Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick. Signing the 34-year-old Smith to a four-year, $94 million extension is risky, but the Redskins will deal with that down the road. I like the signing of receiver Paul Richardson, and cornerback Orlando Scandrick helps to replace Fuller. There were some free-agent losses other than Cousins, but nothing too devastating. I liked the rookie class because Derrius Guice will be one of the best picks of this year’s draft.

GRADE: B

If the Redskins’ last two first-round picks pay off, the front seven could be very good. End Jonathan Allen was a good value pick in the first round last year, though his rookie season was limited to five games due to injury. If you watched Alabama in the College Football Playoff last season you know the potential of 2018 first-round pick Da’Ron Payne. Inside linebackers Mason Foster and Zach Brown are good at what they do, and Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith form an underrated pass-rush duo. They combined for 21 sacks last year. There’s a lot to like.

Alex Smith benefited from very good talent around him with the Chiefs last season. It’s unclear how  good Washington’s cast is. Jamison Crowder is a fantastic slot receiver, even if he took a step back last season, and that’s a good start. Who else is reliable? Jordan Reed can’t stay healthy. Josh Doctson makes some great catches but he has shown no consistency. I liked Washington’s addition of Paul Richardson, but he was a low-volume receiver for Seattle and we don’t know what he could do with a bigger target share. You can easily talk yourself into this group being good. It’s also easy to see how it could disappoint.

The Redskins botched the Kirk Cousins contract situation, then overcompensated with Alex Smith’s deal. For practical purposes it would be hard for Washington to get out of his four-year, $94 million deal before 2021, according to Spotrac’s figures. Of that $94 million, a whopping $71 million is practically guaranteed. Smith’s 2020 salary of $16 million becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the 2019 league year, according to Rich Tandler of NBC Sports Washington, and it’s impossible to believe Washington would cut him after one year and $55 million in guaranteed money. That means in any realistic scenario, no matter how good or bad Smith is in 2018 and 2019, Smith will be Washington’s quarterback in 2020 at 36 years old. That might work out very well, but that scenario carries risk.

Cornerback Josh Norman came to Washington with great fanfare, and he has been a good addition. However, now on the wrong side of 30 years old, he’s also at a point where cornerbacks start to slide. We might have seen the beginning of his decline last year. Pro Football Focus, which has always graded Norman well, ranked him as the No. 53 cornerback in the NFL last season (Norman disagreed). Bleacher Report’s film analysis for its NFL1000 series put Norman No. 24 among outside corners. There’s nothing wrong with being a top-25 NFL cornerback (not as great to be top 53), but the Redskins need Norman to be an elite cornerback, especially when you consider they traded away Kendall Fuller. However, a rebound becomes less likely at Norman’s age. Norman will turn 31 years old on Dec. 15 and also has a salary-cap number of almost $17 million. The Redskins could reasonably move on from Norman in 2019, when he is slated to make $11 million in base salary. But they have to be hoping he returns to form as a top-10 cornerback and becomes an easy investment for another year.

From Yahoo’s Andy Behrens: “You shouldn’t need a fantasy expert to tell you that Derrius Guice has a chance to be very good, very soon. His talent is hard to miss and he’s clearly the best early-down rushing option on this team’s roster. No one should be surprised if he delivers a top-10 or 12 positional finish in his first season.

“If there’s a sneaky-good fantasy option in Washington, it’s fourth-year receiver Jamison Crowder. He was a semi-buzzy player last summer, but nagging injury issues limited him in the early weeks. Crowder’s performance in the second half of the season offered a glimpse of what he’s capable of doing in 2018. Between Weeks 8 and 16, he caught 44 passes for 615 yards and three scores. He’s a decent bet for 90 receptions and 1100-plus yards in a healthy season, with Alex Smith at the controls of the offense. Crowder and Smith reportedly clicked during OTAs, so there’s that.

“It’s possible that Dez Bryant could land in Washington and unsettle the receiving hierarchy, but, at the moment, Crowder looks like a strong candidate for a breakout season.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Redskins.]

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Football Outsiders tracks injuries not just by adding up games lost, but weighing which players were hurt. An injury to a backup safety doesn’t have the same impact as an injury to a team’s quarterback, and FO’s adjusted games lost metric accounts for those differences. In FO’S AGL metric, the Redskins lost the most games to injury last season, thanks in large part to a crushing wave of ailments on the offensive line. Even with the worst injury situation in the NFL, the Redskins went 7-9. A lot of credit goes to Kirk Cousins, who played very well when everything around him was falling apart, but it also reflects well on Jay Gruden.

CAN DERRIUS GUICE BE OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR?

Technically, the answer is probably no because voters like quarterbacks. Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round and Saquon Barkley exists as a rookie, therefore it will be hard for anyone else to make a run at Rookie of the Year. But I like Guice as a dark horse. We still don’t know exactly why Guice slipped to the second round, but he was the second-best back in this class. He’s not great in the passing game and that likely hurt his stock, but he’s fantastic as a runner. He runs a sub-4.5 40-yard dash and packs a violent punch in his 224-pound frame. I like everything about Guice as a runner, and there’s nobody on the Redskins who should stop him from an early down role. It would be a surprise if he doesn’t rush for more than 1,000 yards this season.

The subtle slights of Kirk Cousins are ridiculous, but maybe Jay Gruden is right and Alex Smith is better. It’s not like the Redskins were terrible last season, and that was with some awful injury luck. If they have better health and Smith is an upgrade, the Redskins could be in playoff contention. That’s a tough task in a deep NFC, but the pieces are there for it.

There’s a reason Alex Smith was available. The Chiefs thought they had gone as far as they could with Smith, and drafted Patrick Mahomes to push them further. Smith has always been a solid quarterback, but not one who can lift a middling supporting cast. However, when the Redskins paid a steep price for Smith, it wasn’t counting on getting a game manager. He needs to be really good. If Smith isn’t better than Kirk Cousins, that will be pointed out often in Washington. And Smith will very likely be the starter through 2020 no matter what. A step back puts Jay Gruden on a much hotter seat, and then all of a sudden Washington would be a backsliding team that made a huge investment in a good but not great quarterback in his mid-30s.

Washington is a team I struggled to rank. It could be much better than No. 23. I don’t buy that Alex Smith is an upgrade over Kirk Cousins, but Smith is capable. I also believe that Derrius Guice can be a difference maker. Yet, the Redskins play a tough schedule again and there’s nothing about them that indicates a big breakout. I could see them being about 7-9, just like last season. It will be interesting to see if that’s enough to buy Jay Gruden a sixth season.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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