2016 NFL Preview: Will a tougher schedule upend the Redskins?

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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How heavily do you weigh strength of schedule in the NFL? Your answer will determine what you think about the Washington Redskins.

On one hand, we all know that playing the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers is tougher than playing the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans. So NFL strength of schedule matters, of course. But to what degree?

This is one area in which the NFL differs greatly from college football. The gap between the best and worst teams in college is enormous. Of the 41 Week 1 college games listed in Las Vegas, 25 have double-digit spreads. You see spreads of 31.5, 36.5, 38.5, 41.5. The largest spread in the NFL for Week 1 is 8.5 points (Miami Dolphins at Seahawks). There have only been 11 games in NFL history with a spread of 20 points or more, according to Pro Football Reference’s archives. There has never been an NFL spread larger than 26.5 points.

That last paragraph is a long way of saying that all NFL teams are good. The difference between No. 1 and No. 32 isn’t as large as you think. Alabama can schedule Chattanooga, and the Crimson Tide’s chances of losing are about 0 percent. A team like Oklahoma will play what, three games this season in which it will truly be tested? Maybe four, five at the most? NFL teams don’t have that luxury. Every week you play a team capable of beating you.

That last point makes the Redskins an interesting study.

If the NFL had a selection committee decide which teams get in the playoffs, NCAA basketball tournament style, the Redskins would have gone to the NIT. There was not one quality win on their resume. Their best win all season, by far, was beating an 8-8 Buffalo team at home. The Redskins played four teams with winning records all season, including playoffs. They lost to them all by at least two touchdowns: by 14 to the New York Jets, 17 to the New England Patriots, 28 to the Carolina Panthers and 17 to the Green Bay Packers.

That’s right, the NFC East champions were handled by every good team they played last season.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Does it matter? Again, the Redskins didn’t become bowl eligible by beating Charlotte, Texas State and UTSA. They won nine NFL games and took the division title. Quarterback Kirk Cousins didn’t lead a victory over a winning team all season, but he did put together a 101.6 rating against a schedule of 16 professional teams.

I do think strength of schedule is important when evaluating NFL teams, though obviously it’s not as extreme as you’ll find in college football. Washington’s lack of even one signature win last season is the reason I’m not picking them to repeat as division champions. There are some things to like about this team, but also concerns about the run game and the front seven. Jay Gruden did a nice job rallying the team from a 4-6 start to win five of their last six and win the NFC East. But they’ll need to play a lot better to finish above .500 again. At some point the Redskins will have to show they can beat a playoff-worthy team.

Here’s a key stat to know: Based on Football Outsiders’ metrics, the Redskins played the 25th toughest schedule in the NFL last season. This season, according to Warren Sharp’s strength of schedule calculation at Rotoworld, the Redskins have the fourth toughest schedule.

Kirk Cousins is playing on the franchise tag in 2016 (AP)
Kirk Cousins is playing on the franchise tag in 2016 (AP)

It had been a few years since Washington made the biggest splash in free agency. I’d argue that cornerback Josh Norman was the best player to change teams this offseason. Norman is an All-Pro who was a key figure in the Carolina Panthers’ 15-1 season. He’s a great addition.

The rest of the Redskins’ offseason was pretty boring, which is unusual. Most of the additions were minor, the free agents who left replaceable, and the draft picks aren’t likely to make a huge impact (though linebacker/safety Su’a Cravens could, and receiver Josh Doctson was a smart pick). It was the epitome of an average offseason, until the Panthers cut Norman loose and the Redskins pounced. Grade: B

Washington was on fire late last season. Although there was no signature win, winning at Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas down the stretch, along with that home win against Buffalo, showed that Washington was peaking. Kirk Cousins played out of his mind, and that mostly coincided with DeSean Jackson getting healthy. There are good weapons in the passing game, and Cousins’ emergence might be for real. The Redskins should feel good about how it finished last season.

I haven’t entirely bought into Cousins yet. Cousins was an up-and-down quarterback last season who had a couple more ups than downs. He had a 126.6 rating (22 touchdowns and one interception) in wins and a 73.5 rating (seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions) in losses. It’s amazing how Washington’s fortunes exactly mirrored Cousins’ play. The Redskins didn’t win a game in which Cousins had a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio, going 0-4. They were 8-1 when Cousins threw more touchdowns than interceptions (and 1-2 when the ratio was even). It’s weird to think of it this way, but it’s arguable that in 2015 no team relied on its quarterback more than the Redskins leaned on Cousins.

Cousins improved a lot in the second half, after throwing eight interceptions in his first six games. At Cousins’ worst, he’s a poor decision maker who will play his team out of games with mistakes. Are we done seeing that version of Cousins? It’s possible. But you can look at the 2015 Redskins and easily figure out that if Cousins regresses, the team will follow.

This is the most intriguing quarterback contract situation in the NFL. Cousins will play this year on the franchise tag, a smart move for both sides. Cousins will make about $20 million and Washington can see if Cousins’ 2015 hot streak was for real and then re-evaluate if it wants to make a long-term commitment. If Cousins plays great again, it will be an easy decision to pay him. But what if he doesn’t? What if he’s inconsistent against a tougher schedule? Then it’ll get really interesting in Washington.

Tight end Jordan Reed was very good as a rookie on a per-play basis, and then dipped a bit in his second season. The common theme in both seasons was he couldn’t stay healthy. Last season Reed was mostly healthy and was arguably the best non-Gronk tight end in the NFL. Defenses can’t match up against Reed, especially in the red zone. He had 87 catches, 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 games. Aside from Cousins, he was clearly the team’s MVP. His production is no longer a question. But the health history is still a bit scary.

Cosell: “I think [Josh Norman] has all the traits you look for in an NFL corner to play both zone and man. In Carolina, they played more zone than man. They did play some man, and he often traveled with the opponent’s No. 1 [receiver], but most people automatically assume that means they played man coverage. They did not. He traveled, but they still played zone. … So Norman has all the traits you look for, it’s just that he hasn’t played a ton of man coverage. I think he’s capable of it, but we’ll see.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Redskins and the rest of the NFC East.]

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “If you won a fantasy title in 2015, Jordan Reed might be one of the reasons why. He went ballistic during the fantasy playoffs, totaling 25 catches for 333 yards and five touchdowns — fantasy’s second-best field player (only Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson was better) during the money weeks. It’s a beautiful thing when a tight end has wide-receiver skills and a regular home in the slot. Alas, this summer Reed is a pay-up commodity. He’s currently the No. 2 tight end off the board in Yahoo leagues (average draft position of 40.4), an eyelash over Greg Olsen.

“Given the choice of Reed versus Olsen, I’m going to lean towards Olsen’s floor (and heck, there are plenty of discount-rack tight ends who look appealing). Olsen has made it through 142 straight games — a remarkable run, given the demands of the tight end position — while Reed has suffered five concussions in five years, dating back to his time at the University of Florida. There’s no definitive best plan to assemble your 2016 roster, but I’d like a better floor from someone who commands a third or fourth-round pick.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Among 44 qualified running backs last season, Matt Jones finished dead last in Football Outsiders’ metrics. In Pro Football Focus’ grades, Jones finished 66th among 69 qualifying backs. Last season he had 490 yards on a poor 3.4 yards per average. Washington then practically handed Jones the No. 1 running back role this offseason. They didn’t bring in any competition and let Alfred Morris leave in free agency. It is quite a gamble. Unless Jones improves a lot in his second season or someone else emerges, Washington might have the NFL’s worst set of running backs.

WHAT WILL WASHINGTON’S RECEIVERS LOOK LIKE THIS YEAR, AND BEYOND?

This is a transition year for the Redskins at receiver. Pierre Garcon is in the last year of his deal and DeSean Jackson’s deal will void after this season. Both will be 30 years old next offseason. After a 1,346-yard season in 2013, Garcon has settled in as a decent No. 2 receiver. Jackson is still one of the NFL’s great deep threats, but a long-term hamstring injury last season was a reminder that Jackson’s career might not have a soft landing when his speed starts to wane. That’s why Washington was lucky that TCU receiver Josh Doctson fell in their laps at No. 22 overall in this year’s draft. Doctson could end up as the best receiver in this class. For now, the Redskins need Jackson to keep stretching the defense and Garcon to be a reliable No. 2. What the Redskins do with Jackson and Garcon next offseason might depend on what Doctson shows as a rookie.

Washington could win the NFC East again. If what we saw from Cousins the last three months of last season will be his level of play going forward, the Redskins can be a dangerous team. The defense is just decent at best, but Norman helps. Washington could take another step after a successful 2015.

The worst case for 2016 doesn’t just involve Washington’s record. What if Washington slips under .500 and Cousins crumbles under the pressure of playing for a massive long-term contract? If he starts turning it over too much against tougher competition and looks like a middle-of-the-road quarterback, Washington will be in a rough spot. Plenty of teams have blown it by giving an average quarterback a ton of money. NFL teams would rather overpay mediocrity at quarterback rather than delve into the unknown. Not many teams and players have more on the line this season than the Redskins and Cousins.

I don’t think Cousins will continue to play like a Pro Bowler. He won’t look terrible either, and will get a mega-deal after the season is over. But I don’t think the Redskins can repeat their 2015 with a step up in competition. I think they’ll finish under .500 and go into next offseason looking to upgrade their run game and their front seven.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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