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State of the Franchise: Redskins to stun in top-heavy division?

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Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Redskins organization, fans of the team around the world and those who still routinely do The Fun Bunch celebration:

You hear politicians in Washington D.C. talking about change. Or trying to make things great again. But as the Redskins try to become a winner again, there will be another change under center. The Redskins will open the season with a new QB1 for the second year in a row. What will that mean for this season? Let’s get after it.

How the Redskins got here

Let’s take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season.

The highs:

— Starting the season 6-3. Huge win over the Packers in Week 3 might have been the highlight for me. But I’m a Bears fan. You probably enjoyed beating the Cowboys and Giants in Weeks 7-8. I guess that was pretty cool, too.

— Trey Quinn did "The Scarn" during a touchdown celebration on Thanksgiving Day. I know Washington lost to the Cowboys that day. But "The Scarn," everybody! Fun fact: Quinn was last year’s Mr. Irrelevant.

The lows:

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— My dude Derrius Guice suffered an ACL tear during the first game of the preseason. Which was awful. I was a huge fan of his during his LSU career, and he really embraced the D.C. sports scene upon arriving in town last year. It’s one of my favorite things when I see players back their other local sports teams. Guice did that, joining fans to celebrate the Capitals’ Stanley Cup win.

— The gruesome leg injury suffered by Alex Smith, which occurred on the 33rd anniversary of Joe Theismann’s horrific injury. Theismann was at the game, too. And as I mentioned, the Redskins were 6-3 and atop the division at that point. And really, everybody kind of underestimates Smith as an NFL QB. He seemed like a perfect fit for the Redskins’ offense.

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Jay Gruden. Gruden is a good coach, right? Like, you can’t really blame everything on him. In fact, he’s almost done pretty well given the circumstances. I mean, putting all the blame on Gruden for Washington’s struggles would be like giving Denny Hamlin a beach cruiser and then getting upset when he didn’t win the Daytona 500 with it. He can only do so much. But that’s more anecdotal. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers.

Gruden and Norv Turner are the only Redskins coaches of the modern era to make the playoffs one time or fewer during a tenure that reached at least five seasons. Gruden has finished 7-9 in consecutive seasons and has won eight or fewer games in four of his five seasons at the helm. The Redskins have finished third or lower in the NFC East in four of his five seasons. They’ve had a record of .500 or better against division opponents just twice, including the 2015 season, when they won the East with a 9-7 record.

So, while Gruden has never reached double-digit wins in a season, his teams still manage to hold it together and are rarely a dumpster fire. So he’s got that going for him.

Quarterback: I’m sure they will have one. Oh, I’m kidding. Relax, Redskins fans. The team traded for Case Keenum this offseason. And while the team says the starting job is open to competition, I’m assuming he’s going to be the QB1 in Week 1 over rookie Dwayne Haskins, the 15th overall pick this year. When you have a quality defense and a coach that needs to win games right now, going with the veteran is probably the safest thing you can do. The question is, who is Keenum? I hear people compare him to Alex Smith all the time. I don’t like that comp. It’s like when people try to compare Five Guys’ french fries to In-n-Out’s. Stop. Not even close. Again, Smith was one of the more underappreciated quarterbacks in the NFL prior to his injury.

Now, Keenum has pretty much struggled in all but one of his six NFL seasons. He went 9-15 from 2012-16 as a spot starter. He was great for the Vikings in 2017. He won 11 games that year. Threw for 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Set a career high with a 98.3 passer rating while he led the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game. And that’s what you have to be excited about if you’re a Redskins fan. Because Washington has a similar build to those Vikings teams, relying on the defense to do most of the heavy lifting. But the Broncos tried that model with Keenum last year, too, and it didn’t work out.

Projected 2019 MVP: Landon Collins, safety. The Redskins accomplished two things when they signed Collins to a six-year, $84 million contract in March. For starters, they got a three-time Pro Bowl safety, the type of player they have lacked at the position for quite some time. And they took him from a division rival. I know the Giants are in this weird phase where they want to get rid of all of their good players (look out Saquon Barkley, play too well and you could be next). But this was a pretty nice move. The strength of this team is certainly going to be the defense, and there are few players better than Collins to build around. He’s known as an elite run-stuffer, which is going to be key when you’re in a division that includes Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard. And you’re damn right I just included Howard in that group.

Oh, and by the way: Revenge games!

2019 breakout star: Daron Payne, defensive tackle. There’s a lot to like about this defensive line. Jonathan Allen and Matt Ioannidis are very talented players, but Payne is my pick here. He was selected to the PFWA All-Rookie Team last season, finishing the year with 56 tackles, five sacks and a forced fumble. He’s going to be even better this season.

New face to know: Montez Sweat, edge rusher. The Redskins picked Haskins 15th overall, but they weren’t done in Round 1. They traded back into the first round (parting with a second-rounder this year and next year) to draft Sweat with the 26th selection. The former Mississippi State star is one of two players to record at least 10 sacks in each of the last two seasons, and he was the only player from a Power Five conference to do so. He was fourth in the FBS with 22.5 sacks over the last two seasons. And his 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine was redonkulous. He set a modern record for a D-lineman with a clocking of 4.41 seconds. It was both impressive and terrifying at the same time. Dude is out there built like Randy Orton in his prime, but running like Usain Bolt.

2019 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. Daniel Snyder spent a lot of money on Collins and made big investments in the quarterback position, which tells me this team is expected to win.

Will the Redskins be able to …

Hold off on inserting Dwayne Haskins into the starting lineup? When a team turns to a rookie quarterback, it’s often because the season is not going the way the team would like it to. Washington would like to avoid that scenario. Haskins is the fifth quarterback the franchise has selected in the first round in the modern era. The others are Robert Griffin III, Jason Campbell, Patrick Ramsey and Heath Shuler. Not exactly a happy history. Part of the upside for Haskins, though, is that he’s coming from a great program at Ohio State. He led the FBS in passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2018. He also ranked second in completions and pass attempts. Haskins was good under pressure, as well. He had 22 touchdowns against the blitz (second-most in the FBS) and 17 touchdowns on deep passes, according to Pro Football Focus. He has the credentials. And he also has Theismann’s old number, which was kind of a surprise.

Find a high-impact wide receiver? This is one of the things that concerns me for Keenum this season. When he had his big year in 2017, he was throwing to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Two high-level receivers. The Redskins have struggled for the longest time to find a big-time player at the position. Josh Doctson was great at TCU. I thought he was going to be a stud in this league. But then he had that Achilles injury during his rookie season and he’s never been able to live up to the expectations that greeted him as the 22nd pick of the 2016 NFL Draft. The team drafted Haskins’ OSU teammate, Terry McLaurin, in the third round and decided not to pick up Doctson’s fifth-year option. I don’t know what type of messages the Redskins are trying to send. But that seems bad for Doctson. Paul Richardson (whom I loved in Seattle) is also in the mix, as is Trey Quinn and sixth-round pick Kelvin Harmon.

Juggle all of the talent at running back? Like I said, Guice was an instant favorite. And not only in Washington. The rest of us fantasy dorks got behind him last year, as well. We’re squarely in his corner this season, too. However, after Guice went down with the ACL tear last preseason, the team signed Adrian Peterson, which to me was a lot like going to see Smash Mouth play a free show in Las Vegas. Obviously, neither are where they were a decade ago. But they are still pretty good. Peterson led the team with 1,042 rushing yards, which ranked eighth in the NFL last year. And then, as if having two great options wouldn’t make this difficult enough, the Redskins drafted Stanford’s Bryce Love in the fourth round this year. He was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2017, but he battled injuries in ’18 and tore his ACL in his final college game last December. Fun fact: Peterson (meniscus tear in 2016), Guice (2018) and Love (2018) have all suffered knee injuries in the last three years. And if I’m not mistaken, Chris Thompson and Samaje Perine are still on this roster. (Checks roster) Yep. Still there. So this is going to be a tough one to figure out.

Three key dates

— First three weeks of the season. Here’s the opening sequence for Washington: at the Eagles, vs. the Cowboys, vs. the Bears (on "Monday Night Football"). Listen, if the Redskins win one of those, much less two, this could be a great season for them.

— Week 6 at the Dolphins. The Redskins have a roadie at the Giants in Week 4. They host the Patriots in Week 5. And if the season starts off, say, 1-4, then this might be the game where Haskins gets his first start. But I’m not trying to say that’s definitely how it will go.

— Week 15 vs. the Eagles. What if the Redskins are challenging for the NFC East down the stretch? They close their home schedule with back-to-back games against the Eagles and Giants, before going on the road to Dallas.

One storyline people are overlooking: The impact offensive struggles can have on the defense. For any Redskins fan who is trying to convince me this team is going to the playoffs, I understand where you are coming from. The defense looks great. But if the offense can’t move the ball and the defense is taxed, it starts to snowball. Take a look at last season. Washington ranked fifth in the NFL as it allowed 19.8 points per game from Weeks 1-11. But in the six games after Smith’s injury, the team allowed 26.8 points per game (27th in the league over the stretch).

One storyline people are overthinking: The Trent Williams situation. As in, the Redskins are probably overthinking this if they are trying to play hardball with one of the best tackles in the game. Williams, who’s made the last seven Pro Bowls, skipped mandatory minicamp last month and wants a new deal (there might be more to his dissatisfaction with the club than that but it’s a little mysterious right now). Williams has two years left on his current contract, but he’s no longer among the top five left tackles in average salary per year. Now, Pro Football Focus has the Redskins pegged at No. 14 in its recent offensive line rankings, though it did mention that they have to ability to be a "top-10 or even top-five" unit if the group is healthy and happy. Which has been a problem with the team stemming back to last season, when the front five was plagued by injuries. And here’s my thing: If you’re trying to develop a young quarterback, you need to have some stability on the offensive line. The Redskins have shown they aren’t afraid to spend some money. No need to get cute here with one of your franchise players.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the Redskins MUST …

— Keep Haskins off the field.

— Make the playoffs.

Again, you only turn to the rookie quarterback if your season is going south and you need a justification to keep your job because you are an offensive guru. But ultimately, this feels like a situation where Gruden must win this year.

In closing

Hey, perhaps I’m being overly critical about this team. I mean, the Redskins were leading the division before Smith’s injury last year. I think the defense is going to be great (as I’ve mentioned). And maybe Washington can go out and surprise some teams. But with the Eagles and Cowboys having two of the best rosters in the NFL, it’s going to be tough. But not impossible.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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