ASHBURN, Va. — The list of issues on offense were long, highlighted by bottom-of-the-NFL rankings. As the Washington Football Team entered the offseason, this much was clear: It needed better personnel.
So it signed a veteran quarterback. It signed a speedy wide receiver and then drafted another. It added a steady move-the-chains wide receiver and reshuffled its offensive line.
And it led coach Ron Rivera to say on Tuesday that “we do not have to rely on the quarterback. We have a lot of good weapons around our QB.”
With the Carolina Panthers, Rivera had Cam Newton in his prime — a QB who could bail a team out of bad situations. Here in Washington, he has Ryan Fitzpatrick, a quarterback who is with his ninth team, who fits the very definition of a journeyman and is playing the best ball of his pro career.
Fitzpatrick represents an upgrade over Washington’s 2020 quarterback room — a group that combined to finish last in total QBR. Meanwhile, covering his past 24 games, Fitzpatrick ranks a leaguewide seventh in total QBR.
But Washington’s offense went beyond adding Fitzpatrick, it also beefed up its firepower at wide receiver. Last season’s offense finished 30th in yards per pass attempt and next-to-last in yards per play. Washington ranked 26th in number of pass plays covering 20 or more yards.
Washington hasn’t finished in the top 10 in points or yards since 2016 (third in yards). It was 10th in points in 2015. In the past three seasons, it ranked 25th or worse in those categories.
— John Keim (@john_keim) May 25, 2021
During its first spring practice session open to the media, it was clear the team will be more aggressive looking for bigger plays down the field. Fitzpatrick is considered a gunslinger, but his 7.31 yards per pass attempt the past two years ranks 17th, suggesting a player who is willing to take chances while being smarter with the ball. Two years ago, he completed 19-of-52 passes that traveled 20 or more yards. Last season, in six fewer games, he completed 11-of-17 such throws.
Washington knew it needed to bolster the lineup around Fitzpatrick, and that effort in finding more outside speed started by signing Curtis Samuel this offseason.
“That was one thing that is very noticeable as far as our wide receiver group was concerned,” Rivera said. “Those guys can run. We got faster as a unit and as a team. It was cool to see all of them. It was good to see Curtis and then you see how dynamic he is once he gets the ball in his hands.”
Within that receiver group, though, is diversity in what each brings. Terry McLaurin, who has caught 145 passes for 2,037 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first two seasons, is fast as well as a precise and varied route runner. He typically aligns outside, but last season he caught 31 passes out of the slot, 18 more than he had as a rookie.
Washington can use McLaurin in the slot with Samuel outside; or Samuel inside with McLaurin out wide, or use veteran Adam Humphries with the two speed guys on the edges. Samuel can run routes out of the backfield, too (he was a running back at Ohio State). Humphries complements those two players and works well inside off of the tight end, which in this case is Logan Thomas.
“That adds a lot of versatility to the offense and just makes it harder for the defense,” Samuel said.
Washington also drafted North Carolina wide receiver Dyami Brown in the third round. He is not faster than McLaurin and Samuel, but he did run a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day. His 35.5-inch vertical leap and ability to track the ball are talents that showed during a leaping downfield catch in traffic in Tuesday’s organized team activities.
“I feel like I create more space for each receiver,” Brown said. “You can’t just key in on one and try to stop one from going deep or trying to stop one with how fast he is. You have to try to key in on all three of us. That helps us be more explosive and it expands the horizon a little bit more.”
Or, as Fitzpatrick said of the group, “it’s diverse.”
Washington hopes second-year running back Antonio Gibson, who played mostly wide receiver in college, continues to improve. He averaged 4.68 yards per carry last season and 5.36 in his last five games. They’d like to expand his game to have him run more routes, getting yet another player with 4.4 40-yard dash speed on the field.
Rivera said the team “solidified the offensive line” by releasing veteran starter Morgan Moses and signing Charles Leno Jr., to start on the left side and drafting Samuel Cosmi to essentially replace Moses on the right. Including backup Geron Christian Sr., Washington should have sound depth. It also traded for guard Ereck Flowers and is optimistic about second-year guard/tackle Saahdiq Charles, who was limited to two plays last season because of a dislocated kneecap.
Now, the Washington Football Team needs May hope to turn into September reality.
“We are in a better position,” Rivera said, “than we were last season.”