PHOENIX — Jay Gruden has spent the start of his second year as the Washington Redskins’ coach focusing on moving forward.
Over the past month, the Redskins have re-tooled their roster, adding several key players on defense via free agency and allowing several others to walk. Those decisions came after they added a defensive coordinator, four new position coaches and a general manager.
His hope, then, is that the moves have allowed the Redskins to improve from his first season — one in which they finished 4-12 and in last place in the NFC East.
“Tough changes have to be made, but it takes time,” Gruden said Wednesday during an hour-long breakfast with reporters at the owners’ meetings. “You won’t do it overnight. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two, three, four years, but we’re making the progress we need to make.”
Washington spent most of the money it had available under the salary cap on defensive players, bringing in cornerback Chris Culliver, strong safety Jeron Johnson and three defensive linemen — nose tackle Terrance Knighton and defensive ends Stephen Paea and Ricky Jean Francois.
While the reconfigured defensive line will help the Redskins in their quest to stop the run and be more aggressive in pressuring the quarterback, their biggest acquisition may have been that of Culliver, who spent the last four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
Gruden said Culliver, who signed a four-year, $32 million contract with a $5 million signing bonus and $16 million guaranteed, was the next-best cornerback available behind Darrelle Revis, who signed with the New York Jets.
Culliver’s addition, combined with the returns of three players who started last season — David Amerson, Bashaud Breeland and DeAngelo Hall, who is recovering from a torn left Achilles’ tendon — will provide the Redskins with a formidable competition entering training camp.
“We’ll let all these guys come in and cover and state their case, and then come game day, Week 1, whoever we play, we’ll decide who the starting corners are,” Gruden said. “But we know you can never have too many good cover guys in your building. There will be a spot. If you can cover, there will be a spot on our team for you somewhere.”
While Knighton will fill in as the Redskins’ top nose tackle, how the rest of the defensive line fills out has yet to be decided. Gruden said Paea and Jean Francois have the ability to play both nose tackle and defensive end, and their versatility will allow the defense to be creative in how it pressures the quarterback.
Johnson, who spent his first four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, is pegged to start, but there remains no visible answer at free safety. Gruden said there’s a possibility the team may attempt to sign or draft one, but also acknowledged it’s possible that the role could be filled by a player already on the roster — and perhaps even one of the cornerbacks.
“There’s an opportunity to do that with the guys we have at corner,” Gruden said. “There have been some guys who make the transition to safety and have done a great job, so that’s an option for us once we get to camp.”
On offense, Gruden said Tom Compton and Morgan Moses are projected to compete for the role as the starting right tackle, while Spencer Long could push Chris Chester for playing time at right guard.
Moses sustained a Lisfranc sprain in his left foot late in the season and underwent surgery, leaving his availability for the start of training camp in doubt. Gruden doesn’t believe that will be a hindrance for Moses, a third-round draft pick last year who made one start, played in eight games and took roughly 127 snaps on offense all season.
“The transition to right side wasn’t as smooth as we’d like, but with a year under his belt, he has a chance to be a good solid right tackle for us,” Gruden said. “Tom Compton won the job there in the middle of the year and did some good things. He got beat from time to time, like a lot of tackles do. I think with another year under his belt, he has a chance. We’ll see how they do.”
And, of course, the quarterback dilemma will overshadow everything. Gruden named Robert Griffin III the starter in February, knowing that one player will have to take the bulk of the reps during offseason workouts and training camp.
Gruden said Griffin knows he must continue to improve his fundamentals, and if he doesn’t, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy, who signed a one-year contract last week, are also returning and will push him for an opportunity.
“Every quarterback in the National Football League, whether you’re 39 years old or 24 years old or 25, you have to continue to work on your fundamentals every offseason,” Gruden said. “He’s got to do that. Then, from the Xs and Os part of it, you know, that’s just something he’s going to have to work through and figure out how to do it.”
Washington will begin its offseason program on April 20, with the draft set to begin 10 days later. Gruden said the team, which has the No. 5 pick in the draft, will likely look to add an outside linebacker, a right tackle, a safety and a running back — and potentially a quarterback, as new general manager Scot McCloughan has frequently added a player at that position in the past.
McCloughan and Gruden have proclaimed that the scouting department will approach the draft with the philosophy of drafting the best player available to them with each pick, which could, in some scenarios, put them in line to draft either Florida State’s Jameis Winston or Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
That move would significantly disrupt what the Redskins have put in motion with Griffin, Cousins and McCoy — not to mention continue the circus that has existed for the past two seasons that Gruden would much like to avoid.
“If we think it’s worth the risk to hit the ‘reset button,’ if he’s that good of a football player, if we decide in the building that he’s that good of a football player and that we should do that, then we should do that, you know?” Gruden said. “But we haven’t come up with that determination as a whole group, as an organization yet, and it’s something that we’re working towards. Based on what I’ve seen so far, both of them are very talented people.”