- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 19, 2016

As the Washington Redskins head into the offseason and embark on improving their roster, general manager Scot McCloughan and the coaching staff have something at their disposal that they did not a year ago.

There is clarity on offense, most notably at quarterback, after Kirk Cousins emerged as a viable starter in his first full season at the helm. Whether the Redskins use the franchise tag or work out a long-term deal with the impending free agent, coach Jay Gruden has said he expects Cousins to be a focal part of the team’s plans moving forward.

From there, the Redskins can build around Cousins’ strengths — something that’s presumably easier when the quarterback carousel isn’t spinning at a dizzying pace.

“We’ll have new rookies, we’ll have some new free agents in town, so we’re going to have to start slow, but we’ll be able to build fast with a quarterback that has been here,” Gruden said.

With that, here’s a review of each position of the offense from the 2015 season:

Positives: Cousins’ growth as a decision-maker was the highlight of his first season at the helm. Through his first six games, he threw for six touchdowns and eight interceptions, only to respond by throwing 23 touchdown passes and three interceptions over the final 10 starts of the regular season. In that final stretch, he no longer resembled the player that made head-scratching decisions in 2014 that ultimately led to his benching. With improved footwork, Cousins showed an ability to calmly handle pressure in the pocket and was making smart reads. The result? A more confident Cousins that produced the second-best completion percentage in franchise history.

SEE ALSO: Reviewing the Redskins’ defense: Dashon Goldson, Will Compton and other highlights

Negatives: It’s hard to hold experience against a player, but that’s undoubtedly the biggest question surrounding Cousins, who now has just 30 regular-season starts and one playoff start under his belt. It showed in the Redskins’ loss to the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round. With the defense struggling, Cousins needed to elevate the offense. He completed 29 of 46 passes for 329 yards — or an average of 7.15 yards gained per attempt, down from the 9.67 he averaged during the final four games of the season. Leading into the game, running back Pierre Thomas said Cousins should learn a lot from his first playoff start, but the quarterback won’t be able to show what he gained until next season.

Running back
Positives: After rushing for 14 yards against the Carolina Panthers in Week 11, the Redskins averaged 102 yards per game in the final six contests of the regular season. In those games, Alfred Morris averaged 3.86 yards per carry, while rookie Matt Jones, who missed the final two regular-season games and the playoff game with a hip injury, averaged 2.93 yards. The running game still wasn’t as productive as the Redskins envisioned at the start of the season, but the improvement was enough to keep defenses honest. Play-action passes and bootlegs — a staple of the offense — were effective again. Chris Thompson, when healthy, was a reliable target for Cousins out of the backfield and used his speed to create mismatches. When a torn labrum and toe injury slowed him the final five games of the season, Thomas was a dependable third-down back.

Negatives: Overall, the picture wasn’t pretty. Morris, a pending free agent, rushed for 751 yards on 202 attempts and just one touchdown — the worst season in his four-year career. Jones, who finished with 490 rushing yards and 304 receiving yards, showed flashes as a dominant downhill runner but struggled with ball security issues. He fumbled five times — four of which were recovered by the other team. Gruden was committed to a platoon approach and often cited sticking with the “hot hand,” but neither running back really established a rhythm. The Redskins averaged 43 yards per game during a four-game stretch in the middle of the season and finished ranked 20th after spending a good portion of the season near the bottom.

Wide receivers
Positives: When DeSean Jackson returned after tearing his left hamstring in the season opener and missing six games, he eventually boosted the offense. He was timid at first, but once he was back to full speed, he caught 30 passes for 528 yards and four touchdowns. His average of 17.6 yards per catch ranked fifth among qualified receivers. Jackson gave the Redskins a legitimate deep option and loosened up defenses enough to even impact the running game. Veteran Pierre Garcon was a reliable mid-range target, often sacrificing his body to make the difficult catches. He caught 72 passes for 777 yards, and 48 of those receptions were for a first down. Rookie Jamison Crowder supplanted veteran Andre Roberts as the team’s primary slot receiver and hauled in 59 passes for 602 yards. With Crowder, it was more about getting him the ball with short, efficient passes and letting the shifty wide receiver make plays with his feet. His 251 yards after catch were the most among Redskins’ wide receivers.

Negatives: When Jackson was not on the field, the Redskins certainly struggled and their depth at the position was exposed. Second-year wide receiver Ryan Grant was inconsistent in Jackson’s absence. Rashad Ross had a strong preseason, but lacked the complete skill set needed to get on the field when Jackson was injured. Roberts, who caught 36 passes in 2014, caught just 11 in 12 games before being placed on injured reserve at the end of December. Had Garcon and Crowder not played every game this season, the Redskins would have been dangerously thin at the position.

Tight end
Positives: Even early in the season, the Redskins felt this would be a big a year for Jordan Reed, as long as he could stay healthy. That was no sure caveat for the third-year tight end, who played just 20 games in his first two seasons. Reed missed two games because of a concussion and sprained MCL, but was dominated most of the season. He led the Redskins with 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns and emerged as a sure target for Cousins. There was hardly a linebacker or defensive back that proved capable of covering Reed this season and he was a matchup nightmare week after week. Even when it was obvious Cousins was gunning for Reed, there wasn’t much opponents could do to slow him down.

SEE ALSO: LOVERRO: Peyton Manning, nearing end of career, could have finished with Redskins

Negatives: As a unit, tight ends struggled to block in the running game. The position was ravaged by injuries this season, starting with Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen in the preseason, then Derek Carrier, who tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in Week 14. Carrier, who was acquired from the San Francisco 49ers early in the season, was efficient at times. Reed often struggled with his technique and was called for 12 penalties, the most by a tight end. Six were for holding and four were for offensive pass interference.

Offensive line
Positives: The Redskins’ offensive significantly improved its pass protection this season, allowing just 27 sacks after surrendering 58 in 2014. That achievement is more impressive considering the way they did it. Aside from Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, the Redskins played most of the season with four first-time starters after injuries to left guard Shawn Lauvao and veteran center Kory Lichtensteiger. Second-year guard Spencer Long started 13 games in place of Lauvao, who missed most of the season with a left-ankle injury and ultimately needed five surgeries, including two on his right leg and foot. Rookie Brandon Scherff played all but one snap at right guard and second-year right tackle Morgan Moses started all 16 games after his rookie season was cut short because of a Lisfranc injury. Offensive line injuries can often derail a team’s success, but first-year offensive line coach Bill Callahan and the Redskins were able to adjust on the fly.

Negatives: Though the offensive line held up well in pass protection, it struggled to consistently open lanes for the rushing attack. Often times, multiple breakdowns occurred on one play which made it difficult for the running backs to get going. The Redskins struggled without Lichtensteiger, who missed 11 games because of a pinched nerve that was affecting the strength in his left arm. While the offensive line was strong in pass protection most of the season, it struggled in the loss to the Packers in the playoff game and allowed six sacks.

• Anthony Gulizia can be reached at agulizia@washingtontimes.com.

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