2021 NFL Preview: With a strong defense and some Fitzmagic, Washington should be even better

·8 min read

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Alex Smith was one of the best stories in the NFL last season. His comeback might be a movie someday. It was tremendous to follow. 

Let's not get a good story confused with how good Smith was playing quarterback, however. Smith didn't play well. He threw for six touchdowns and eight interceptions. He threw for fewer than 200 yards per game. He rarely threw anything downfield. His average intended air yards was 5, which was 1.2 yards less than any other quarterback. 

Despite that, with an offense that might have been the worst in the NFL, the Washington Football Team won the NFC East. That's why there's hope for a lot more with Ryan Fitzpatrick. 

Fitzpatrick has become a little overrated as a quarterback, mostly because he's an engaging personality. He's fun to root for. He's the streak shooter of NFL quarterbacks, able to get white hot for short stretches. He has had a tough time doing that over extended periods, with an 82.3 career passer rating as proof. He's unlikely to find that consistency at age 39. 

But here's the good news for Washington: Whatever Fitzpatrick does will probably be an upgrade, and they don't need him to be great to win. 

Washington's strength is its defense, and it's possible WFT will have the best defense in the NFL this season. Chase Young will be a defensive player of the year candidate every season for the next decade. Montez Sweat would be the best pass rusher on many teams. Washington gave cornerback William Jackson III $40.5 million over three years to make the secondary even better. Washington's defense, which ranked second in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed last season, dragged the team to a division title. The defense might actually be better this season. The offense can't be worse. 

The offense has some interesting players. Receiver Terry McLaurin is going to have a monster season soon. Running back Antonio Gibson was tremendous as a rookie last season and should be even better this year. Receiver Curtis Samuel had a breakout season with the Carolina Panthers, and Washington signed him as a free agent. Tight end Logan Thomas had a good season. Washington just needs Fitzpatrick to bring it together. 

Fitzpatrick will take more chances, giving Washington's talented playmakers a better chance to have an impact. Washington's players are already lauding Fitzpatrick's leadership. And if Fitzpatrick can't do it, Taylor Heinicke is an option after a promising playoff performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

Washington was fortunate to play in a bad division last season. It was a limited team that came along well under coach Ron Rivera, but still wasn't great. WFT was too limited on offense to do more than 7-9 and a lucky division title. The offense will be better this season. The defense is going to be very good. That might be enough for another division title, this one with a winning record attached. 

Can Ryan Fitzpatrick turn around Washington's offense? (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Can Ryan Fitzpatrick turn around Washington's offense? (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
-
-

Washington added some key pieces after a better-than-expected 2020. Ryan Fitzpatrick was signed for $10 million and he should start at quarterback. Receiver Curtis Samuel (three years, $34.5 million) and cornerback William Jackson III (three years, $40.5 million) were two of the splashiest signings of the offseason. Offensive tackle Charles Leno was a sneaky signing for $4 million. Washington lost cornerback Ronald Darby, offensive tackle Morgan Moses and outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, but should be able to absorb those blows. First-round draft pick Jamin Davis should fill a hole at linebacker and make the defense even better. It was a pretty good haul coming off a promising season. 

Grade: A-

-
-

Ryan Fitzpatrick was signed to be Washington's starter, but he won't be given the job. Taylor Heinicke's surprise playoff performance, with 306 yards to keep Washington in a game against eventual champion Tampa Bay, hasn't been forgotten. 

"I just feel that going into this knowing we have a proven guy [Fitzpatrick] that has the ability to lead us, but again, we have a guy in Taylor that shows us he can do it," Rivera said, according to NBC Sports Washington. "They are going to compete, they are going to push, and I'm looking forward to it."

It's dangerous to put too much stock into one good playoff game, and Heinicke has one career regular-season start. He was out of the NFL, taking classes at Old Dominion, before injuries hit Washington and they needed QB depth. But Heinicke did look good in that game. He's unlikely to beat out Fitzpatrick, but is an intriguing option if Fitzpatrick falters. 

-
-

I like practically every positive Washington bet that can be made for this season. Washington's win total at BetMGM is 8, and that's an easy over for me. I like them a lot at +250 to win the NFC East. Even winning the NFC is worth a shot at 20-to-1. I believe in the defense, believe in Ron Rivera and think the offense is going to be much better. WFT is a stock I'm buying. 

-
-

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: ""We've been spoiled in recent years with young receivers producing immediately. Terry McLaurin has been one of those players, an impact talent for the Washington Football Team. But keep in mind McLaurin has been running uphill the entire time — he has 11 career touchdown catches, and they've come from Case Keenum (five), Dwayne Hawkins (three), Alex Smith (two), and Kyle Allen (one). Talk about a tough draw.

"Ryan Fitzpatrick may be a journeyman, but he's an upgrade over that previous list of quarterbacks. And McLaurin enters his third season, a time when it's common for young receivers spike their production. Although McLaurin is a bit pricy in early Yahoo drafts — the 32.8 overall pick, around WR9 or WR10 — it's a proactive ticket I'm eager to write. Fitzpatrick was a star maker for DeVante Parker in Miami, and McLaurin is probably more talented than Parker was. Get on board."

-
-

Washington's offense was No. 32, dead last in the NFL, in Football Outsiders' DVOA per-play metric. Washington was 25th in points and 30th in yards gained. Washington was 30th in yards per pass and 28th in yards per run. WFT was 28th in team passer rating. There wasn't much WFT did well on offense last season. Even if you don't love Ryan Fitzpatrick, he can't help but improve Washington's offense. It might have been the worst in the NFL last season. 

-
-

What's Chase Young's ceiling? 

Young is one of the few players who could eliminate any regret from Washington for passing on quarterback Justin Herbert at No. 2 overall last year. Young was as good as advertised as a rookie. He ranked sixth among all edge rushers in Pro Football Focus' grades. He made a Pro Bowl and easily won NFL defensive rookie of the year. His performance against the San Francisco 49ers was one of the most dominant games anyone had last NFL season. It might not be long before we're referring to Young as the best defensive player in the league, or at least second behind Aaron Donald (Young's +1400 odds at BetMGM to win defensive player of the year are enticing). He has Hall of Fame potential. 

-
-

It has been a while since Ryan Fitzpatrick had a job and was allowed to keep it all season. What if he's a rare player who gets much better late in his career, and this season he can sustain one of his famous hot streaks? That's unlikely, but even if Fitzpatrick plays at an average level all season, Washington will be good. The defense could be the best in the NFL. The division isn't tough. Washington could end up winning double-digit games and being one of the league's best stories. 

-
-

It's hard to see Washington's defense slipping too much, but defensive success is hard to sustain year after year. If Washington's defense slips at all, the offense is no sure thing. Their quarterback will turn 39 in November and has never had a great season as a team's primary starter. if Ryan Fitzpatrick shows his age and Taylor Heinicke is a one-game wonder, Washington's offense is back at square one and WFT will be in trouble if the defense takes even a small step back. Washington is one of the rare teams that could finish in first or last place and neither outcome would be all too surprising. 

-
-

Unlike the Dallas Cowboys, whose defense and coaching situation give me pause, I am optimistic about Washington fixing its issues on offense. It won't be a good offense, but it will be decent and clearly better than last season. The defense is going to be in the top three of the NFL and maybe No. 1. I think Washington wins nine or 10 games and takes the NFC East. And WFT could have a nice run of success if it can figure out its long-term quarterback situation soon. 

-
-

32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting