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As Redskins continue to overhaul defense, how will the pieces fit together?

As Redskins continue to overhaul defense, how will the pieces fit together?

Less than a month into the 2017 league year, the Redskins overhauled their defense from the version that struggled in 2016. Gone are defensive linemen Chris Baker and Ricky Jean-François, and a number of new faces will play in Washington this fall. 

The latest signing could be the biggest impact player, as the 'Skins inked Pro Bowl linebacker Zach Brown to a one-year deal. Brown's immediate role will bring some question, as Mason Foster remains under contract and restricted free agent Will Compton has been tendered by Washington. Whether it's replacing Compton or Foster, Brown will push for playing time quickly, and seems likely to unseat one of the starters in the middle of the defense. 

Brown made nearly 150 tackles last season, so he deserves to hit the field for Washington. But in front of the linebackers, and behind them, will be new players as well.

Terrell McClain and Stacy McGee will end up starting on the defensive line, likely at the defensive end spots. McGee could end up at nose tackle, but that job could stay with Ziggy Hood, who the 'Skins brought back after a solid 2016 campain. Don't count out Phil Taylor at nose either. A former first-round pick, if Taylor can get healthy, he might push for the job too. 

Behind Brown and the linebackers, expect new players at safety as well. Su'a Cravens has been pegged for a switch from linebacker to safety since the final weeks of his rookie campaign last year. D.J. Swearinger comes to town with every opportunity to start at safety for the 'Skins, and head coach Jay Gruden spoke highly of Swearinger's play last season in Arizona. 

The Redskins defense ranked 28th out of 32 NFL teams in 2016 in yards allowed. Bruce Allen and the front office had to overhaul the unit, and it seems, are well on their way.

The team still has 10 picks in the upcoming draft, and it would be a surprise if more resources were not deployed towards the defensive line. Even with the additions of McClain and McGee, questions remain up front, though team officials are very optimistic about both player's potential. 

With Brown, Cravens, McClain, McGee and Swearinger, the Redskins 2017 defense will look quite different than the 2016. Add in new coordinator Greg Manusky as well as multiple new position coaches, and it's fair to expect some alterations in the defensive scheme and mindset. 

A different defense does not neccesarily mean an improved defense, though Brown's signing suggests the 'Skins are on their way. 

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How big a need do the Redskins have at running back?

How big a need do the Redskins have at running back?

Do the Redskins have a draft need at running back? It depends on who you ask.

Jay Gruden seems to be very happy with incumbent running back Rob Kelley. Here is what he had to say last month about the second-year back, signed as an undrafted free agent out of Tulane, last month:

“Oh, man, I love Rob Kelley,” Gruden said. “I thought he played great. You throw a rookie free agent into the fire like that and see him play and compete. Not one time did I feel like it was too big for him. Not once. That’s a hell of a thing to say for a kid out of Tulane who only had a couple of carries his senior year. He came right in, he competes on every play.”

[Related: Full Redskins Seven-Round Mock Draft]

Kelley played in 15 games last year and rushed for 704 yards and scored six touchdowns. He started the last nine games and if you project his numbers in this games out over a 16-game season you get about 1,050 yards and 11 touchdowns. That’s not Ezekiel Elliott or Le’Veon Bell production but it’s good for a team that is going to rely mostly on the pass.

Gruden also praised third-down back Chris Thompson and backup Mack Brown. In a telling sign, he acknowledged that 2015 third-round pick Matt Jones is still on the roster but he didn’t have much good to say about him.

Why, then, do you see so many draft analysts listing running back as one of the team’s most urgent needs? Mark Maske, who is the Post’s national NFL writer but also a former Redskins beat reporter, has them taking Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey in his mock draft. “There certainly are issues on defense for the Redskins,” writes Maske. But there also is a need at running back.”

Lance Zierlein of NFL.com said that the Redskins “obviously” need a running back as his rationale for mocking Florida State’s Dalvin Cook to Washington at No. 17.

So, what is it? Is Kelley adequate for the Redskins’ needs considering they call pass plays on over 60 percent of their offensive snaps? Would they run more often if they had a back like McCaffrey or Cook? And if they did run more would the offense improve?

I think that running back is like several positions with the Redskins. If they have to get through the 2016 season with what they have they will be OK. But if there is an upgrade on the board when they are on the clock they won’t hesitate to make the pick if he’s the best player available.

We will see what happens if, say, McCaffrey is still on the board when the Redskins pick at No. 17 and top defensive targets like Rueben Foster and Haason Reddick are off the board. That will be the true test to see how committed Gruden and the rest of the organization are to Kelley, Thompson, and company. 

More Redskins: When the talent is there, Bruce Allen has looked past red flags before

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When talent is there, Bruce Allen has looked past red flags in 1st round of NFL Draft

When talent is there, Bruce Allen has looked past red flags in 1st round of NFL Draft

A four-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champ, Aqib Talib has a long and checkered past, which includes multiple arrests and failed PED and drug tests. The problems aren't new either, the talented cornerback was first arrested as a high school student. In college at Kansas, Talib was suspended multiple times and had multiple positive tests for marijuana use. 

Why does this matter for Redskins fans on the eve of the NFL Draft?

Despite all the trouble, Bruce Allen drafted Talib 20th overall in 2008 when the current Redskins general manager was in the same role for Tampa. While Talib's legal troubles and suspensions continued in the NFL, he also proved to be a highly capable cornerback in the pro game. 

The lesson for those trying to determine the Redskins draft board: Allen might be willing to look past red flags if a player presents good value. Talib did in 2008, and there could be opportunities for Washington in 2017.

Reuben Foster jumps to mind, as the talented Alabama linebacker will enter the league in the substance abuse program. While Foster's issues pale in comparison to other allegations about some draft prospects, players like Joe Mixon, Gareon Conley and Caleb Brantley will also present unique circumstances for NFL teams to evaluate. 

GMs are thrust into the unenviable task of determining a player's character, often in short periods of time. As 'Skins director of college scouting Scott Campbell explained, the team grades every player for their football skills first, and only later adds in character information. From Campbell's comments:

When you start to evaluate guys in the beginning, you don’t factor in the character. You don’t grade character, you grade talent. So you don’t throw away somebody early that may have some redeeming quality, or there’s a side to the story you don’t know about. You grade football players as football players first on talent, and then when it comes closer to the draft, you start weeding all that, getting more information, deciding, ‘OK, this guy’s not our kind of guy, this guy’s not a Redskin, this guy could be drafted, but good luck to him.

Thursday night the Redskins will be forced to make a determination on the right player for the team. That decision could include judging a player's character, and that could mean balancing legal or substance abuse troubles with talent and ability.

Talib is only one pick in Allen's long personnel career, but it's one worth noting. 

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