A Look Inside: 2021 Washington Football Team

Before any football discussion, I have to acknowledge the journey for Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera. Rivera performed his coaching duties through October while undergoing chemotherapy. Not many people have the mental and physical strength it takes to handle a job like being an NFL coach, let alone while going through something like that. Rivera not only led the franchise to their first playoff appearance since 2015 but, more importantly, he also beat cancer! He announced he was cancer-free in January. I’ll always have a high level of respect for someone like that.

Now, onto football talk–which is what we are here for….

It was quite a year for the Washington Football Team in 2020, both on the field and off. There was controversy around the mascot, accusations of sexual misconduct, and a boneheaded quarterback kept them in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Regardless of what was going on around them, the team fought their way into the playoffs. They were the best team in the worst division and put up a good fight in the Wildcard Round against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers. Some key new additions to the offense should have WFT fans hopeful about their 2021 season.

Note: You can follow the entire Look Inside series with this link and you can watch the full No Punt Intended episode on Youtube below with special guest Drew Metcalfe, one of Club Fantasy’s own writers!

Quarterbacks

The quarterback position was the clear weakness for this team in 2020. Dwayne Haskins’ inaccurate arm and Alex Smith’s hesitance to push the ball downfield held the team back. We can only wonder what the offense would have been with a competent passer behind center. We might get to see that in 2021, with Ryan Fitzpatrick coming into town as a free agent acquisition. Washington will be his ninth NFL franchise, although it feels like he’s played for at least half of the league.

Fitzpatrick is coming off of a strange year with Miami in 2020. He was benched for rookie Tua Tagovailoa after leading the team to consecutive wins in Weeks 5 and 6. There were several occasions where Fitzpatrick performed well while filling in for Tua. Each time, the team went right back to Tua the following week. It was clear they were forcing Fitzpatrick out for the young blood drafted out of the University of Alabama.

Looking ahead to the 2021 season, Fitzpatrick has another opportunity with an organization that desperately needs better QB play. In 2020, he had the ninth-most yards per attempt, 14th-most air yards per attempt, and 13th-best Accuracy Rating (according to PlayerProfiler). Those aren’t the most impressive ranks, but he only needs to remain above league average in those areas to be a major upgrade from what Washington had before. With new offensive additions to compliment their top playmakers, Fitzpatrick has QB1 upside. He is being drafted as the QB23 (Fantasy Pros ADP).

Running Backs

The 2020 running back class has been the talk of the off-season and Antonio Gibson is a major part of that. The third-round pick racked up over 1,000 total yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 games played. The RB13 finish is quite impressive, but there is some context that we have to consider. Namely, a large portion of his production came from three games against terrible defenses. Nearly 40% of his total points were scored in Week 10 (vs. Detroit) and Weeks 7 and 12 (both vs. Dallas). I’m not one to completely discount a player for beating up on bad defenses, that’s what we expect good players to do. It’s just something that we have to keep in mind when projecting for next season.

Now that I got the negative out of the way, there is plenty to love about Gibson. First, he’s one of the most elusive backs in the league. He had the second-highest broken tackle percentage (behind only Mike Davis) and eight-best juke rate among running backs. His athleticism jumps off of the screen anytime you watch him. It’s so much fun seeing a 6’2” 220-pound runner with his explosiveness. We all expected more from him as a receiver, considering that he was a wideout in college, but Washington limited his passing game work. His 36 receptions were still in the Top 20 among running backs and his ninth-highest yards per route run is a sign of how effective he can be if used more as a pass-catcher.

The reason behind Gibson’s limited target share was J.D. McKissic. After serving as a depth option for most of his career, McKissic carved out a solid role with Washington, earning 110 targets and finishing as the RB17. Most people expect him to be phased out for Gibson, but we have no idea what the snap shares will look like this season. Rivera showed no signs of scaling McKissic back as the year went along, which we usually see with veterans overtaken by rookies.

Going into the team’s Week 8 bye, McKissic had 33 targets on the season. In the following two games, he saw 29 combined targets and also looked good when he had to step up at the end of the season due to Gibson’s turf toe. Gibson will surely take on a bigger role in his second season, but McKissic might hold him back from being the three-down workhorse we all want to see.

Wide Receivers

I don’t even want to imagine what this wide receiver group would look like without Terry McLaurin. Despite an unimpressive collegiate career, the 2019 third-round pick out of Ohio State has been a Godsend for this offense. He was a target hog, earning a 25.5% target share and accomplishing his first 1,000-yard receiving season. All that while overcoming very subpar QB play. We also found out after the season, that he dealt with two ankle sprains throughout the year. When you consider all that was working against him, a WR20 PPG finish is even more impressive.

I’m looking forward to seeing what McLaurin can do with “Fitzmagic” this season. He has shown that he can get open all over the field. Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception has Terry above the 90th-percentile of all wide receivers in beating both man and zone coverage. The limitations at quarterback have hindered his effectiveness as a deep threat, but Fitzpatrick brings the second-best deep ball completion percentage from last season. I expect them to hook up down the field a lot. Terry McLaurin could have his best season yet in 2021.

Note: Check Out Drew’s Feature Piece on Terry McLaurin from earlier this offseason!

Curtis Samuel was a highly-coveted free agent this off-season. He signed a three-year, $34.5 million contract with Washington in March. This also creates a reunion with both his college teammate Terry McLaurin and former head coach Ron Rivera. Samuel is coming off of his best season-to-date, posting 851 receiving yards and 200 rushing yards on 41 carries. Rivera plans to use Samuel as a versatile weapon in this offense. Don’t be surprised if he continues to see 4-5 rush attempts each week. Fitzpatrick tends to hyper-target his top receiving option and in Washington, that is Terry McLaurin. Even so, the lack of WR competition outside of McLaurin and the rushing floor should keep Samuel in consideration as a borderline WR2/3 for fantasy.

Ever since the departure of DeSean Jackson in 2016, Washington has not had a legit deep threat at receiver. That is what they are hoping to get in their 2021 third-round pick, Dyami Brown. The former UNC Tar Heel should slide right into the WR3 role for Washington. Since 2019, he leads all college receivers in receptions and yards on 20+ yard throws (Credit: PFF). Brown is worth a late draft pick in redraft leagues as a dart throw, but we shouldn’t have high expectations for him as a fantasy option this season.

Tight Ends

Every year, we see a late-round or undrafted fantasy tight end breakout into the Top 10. Logan Thomas did just that in 2020. He was off to a slow start, as he didn’t exceed 50 receiving yards until Week 7. He performed when it mattered most though. From Weeks 12-16 he was the TE3.

I’m not overly optimistic about his chances to repeat that level of production in 2021. He saw the third-most targets among all tight ends. I don’t see that happening again, after the additions of Samuel and Brown to go with a new QB who relies more on deep passes instead of check downs to running backs and tight ends. Thomas was also inefficient, so any reduction in target volume will crush his production. He was outside of the top-30 tight ends in yards per target and yards per reception. Thomas’ ADP is currently inside of the top-10 TEs, so I would prefer to wait on a player that has a better chance at a higher target share, like Jonnu Smith or Adam Trautman.