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State of the 2021 Washington Football Team: Win-now mode with Ryan Fitzpatrick

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Football Team organization, Football Team fans around the world and those who are kind of hoping they just stick with the name Football Team because it sounds kind of cool, like a Premier League team or something:

You've endured some brutal years -- awful, really -- but now there is a lot of hope on the horizon. Don't let anybody shame you for enjoying a run to the playoffs in 2020. Did you make the postseason as a below-.500 team? Sure. But you were in the playoffs. You even played host to Tom Brady in the Wild Card Round. And to be honest, you played better in that game than anyone expected. Future looks bright, too, with young, emerging stars on both sides of the ball -- and a lovable old guy under center. Drink it in, WFT faithful: You're fun again.

How the Washington Football Team got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The lows:

  • Five-game losing streak after a season-opening win over the Philadelphia Eagles. You started to think, Oh no, here we go again ... But you don't want to make any snap judgement so early into a new coach's tenure. You have to let things play out a bit.
  • Dwayne Haskins' flame-out. The 2019 first-round pick was the starter in Week 1, but he was benched for Kyle Allen in Week 5. Washington turned back to Haskins late in the season due to injuries at quarterback, but he lost the job again and was released after Week 16.

The highs:

  • Alex Smith's return to the field. Smith endured life-threatening complications from the gruesome leg injury he suffered in 2018. After 17 surgeries, he was somehow able to regain Washington's starting job last season. Smith not only rose to the top of the depth chart, but he won five of his six starts, including a Week 17 game to push his team (the Football Team!) into the playoffs. Smith was voted the NFL Comeback Player of the Year. As you would figure. I would even suggest the award should be named after him. I know other people have come back from some serious circumstances over the years. And there are a lot of great stories out there. I understand. But Alex's return was a miracle. I still can't believe it happened.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Ron Rivera. Rivera was brought to D.C. to provide some stability for an organization that desperately needed it. It's funny. With all of these younger coaches being hired around the NFL, Rivera was the elder statesman who had been around the game for a long time. And his detractors might have been eager to point out that he had nine seasons to win a Super Bowl in Carolina and never did (though he did lead the team to one NFC title). So he might not have been everyone's first choice. He wasn't the most exciting hire. But he proved, at least in the first season, that he was the right person for the job. The Football Team made the playoffs. And as I mentioned earlier, I don't care that they did it as a sub-.500 team. Washington won the division and, for the first time in a long time, there is optimism surrounding this franchise. You can't ignore what he was able to accomplish.

Oh, and Rivera did all of this while he was battling cancer. His diagnosis was first reported in August. And one day after beating the Dallas Cowboys in October, Rivera celebrated completing his last round of cancer treatment.

Quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick. This. This is what I love to see. The Football Team is a reigning division winner. They have a great defense. And instead of rolling the dice on a rookie quarterback and hoping for the best, they are going for it this year with Fitzmagic, giving him a chance to end his career as a winner. I honestly love it. It's kind of like a lower-budget version of what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have done with Tom Brady. Like a CSI spin-off. The only difference being that one team brought in the greatest quarterback of all time. And the Bucs brought in Brady. Obviously, I jest. But I admire the Football Team for recognizing that this group of players has a shot and is going for it.

And look, Fitzpatrick does have some faults. He throws a bunch of picks. For every Fitzmagic performance, there could be a Fitztragic outing. But he did have a winning record as a starter last season with the Dolphins (4-3). There is enough talent around this FT offense to make some -- wait for it -- magic happen. There's a lot of exciting stuff happening right here. I'm sorry if I'm cheering for a storybook ending for Ryan here.

Projected 2021 MVP: Chase Young, defensive end. The Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020, Young was selected as a team captain late last season. He will be leading a defense that could be considered among the very best in the league. If the Football Team is going to follow a trajectory similar to that of the 49ers from a couple of years ago (leaning on a strong defense and pass rush), then it will be important for "The Predator" to continue to dominate, especially the way he did at the end of last season. Just like Nick Bosa did for San Francisco in 2019. In fact, it was a Week 14 game against the 49ers in which Young showed what an impact player he can be, recording a sack, a fumble recovery and a 47-yard TD off the turnover. Expect him to be even better this year.

2021 breakout star: Montez Sweat, defensive end. Young is obviously the headliner of the defense, but let's not overlook the rest of the group. Those guys will pop up and have their Sundays in the spotlight. It's kind of like when you go to a comedy club and the feature act is funnier than the headliner. I'm not saying this happened when I saw Tom Segura open for Jay Mohr. But I'm also not not saying that. Mostly because I would still love to open for Jay or Tom at some point. Sweat was very good during his rookie season, but he bettered his numbers during his sophomore campaign, which shouldn't come as a surprise at all. He's going to improve on those numbers again this season.

New face to know: Jamin Davis, linebacker. I loved this pick at No. 19 overall. The dude had a 42-inch vertical leap at the Kentucky pro day. FORTY-TWO!!! He also had some other sick testing numbers. He's a freak. And I know you might be skeptical of a guy who emerged late in his career for a non-powerhouse program like Kentucky, but I really like the situation he's walking into. I spent the previous two paragraphs lauding two key defensive pieces, which means this team is loaded on that side of the ball. It feels like every member of the front seven was drafted in the first round. And now you're going to play Davis behind a talented defensive line that will allow him to just run out there and do his thing? The Football Team could have a second consecutive Defensive Rookie of the Year on their hands. Or they could have Isaiah Simmons, an athletic first-round linebacker who struggled to find his way as a rookie in 2020. But I'm going to stick with DROY-candidate status for Davis.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: ELEVATED. Look, you don't bring in Ryan Fitzpatrick and pass on drafting a quarterback without thinking that you're going to give it a go this year. Fans of the Football Team should walk into this season and be thinking of the playoffs. You know, because they made the playoffs last year.

Three key dates:

  • Week 2 vs. Giants. The Football Team opens the season with a saucy matchup at home against the Los Angeles Chargers. Then they have this pivotal game against the Giants, winners of five straight in this divisional matchup.
  • Week 4 at Falcons. Let's see how competitive the Football Team is going to be this season. They have games against the Falcons and Saints to begin October, two teams they could be fighting against for a playoff berth. The Week 5 game against the Saints could be a battle between former Bucs teammates Jameis Winston and Fitzpatrick. Or both could be benched by that time. This could go either way.
  • Week 14 vs. Cowboys. After the aforementioned game against the Giants in Week 2, the FT doesn't face another NFC East opponent until Week 14. Washington closes out the regular season with five consecutive games against its division rivals. Like, who is making these schedules? This seems like a miss. The odd scheduling does give the Football Team a chance to close out the NFC East race with a strong finish, though.

Will the Washington Football Team be able to …

Overcome the departure of Ryan Kerrigan? Football can be a cruel business. When you have a young, up-and-coming defense, sometimes a 32-year-old veteran doesn't quite fit anymore. It's like how hanging out at the fraternity house is cool the first semester after you graduate (especially if you graduated in the fall), but it gets a little weird when you're still there three years later.

Kerrigan was one of the few bright spots during one of the most tumultuous times in club history. It was kind of like listening to the infamous U2 album Songs of Innocence but still recognizing that The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) was a pretty kickin' tune. Kerrigan set a club record with 95 career sacks. He started 139 consecutive games for Washington from 2011-19. And while you can replace him on the field, it's still a huge loss of leadership. Here is what Chase Young had to say back in January about Kerrigan, who signed with the Eagles this offseason:

"RK didn't have to open his arms to me and help me throughout the whole season. You hear them stories where that doesn't happen all the time. I always thank RK for doing that and always thank him for the type of man that he is. ... We're going to have this relationship forever. That's big bro. I've got nothing but love for RK."

Make Antonio Gibson their version of Christian McCaffrey? I know, spicy take here. I'm not saying that Gibson is going to be as good as CMC. But maybe he could be Washington's version of him. Kind of like the way Hideki Matsuyama and I swing the same driver. Just to wildly different results. AG could build on a very promising rookie season for the WFT. (And trust me, I understand we need to do better as a society than just initials nicknames.) The Football Team ranked 25th in rush attempts last season. And yet, Gibby (not much better of a nickname) rushed for 795 yards on 170 carries and scored 11 touchdowns. He also chipped in with 36 receptions. McCaffrey scored seven touchdowns during his rookie campaign before posting 13 TDs in Year 2. It's not crazy to think Antonio can make a similar jump, assuming he's healthy come the 2021 season. It's worth noting that Football Outsiders ranked Gibson sixth among running backs in DVOA.

And fine. His great games last season came against the Cowboys' defense. The NFL version of beating the computer on rookie mode in Madden. But still, it's an NFL team. Give him a full year to learn the nuances of playing in the NFL, and I'm ready to dive in. Yes, this is a thinly veiled fantasy football take mixed in here. Actually, it's pretty blatant. Draft. Antonio. Gibson.

Rely on an offensive line with three new starters? The Washington offensive line was ranked sixth last year by Pro Football Focus. Right guard Brandon Scherff is back after earning an All-Pro nod and center Chase Roullier returns, as well. But the team released right tackle Morgan Moses last month. Sam Cosmi is the top candidate to replace Moses. Cosmi was a second-round pick out of Texas this year. The left side of the O-line has been completely redone. Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. joins the team after being released by the Chicago Bears. Leno was polarizing during his time in the Windy City. I kind of like him, so you should be fine. The team also brought back Ereck Flowers, a former draft bust who flourished when he was kicked inside to guard by Washington in 2019. If my Antonio Gibson hot take is going to pay off, it might come down to the performance of the offensive line.

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: Taylor Heinicke is still on the roster. Poor Taylor is like the friend you make at jury duty and invite him out to happy hour with you. But then a dude named Fitzmagic shows up and you kind of forget about your new friend. The journeyman was taking online classes to finish his degree from Old Dominion last fall before getting the call from Washington. And yet, he was out there playing pretty well against the eventual Super Bowl champions in his lone start of the season. He threw for 306 yards and a TD on Wild Card Weekend. He also led the FT in rushing with 46 yards and a touchdown. I'm a fan. I'm not the only one, either.

... people are overthinking: Why did Washington sign Curtis Samuel? Are you kidding me?! The FT just got a lot faster and is going to be a problem in the NFC East. You already know how I'm feeling about Antonio Gibson. J.D. McKissic was a good player for them last season, too, and Terry McLaurin has become one of the best in the business. Samuel is coming off career highs in receptions (77) and receiving yards (851). His touchdowns (three receiving, two rushing) were a bit down from previous years. But this is more than just some guy they brought in because he played for Ron Rivera in the past.

I also really liked the selection of Dyami Brown in Round 3 of this year's draft. I know he had a bit of the stone hands from time to time at North Carolina, but he's a dynamic playmaker. I mean, maybe I should have asked why they signed Adam Humphries to start this item. But to go back to that Buccaneers comparison from earlier in this piece, Humphries does make a lot of sense in that they are bringing in a serviceable veteran who has worked with Fitzmagic in the past. See, the Football Team gets it.

For 2021 to be a success the Washington Football Team MUST:

  • Get back to the playoffs. Having a winning record would be nice. But the most important thing is to get back to the postseason. This could be a championship-caliber defense.

In closing

This is a fun Football Team. Expectations are going to be pretty high, and they should be. This defense demands it. And they have a quarterback situation that should carry them a long way. This is the first time in a long time I've been excited about what is happening in Washington.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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