The surprise signing of Josh Norman in the offseason bolstered a Redskins defensive backs groups that suffered several injuries at safety throughout the season.
As the Redskins head into the offseason following back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1991-92, Redskins.com will provide position-by-position reflections from the 2016 squad.
Up next: defensive backs.
Review Of The UnitThe Redskins' secondary received a dramatic boost in talent last offseason when Washington wooed All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman to sign a multi-year contract after the Carolina Panthers unceremoniously and abruptly rescinded his franchise tag in April.
Take a look back at the top images of the Washington Redskins' defensive backs from the 2016 season.
The surprising move reshuffled the depth chart, moving Bashaud Breeland, the team's top cornerback entering spring workouts, to the second cornerback position, which was filled out by the addition of veteran cornerback Greg Toler, returning second-year cornerback Quinton Dunbar and third-round pick Kendall Fuller.
That unit managed to stay healthy for the majority of the season, but the safety position remained in constant rotation. Washington entered the September with David Bruton Jr. and DeAngelo Hall as its two starters, after converting Will Blackmon and Deshazor Everett to safety in the offseason for depth. But after four games, both Bruton (eventually waived from the team in December) and Hall landed on Injured Reserve, forcing the team to lean more on Duke Ihenacho and veteran safety Donte Whitner Sr., who was quickly signed in October to help fill the void.
The fluctuations that occurred throughout the season – eventually Blackmon and Everett would receive more snaps as Whitner's play regressed – produced mixed results for a unit that faced its fair share of strong passing attacks. Overall, the team ranked 25th in passing yards allowed per game (258) and ranked 27th in the number of opponents' passing first downs (41), an issue that plagued the defense as a whole.
Still, the season represented a year of growth for many in a group still learning to adjust to each other.
Norman played a significant role throughout the entire defense, building off his breakout season with the Panthers and continuing to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league. He finished the season with 67 tackles, 19 passes defensed and three interceptions, two of which came against the Bears in the second to last game of the year.
Norman's role within the defense expanded as the season progressed and he was inserted into blitzes in the box more often to utilize his athleticism. But his physicality also led him into trouble, as Norman was the most penalized player in the league.
Breeland had difficulty defending the likes of Antonio Brown and Dez Bryant in the first two weeks of the season, but eventually picked up his play as he and Norman's roles shifted. In Week 15, he recorded his first multi-interception game and became the first member of the Redskins since Fred Smoot (2001-03) to open a career with multiple interceptions in three straight seasons.
Greg Toler added limited assistance when called upon, as did Dashaun Phillips, who began the season as the starting nickel cornerback, a role that rookie Kendall Fuller eventually took over. The Virginia Tech product faced a lot of adversity in his first year but managed to collect 42 tackles and two passes defensed. Quinton Dunbar, in his second year learning the cornerback position since switching from wide receiver prior to the 2015 season, saw less playing time – about a third of all defensive snaps. He did have an impactful interception against Eli Manning in the end zone during Week 3.
At safety, Ihenacho was able to stay healthy for an entire season for the first time in three years, offering some stability to the position once Hall and Bruton were lost for the year. Whitner played alongside Ihenacho for 11 games before he landed on Injured Reserve following the Bears game.
Blackmon, meanwhile, had trouble adjusting to his new role with the inconsistency of playing time, but eventually settled in, making 41 tackles with a forced fumble and interception. Everett received more playing time near the end of the season as well, and came up big with an interception against quarterback Carson Wentz in the team's December victory over the Eagles.
What's Next For The GroupThe future is uncertain for several members of the unit. Safety Duke Ihenacho will be a free agent and has the option to test the open market, while veterans Greg Toler and Donte Whitner Sr. are off the books after signing one-year contracts in 2016.
Washington will also have to make a decision about safety DeAngelo Hall, who has now missed the majority of two of the last three seasons with injury and enters the final year of his four-year contract. Hall said that he'd be willing to restructure his contract this season if it could help the team's cap space.
"I just feel like I'm stealing money, man," Hall said. "I signed that deal four years ago and been hurt every year since then. You know I want to ultimately do what is best for this team as well. I understand it takes some sacrifice and give and take to be able to put the right pieces out there on the field."
Despite not making any major free agent signings just yet, the Redskins will likely rely on the addition of Su'a Cravens into the safety rotation, after he spent the majority of his rookie year playing nickel and dime linebacker.
Cravens is most comfortable at strong safety, a position he mostly played at USC, and used his rookie season at linebacker to better acclimate himself to an NFL defense. Near the end of the season, as he remained out due to injury, he observed practice with the defensive backs unit, the start of his transition.
"I think I can be a great safety," Cravens said. "I proved I cover tight ends pretty well this year and I think I can play in the box and I can also cover the deep third. I don't know why people are confused if I can or can't. It's just motivation to show people what I can do."
Aside from those potential moving parts, the secondary looks to be in better shape next season with Norman and Breeland returning to their posts along with Blackmon and Everett better acclimated to safety. Fuller's continued development will also be crucial after a season in which he learned the rigors of the nickel position.
"Fuller is going to get a lot better from year one to year two. [Quinton] Dunbar is continuing to get better as a corner, only playing it for a year and half now," head coach Jay Gruden said. "He's going to get better. You have a good core group of guys that we feel good about now we just have to continue to build around them."
2016 Redskins Season In Review: