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5 Things We Learned About Washington During The 2020 Season

Montez Sweat brings down quarterback Tom Brady for a sack. (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)
Montez Sweat brings down quarterback Tom Brady for a sack. (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)

The Washington Football Team's first season under head coach Ron Rivera was an eventful one, and he did not waste any time establishing how the team was going to be led during his tenure.

Free agents emerged as key contributors, the defense lived up to expectations and young players established themselves as key pieces to a future filled with optimism. Here are five things we learned about Washington during the 2020 season.

1. Washington's Free Agent Signings Paid Off

Rivera and Washington's strategy for free agency was to make smart, calculated additions and bring in players who would create competition and fit the system. Tight end Logan Thomas was viewed as having plenty of untapped potential; J.D. McKissic was seen as a multifaceted skillset to the running back position; and Wes Schweitzer was brought in to compete for the open left guard position.

Many of the team's free agents signed last March ended up changing their respective position groups on both sides of the ball. Thomas ended the season leading Washington with six receiving touchdowns and accounting for 670 yards. McKissic, who offensive coordinator Scott Turner said could be an every-down back, had 954 total yards and was second among all running backs in receiving yards behind Alvin Kamara.

On defense, Ronald Darby played a full season for the first time in his career and led the team with 16 pass deflections. Add that to Kendall Fuller's 11, and the duo combined for the most pass breakups of any cornerback combo in the NFL.

Even players who didn't receive many headlines were vital contributors. Schweitzer eventually emerged as the starting left guard and earned the best overall Pro Football Focus grade of his career, Cornelius Lucas only allowed two sacks, and linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis recorded a career-high 56 tackles.

Eight of Washington's signees started at least two games, while McKissic, Lucas, Thomas and others had the best seasons of their careers.

"Those are the kinds of things that help you as you put your team together," Rivera said. "Now, those guys may not be your starters, but they may be top-flight backups that are just as valuable to what you're trying to do. If you can keep those guys around for a period of time, now it takes the pressure off going into the draft."

2. Terry McLaurin Cemented Himself As A No. 1 Receiver

Terry McLaurin entered 2020 fresh off one of most successful rookie seasons for a receiver in franchise history. The next question was if he could handle the pressure of being the team's No. 1 wideout.

"You look at him last year, he is a young player," wide receivers coach Jim Hostler said during training camp. "Not a lot of people had expectations of what he was going to be. Teams that they played didn't know him or weren't really concerned about him. That is something to do with your early years. Once you have success in this league, it is about expectations, managing expectations."

McLaurin certainly lived up to the expectations, finishing his second season with 1,118 yards on 87 receptions and amassing 490 yards after the catch. Despite catching passes from four different starting quarterbacks, he recorded at least 70 yards in 12 games, including six catches for 75 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.

On top of that, McLaurin was unanimously voted as a captain by his teammates in the middle of the season.

"Terry was kind of a quiet guy, but he came in and worked. He showed work ethic," quarterback Kyle Allen said after the announcement. "I said this to him early in the season, I said: 'You're a guy that can be great, but you can also be one of the best leaders on this team. You've got a lot more to say than you think you have.'"

McLaurin said he wanted to “walk the walk” of being a captain, and perhaps the best example of that came when he made the extra effort to play through a high ankle sprain against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 17.

McLaurin did not care about catches and yards; he just wanted to be with his teammates. It further proved McLaurin is a cornerstone for the team both on and off the field.

"I started making turns and just looking my teammates in the face and knowing that this could be the end for us," McLaurin said. "I couldn't end the season not playing. I played through some pain but that's part of it. I would do it twice over again."

3. The Defense Lived Up To The Hype

There were many signs that pointed to Washington's defense being much improved from the 2019 season. It was being led by Jack Del Rio, who has a history of turning defenses around quickly. The secondary was almost entirely revamped, and the team had just added Chase Young to an already potent pass rush.

By the time the season had ended, Washington had one of the most statistically dominating units in the league. The team finished second in passing yards allowed, 14th against the run, sixth in sacks and second overall. All four were improvements from 2019, and the team also finished third in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, behind the Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints.

"I have a lot of faith in what our defense has been doing," Rivera said after Washington's 20-14 win over the Eagles in Week 17. "It's interesting because we've been coming out in the second half and our defense has really shut people down."

There were still some growing pains throughout the season; after all, many of the players were young and learning a new system on top of having gone through a unique offseason. Giving up big plays was an issue early in the season, and the defense struggled with containing mobile quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray.

Still, most of the unit's key pieces are returning next season, and safety Landon Collins and defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis will return from injuries that ended their seasons prematurely. Many of the players expressed excitement for what the defense can be next year with Young saying, “We’re not letting our foot off the gas.”

"This is just the beginning with Coach Rivera and Coach Del Rio," Young said. "I think it's going to be scary for the years to come."

4. Antonio Gibson Grew Into A Capable Running Back

There was no doubt that Antonio Gibson had a wealth of talent when the team drafted him in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He even drew some comparisons to Christian McCaffrey from Rivera. But with Gibson spending most of his time at receiver while playing for Memphis, it seemed like it would take him some time to learn the position.

Gibson slowly improved each week, and eventually he started to show his full rushing capabilities. He rushed for 128 yards -- highlighted by a 40-yard run and a touchdown -- against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7. That started a five-game streak of scoring at least one touchdown, which peaked on Thanksgiving with 115 yards and three touchdowns against the Cowboys.

"At first, he was a little bit all over the place and start to see certain elements of his game coming into focus," Rivera said. "The short runs where it's pressing the hole a little bit longer and opening up and popping through where it never opens up and you gain three or four yards, but you're getting what you can -- those are the things that you're looking for. Or, he hits a hole or hits an area and then all of a sudden you realize he has to bounce it or cut it back. Those are things that he's continuing to learn the feel for."

What was more impressive was how effective Gibson was with the ball in his hands. He was the sixth-most efficient running back, according to Football Outsiders, and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. He finished the season with 795 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, the latter of which was only two away from tying a franchise record for a rookie.

Gibson missed two games while dealing with turf toe, but he still rushed for 136 yards in the final two games of the regular season. And with him starting in the final six games he played, he has solidified a future role in Washington's backfield.

5. There Is A Lot Of Optimism For The Future

There were some outside of the organization who believed Washington was still a few years away from legitimately competing for the playoffs. Instead, the team more than doubled its win total from 2019 and put together a competitive postseason game against the Buccaneers.

Even after that, the team acknowledged there was still room for improvement. It lost five games by seven points or fewer, and if a couple of plays had different results, Washington could have secured its place in the playoffs -- and even improved its seeding -- before Week 17.

Rivera and his players admitted the season did not end how they wanted, but there was still plenty of optimism for next season. The young team will be armed with another year's worth of experience, and with some other additions, next season could be even better.

"We've got some really special guys," Rivera said. "This group, I think if we can grow and learn together and add on a couple more pieces, I think we have a shot next year. It'll be fun to watch. I'm just glad that we were able to give the DMV something to cheer about. I promise you one thing, like I said, we'll show up and we'll play hard."