The Washington Redskins have a roster dotted with potential Pro Bowlers in their primes and questions all over as they prepare to play at the Arizona Cardinals in the regular-season opener.
It's a fitting place to start. The Redskins and Cardinals will play for the fourth time in five seasons. They also figure to be in the mix for the final NFC wild-card berth entering December. Add in that Washington is 0-4 in season openers under head coach Jay Gruden and Week 1 suddenly takes on a critical context for a team that can't afford another slow start.
The Redskins desperately tried to upgrade their running game during the offseason. The offensive line is healthy for now and has Pro Bowlers in left tackle Trent Williams and right guard Brandon Scherff.
But rookie running back Derrius Guice, the LSU star who slipped to No. 59 in the NFL draft, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the first preseason game against the New England Patriots on Aug. 9.
There goes the best-laid plans of mice and men. Washington suddenly had to find a Plan B, only to see second-year pros Samaje Perine and Byron Marshall sprain their ankles. Marshall was placed on injured reserve. With Chris Thompson still limited by a broken right leg, which still features a plate and five screws from when the bone snapped last Nov. 19 in a Week 11 game against the New Orleans Saints, the running back position was decimated.
The Cardinals know all about that. They lost David Johnson last October to a dislocated wrist. Their answer then was to trade for future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson. The Redskins have done the same. Peterson, who signed a contract after sitting out the entire offseason and most of training camp, had 56 yards on 11 carries in his lone preseason game Aug. 24 against the Denver Broncos and Washington hopes he's a bridge to Guice when he's ready to go again next summer.
That summed up the Redskins' training camp. Thompson, Jamison Crowder (groin) and tight end Jordan Reed -- arguably the three most important offensive weapons -- didn't play in any preseason games. Their only work with new quarterback Alex Smith came during practices. Thompson and Reed, who had surgery on both big toes in the offseason, were given plenty of rest days. Gruden must hope that Smith, a veteran who has switched teams before to much success, can find chemistry with that trio quickly lest Washington get off to yet another 0-1 start.
On defense, things look solid. Josh Norman is still a reliable cornerback. Zach Brown and Mason Foster are reliable veterans at inside linebacker. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan is almost automatic for 13 sacks and Preston Smith has twice posted eight. A young defensive line, with five players under age 25 and two first-round picks in Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen, shows as much promise as any Redskins front in 25 years.
But the corners besides Norman are untested, the pass-rush depth is in doubt if free-agent signee Pernell McPhee can't produce or stay healthy, and the safety depth is almost non-existent behind D.J Swearinger and Montae Nicholson, a second-year pro who himself only played eight games last year.
The offense appears to have a high floor with Smith, an offensive line that's been together for years and a host of talented offensive weapons, including wide receiver Josh Doctson (six touchdowns) and the ageless Vernon Davis as a complement to Reed at tight end. If Peterson has anything left in the tank, it could be one of the NFL's better groups. But the loss of Guice stung and the secondary could quickly get overwhelmed.
The Redskins need to break out of the 7-9, 8-7-1, 9-7 mold they find themselves in. They aren't bad. They also aren't relevant. Now in his fifth year and with a two-year extension about to kick in, Gruden needs to push this group up a notch before its top players like Norman, Williams and Kerrigan start to show their age.