Ah, free agency in Washington. Once again, D.C.'s football team stands on the precipice of promise, money in its hand and hope in its heart. Jay Gruden has some room to spend and some blocks to build around. As always, there's likely to be plenty of rumors surrounding the nation's capital, so it's important to know when to call time.
In the spirit of calm that is sure to be abandoned as free agency gets into full swing, let's look at Washington's situation, cap room and predicted targets.
Mike Shanahan's tenure was marred by the $36 million cap penalty, but both Shanahan and the penalty have left town. Gruden will look to add some veteran depth to what remains a young team. The most obvious needs are on the defensive side of the ball, with the safety and cornerback positions in real need of a spark.
David Amerson will be expected to develop from his rookie year, which showed potential but suffered from lapses in concentration. This caused him to get beaten in coverage and give up big yards—something that the team had hoped to avoid after getting burned in 2012. Along with DeAngelo Hall being re-signed, Josh Wilson is unlikely to remain. Amerson will be expected to hold down his side of the field and take the next step in his career.
At safety, Phillip Thomas will return from the Lisfranc injury that prematurely ended his rookie season. While it may be unfair to expect Thomas to play as if he has a full season under his belt, he cannot afford to lose any ground.
With a new head coach in town, competition for places should be fierce. Thomas was a playmaker in college with a natural instinct for the ball—eight interceptions in 2012 brought him national attention. He's had a whole year to recover from his injury and will be anxious to get back on the field. Thomas is a tough, physical competitor, but much like Amerson, that spirit can occasionally result in him getting burned.
Expectations are high in Washington, and Jairus Byrd is being spoken of as a top candidate for arrival. However, he's going to want a great deal of the cap space available to Gruden. The question will be whether Byrd warrants a salary like one of the league's top safeties. While he would add a great deal of quality to the defensive backfield, adding Byrd would likely nix any other signings for Gruden in free agency.
New on SI: My take on Jairus Byrd, and why he could/should be the most sought-after free agent http://t.co/mc8vTlLZ7I— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) March 4, 2014
According to Joe Buscaglia at WGR550, the Bills made Byrd “a substantial offer” that was rejected, so the chances of seeing him in Burgundy and Gold are getting slimmer by the day. Ian Rapaport of NFL.com went further, tweeting that the Buffalo deal would have made Byrd the highest paid safety in the league for part of its duration.
Time to lower expectations, Washington fans.
Inside linebacker is another area in need of upgrade, and Perry Riley could still hit free agency. Gruden will not want to replace both Riley and London Fletcher, while Keenan Robinson has yet to make any impact due to injury.
The draft is the most obvious place to pick up a contributor, with Shayne Skov and Chris Borland available, but there are some veteran options out there. Brandon Spikes would be a nice balance of youth and experience, and there appear to be no contract conversations happening in New England.
As illustrated by Mark Bullock at The Washington Post, Spikes would be an asset in run support, immediately upgrading the defense against backs looking to find the hole. Considering Washington players seemed to bounce off running backs last year, that would be most welcome.
However, as Bullock points out, that's not going to be enough if Spikes is looking to get paid. Gruden and Bruce Allen will want someone as tough as Fletcher, who can play every down and get the offense back on the field.
Aside from every area of the defense, the offensive line is the most obvious area that struggled last year. Too often, Robert Griffin III found a defender in his face before he had a chance to scan the field and hit his targets. He missed a few on his own, of course, but with better support it's likely that he would've made more plays.
Cleveland has made it substantially harder to pick up Alex Mack, but the prospect of Will Montgomery at center isn't a welcoming one. Unfortunately, barring a huge show of faith in Tevita Stevens, that's likely to be the final outcome in Week 1.
A more realistic target is Bengals guard Anthony Collins. Kory Lichtensteiger, in particular, was set upon week after week, again increasing the pressure on Griffin and forcing more errant throws than necessary.
Collins played both guard and left tackle last year, and performed at a high level on both occasions. Gruden will no doubt be keeping one eye firmly on that situation as free agency approaches, and of all the candidates to move across to D.C. this offseason, Collins seems the most agreeable.