Washington Redskins Must Strike Balance Between Prudence and Caution in FA

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2014

ASHBURN, VA - JANUARY 09:  Jay Gruden (L) poses for a photo with Washington Redskins Executive Vice President and and General Manager Bruce Allen after he was introduced as the new head coach of the Washington Redskins during a press conference at Redskins Park on January 9, 2014 in Ashburn, Virginia.  (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The Washington Redskins have stayed low-key and prudent so far in free agency. While that approach has yielded some good depth players, the Redskins can't be overly cautious and miss the chance to fix their biggest weaknesses.

So far, Washington has signed Andre Roberts, a third wide receiver from the Arizona Cardinals. He has been joined by unheralded right guard Shawn Lauvao and special teams linebacker Adam Hayward, per Tarik El-Bashir of CSNWashington.com.

Fixing a suspect offensive line is an obvious offseason priority for new head coach Jay Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen. So is solidifying a feeble special teams unit and adding another receiver.

The team's most pressing priority has to be repairing a leaky secondary. But as Jason Reid of The Washington Post  points out, Allen and Gruden have missed the chance to do that so far:

Anyone who has observed Washington’s awful defensive backfield realizes the team needs major help at cornerback and safety, and it was available as free agency kicked off with many franchises aggressively pursuing top players in an attempt to fill needs. And then there were the Redskins. There were no corners or safeties — let alone potential difference-makers at those positions — among the first five players the Redskins signed on the opening day of the new league year.

By failing to quickly address the secondary, Allen made yet another strategic mistake (after using the franchise tag on outside linebacker Brian Orakpo) in his first offseason in charge of constructing the roster...But on a day the Redskins needed to make a big splash, Allen only produced ripples.

There is an element of rushing to judgement in Reid's concerns, but they are still legitimate worries for a team that stitched together its secondary for the last two seasons.

Of course, it is only one day into free agency. Washington still has time to dedicate resources to its most pressing needs.

It is also true that those resources don't necessarily have to target marquee names. Avoiding star names and their bloated contracts has been a pleasing pattern so far.

It is likely to continue, as CSNWashington reporter Rich Tandler states the team will meet with veteran defensive end Antonio Smith and cornerback Corey Graham.

Neither signing would demand bold headlines, but Graham does at least answer the need for extra defensive backs.

Veteran cornerback Corey Graham would help a weak secondary.
Veteran cornerback Corey Graham would help a weak secondary.Nick Wass/Associated Press

To many, it will be pleasing to see a team so often guilty of mortgaging the future for today's star power playing it prudent. Having survived two years of a league-imposed penalty that restricted spending, plenty would have expected the Redskins to dump their cash reserves on the first high-profile free agent they saw.

That hasn't happened, and a stream of steady moves is no bad thing for a roster so short of depth and reliable veterans. But while spending, spending, spending on big names has gotten the franchise in trouble in the past, Washington can't go completely the other way.

It has to be about balance. Low-key prudence is good, until it turns into an overcautious approach.

For instance, Reid maintains the team had strong interest in solid safety Mike Mitchell, but allowed themselves to be outbid:

The Redskins actively pursued former Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell, a person familiar with the situation said, but were outbid by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mitchell, 26, had a breakout performance with Carolina last fall after four so-so seasons as a member of the Oakland Raiders. The Redskins envisioned him teaming with cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who is coming off a great rebound season, to anchor a rebuilt secondary. Instead, the Steelers will now look to Mitchell to improve their team.

Mitchell reportedly received a five-year, $25 million contract. Granted, that’s a lot of money...The Redskins began the process $18.58 million under the salary cap. They had the resources to go all out for Mitchell but chose to spread it around. That’s smart thinking in approaching free agency in some years — but not this one.

Backing away from the table when negotiations start to spiral would be acceptable if safety wasn't the weakest position on the roster.

But considering it is, retreating to leave the path clear for the Pittsburgh Steelers looks a little overcautious. It could leave Washington again lacking quality at a vital area of its defense.

As Tandler points out in his Real Redskins blog, the safety market has thinned dramatically after day one:

They were interested in Jairus Byrd of the Bills but not for anything close to the $54 million over six years he got from the Saints. They were probably shopping more in the neighborhood of New Orleans’ Malcolm Jenkins, who signed with the Eagles (3 yr./$15.5 mil) and Mike Mitchell. The Redskins were known to be very interested in the former Panther who went to the Steelers for $25 million over five years.

In all, eight of the top nine safeties in the rankings from our corporate cousins at Rotoworld signed contracts yesterday. Only former Dolphin Chris Clemons, ranked fifth, remains unsigned.

Maintaining the status quo at your biggest area of need is an unnecessary risk. It is easier to explain at cornerback, where DeAngelo Hall has been re-signed and 2013's top draft pick David Amerson might make strides.

Even stepping away from an expected pursuit of Aqib Talib made some sense. There was a lot to recommend Talib, but there was just as much—his injury history and shaky disciplinary record—not to pay him the kind of money he received from the Denver Broncos.

But it's tough to accept standing pat at safety.

The only encouraging note at a position where limited veterans Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty are the current starters is the return from injury of 2013 fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas.

Washington could be forced to count on untested Phillip Thomas in 2014.
Washington could be forced to count on untested Phillip Thomas in 2014.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

But Thomas has yet to play a down in the regular season at the pro level. While he has plenty of promise, relying on him to be a difference-maker in 2014 isn't just a risk, it's downright reckless.

While Talib would have been too big a gamble at those numbers, Washington can still roll the dice without becoming foolish.

Better to take a chance now, even if it means slightly overpaying a steady veteran who can lend some intelligence and authority to the secondary, if only for a season or two. 

This isn't a call to splurge the remaining cash in one day. The low-key start is on one level very encouraging, and both Smith and Graham would be excellent signings.

But Allen and Gruden must not walk away from free agency without adding at least one safety, as well as another O-lineman, even it means interrupting prudence with uncertainty.


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