Washington Redskins Guide to the 2017 Free-Agent Market

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2017

Washington Redskins Guide to the 2017 Free-Agent Market

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    Washington Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan has money to spend in 2017 NFL Free Agency and no excuse not to spend it, since this year's market offers obvious solutions to his team's biggest problems.

    McCloughan must use ample cap space to target immediate solutions for longstanding problems. Those problems include finally finding a credible nose tackle to anchor Washington's 3-4 defensive front, as well as installing a natural run-stuffer at inside linebacker.

    Fortunately, this year's market is littered with veterans who could competently do those jobs. In fact, McCloughan need look no further than the defending Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots, for help.

    Of course, the Redskins' primary decision-maker will also have one eye on resolving the futures of the team's own free agents. Naturally, quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon will dominate McCloughan's thoughts in this area.

    Yet the coffers are swelled enough for a skilled GM to balance both retaining prized assets while still forking out for a much-needed infusion of new talent. Washington's cap space is estimated at $58,881,921 by OverTheCap.com, while Spotrac puts the figure at $63,693,935.

    Even if using $60 million as a convenient middle ground, the Redskins boast the resources they need to fix the issues that prevented a second playoff appearance in a row in 2016.

    Find out which positions McCloughan must address in this year's free-agency period, along with the best players he can target in each area.

1. Nose Tackle

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    Frankly, it chills the bones to think Washington has been playing the 3-4 since 2010 without a standout player at the front's most important position. This must be the year the Redskins finally acquire a true nose tackle to underpin their D.

    The team didn't have such a player in 2016 when Evander "Ziggy" Hood was one of many tried over center. Hood is now a free agent, along with other potential nose tackles Kedric Golston and Chris Baker.

    Thankfully, 2017's market is bountiful in disruptive 0-techniques. Washington's best two options fall into separate and distinct categories.

    Dontari Poe

    The blue-chip option is Kansas City Chiefs' nose guard Dontari Poe. He's the big-ticket item among interior defensive linemen this year.

    Poe, all 6'3" and 346 pounds of him, is also the kind of versatile playmaker the Redskins must have over center. He can be a force against the run as a tractor beam for double teams, the type of player inside linebackers are grateful for.

    However, Poe also has some chops as a pass-rusher, despite logging just 1.5 sacks in 2016. The number isn't gaudy, but Poe regularly applies maximum stress on the inside of the pass pocket, thanks both to his other-worldly power and deceptive agility.

    Poe was drafted in the first round by the Chiefs in 2012 to be the linchpin of a 3-4 front. It's just what he's been for five NFL seasons, making the 26-year-old well worth investment from McCloughan and the Redskins.

    Alan Branch

    If Washington's general manager wants to try to pinch some pennies, he can still find a worthy defensive anchor in Alan Branch.

    Before assessing Branch, let's get one thing out of the way: He's 32, but that shouldn't stop the Redskins from making a move. In fact, let's dispense with this oft-repeated notion it's somehow not smart team-building to sign free agents above the age of 30, a sentiment McCloughan has sadly expressed in the past.

    Yet the current Super Bowl-winning roster refutes Scot's claims. Branch has won a pair of Lombardi Trophies since joining the Pats, surely a number much more important than his age.

    Branch has perhaps been the most underrated member of New England's defensive front. He's a two-gap artist impossible to shift in the trenches, one capable of playing over center or sliding into gaps.

    Now Branch has got his Super Bowl rings, the time is ripe to tempt him away with one final, solid payday, since the Redskins can't enter another season with a glaring hole at the heart of their defense.

    It would be a fatal blow for a team that ranked 24th against the run in 2016, one also playing in an NFC East division loaded with quality centers like Dallas Cowboys ace Travis Frederick and Philadelphia Eagles' quality pivot Jason Kelce.

2. Running Back

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    As bad as Washington's run defense has been the past two years, the team's rushing offense hasn't been much better. In fact, the Redskins ranked 21st on the ground in 2016 and 20th in 2015.

    The running back position needs to be stabilised by a savvy veteran or two in 2017.

    James Starks

    This needn't be an area where McCloughan spends big, he just needs to be smart and selective. Those qualities should put James Starks on Washington's radar.

    Starks won't ever be the star of any highlight reels, but he'll always be a quietly effective, highly versatile weapon out of the backfield. The seven-year man is a tough runner who usually resists first contact and was born to keep the chains moving.

    Yet Starks' greatest asset may be his ability as a pass-catcher. He boasts reliable hands and an innate understanding of pass concepts, including route progressions and reading holes in coverage. Just as important, Starks is a competent blocker who has a sound recognition of pressure.

    In other words, the 30-year-old is perfect for a pass-first offense just missing enough of the run to keep pro defenses honest. The Redskins missed a veteran this tough and smart, with this level of flexibility, when they strangely opted against bringing back Pierre Thomas for 2016.

    Signing Starks would add some dependability to a rotation seemingly always in flux. Among the incumbents, third-down specialist Chris Thompson is a restricted free agent, while bigger questions persist about would-be workhorses Matt Jones and Robert Kelley.

    Head coach Jay Gruden benched Jones last season for failing to hold onto the rock too often. Meanwhile, Kelley may have proved a willing competitor as an undrafted rookie, but he's big-play shy and saw his debut season marred by knee problems late on.

    This position needs some stability, and the player surprisingly kicked to the streets by the Green Bay Packers in January, would provide it.

    Lance Dunbar

    The market is hardly rich in franchise runners, unless McCloughan wants to back up the Brink's truck for Pittsburgh Steelers dual-threat beat Le'Veon Bell. But one other cost-effective option worth considering is Dallas Cowboys runner-receiver Lance Dunbar.

3. Pass-Rusher

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    The Redskins logged 38 sacks in 2016 but still need more oomph from their pass rush. Specifically, greater heat off the edges would be welcome, despite the best efforts of Trent Murphy, Preston Smith and Ryan Kerrigan.

    McCloughan's plan to bring back brittle Junior Galette for a third attempt at proving himself right isn't going to be enough to increase the heat on new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky's watch.

    Melvin Ingram

    McCloughan should shove a deal in the face of Melvin Ingram, one of the true sleepers in this year's market. The edge-rusher for the Los Angeles Chargers has recorded 18.5 sacks during the last two seasons. Ingram has also forced seven fumbles and batted away 11 passes, per the league's official site.

    Those are the numbers of a true playmaker at his position. They are also proof the light has finally flicked on for a player who has taken his sweet time living up to his status as a first-round draft pick in 2012.

    Ingram now has this pro-ball lark figured out and is entering his peak years. He's also a pass-rusher an aggressive-minded 3-4 coordinator can line up in multiple spots to cause havoc for opposing blocking schemes.

    Uncertainty could be rife among many Chargers players since the team's sudden move from San Diego to L.A. this offseason. It's the ideal time for the Redskins to test 27-year-old Ingram's resolve to stay on the west coast.

    Akeem Ayers

    Alternatively, if McCloughan is content with many of his current edge-rushers and just believes a low-key top-up is needed, he should target a man Manusky knows well. The player in question is Akeem Ayers, an undoubted, yet frustratingly wasted, talent.

    Ayers was on the Indianapolis Colts roster last season, but has also had stops with the Tennessee Titans, as well as the then-St. Louis Rams. However, Ayers proved his worth as a member of the Patriots in 2014 when he logged four sacks and snatched an interception in just nine games.

    Ayers played well in New England because Patriots head coach Bill Belichick let the 27-year-old do what he does well, namely rush the passer from multiple angles. If Manusky gave him the same freedom, Ayers would be a terrific rotational weapon for Washington's front seven, with the potential to develop into much more.

4. Inside Linebacker

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    Washington's incumbent inside linebackers Will Compton and Mason Foster just leave too many plays on the field due to a lack of dynamic athleticism. It's time for the Redskins to add some star power in the middle.

    Dont'a Hightower

    Dont'a Hightower has to be the top name on McCloughan's list of free-agent targets. The 26-year-old would give the Redskins everything they are missing at the heart of their linebacker corps.

    Those missing qualities include versatility, brawn and intelligence. Hightower has embodied all of those elements as a roving agent of destruction in New England's hybrid schemes.

    Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia love to blitz the former Alabama man through A-gaps to destroy inside-running games. They also aren't afraid to put Hightower on the outside and let him rush the edges. Just ask Super Bowl LI victims Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons how much damage Hightower can do as an outside pass-rusher.

    The Redskins don't possess an inside 'backer with the flexibility and knack for playmaking Hightower brings to bear on Sundays. Putting big No. 54 behind a linchpin nose guard would instantly fortify one of the softest run defenses in the NFL the past two seasons.

    Of course, Hightower's talent, along with the kudos earned from two Super Bowl wins with the Pats, mean he'll be a wanted man once the bell sounds for free agency on March 9. NESN.com's Zack Cox spelled out some of the drawbacks to signing Hightower:

    After seeing the contract former teammate Jamie Collins landed last month, keeping Hightower won’t be cheap. Collins signed a four-year, $50 million extension with the Cleveland Browns, and Hightower’s next deal should be even more lucrative. Injuries also are a concern with Hightower, who’s missed 11 games over the last three seasons and hasn’t played a full 16 since 2013.

    Lawrence Timmons

    If McCloughan is put off by the likely inflated price tag for Hightower, he ought to consider making Lawrence Timmons an offer he can't refuse. The 30-year-old played some of the best football of his 10-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season.

    Like Hightower, what sets Timmons apart from most inside linebackers is his versatility. He can play in the middle but also blitz off the edges and wreck pass protection. Timmons is also a shrewd and instinctive cover man. In short, he's the kind of can-do-all linebacker 3-4 schemes are built on.

    The Steelers know Timmons' value and are already talking about bringing him back for 2017, according to Mark Kaboly of DKPittsburghSports.com. But McCloughan should act fast to scupper these plans.

5. Safety

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    Eric Berry will likely cost too much for a GM like McCloughan, who doesn't have a history of splashing the cash in free agency, to seriously consider. But that can't mean yet another offseason of ignoring the lack of talented bodies at the safety positions in Washington.

    Tony Jefferson

    If Berry is deemed out of the team's price range, McCloughan should give Tony Jefferson a call. The enforcer of the Arizona Cardinals secondary has been quietly developing into a superb all-round safety in recent seasons.

    Jefferson hits for keeps, either in run support, which he's never shy about offering or when punishing pass-catchers foolhardy enough to cross the middle against the Cards. But there's more to this versatile 25-year-old than just big hitting.

    Jefferson is also effective on the blitz, notching a pair of sacks in 2016. He's an ideal weapon for a team keen on unleashing overload and zone pressures against unsuspecting quarterbacks.

    However, Jefferson's reputation is burgeoning because of his improvements in coverage. Earlier last season, Brent Rollins of Pro Football Focus detailed how Jefferson was standing out against the pass: "He is currently allowing only a 44 percent completion rate into his coverage, as well as an NFL passer rating of 51.9—the lowest among safeties with more than seven targets into their coverage."

    The Redskins have been missing an accomplished safety with a complete skill set for too long. There isn't a defensive back on the roster who can do all the things Jefferson can.

    It's no wonder the four-year pro is already drawing interest, with Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports revealing how the Baltimore Ravens could be keen. La Canfora noted how Baltimore wants to field Jefferson and Eric Weddle on the back end in the new season.

    Washington's need for Jefferson is greater, though. He would be the ideal mentor for 2016 second-rounder Su'a Cravens and the one blue-chip safety on the depth chart.

    Duron Harmon

    If the Redskins follow their patter of recent seasons, they'll save a few bucks by looking for an economy safety. If so, Duron Harmon could be a steal.

    Harmon's been a rotational type in New England, but one who has played both safety spots and even slot corner in the Patriots' demanding schemes. Any Belichick-coached defensive back is going to have a keener understanding of pass concepts and adjustments than most, so Harmon would be a smart signing to supplant converted cornerbacks Will Blackmon and DeAngelo Hall at free safety.

6. Wide Receiver

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    Keeping both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon at Redskins Park is going to prove mighty difficult for McCloughan. If he can't do it, the rotation at wide receiver is going to look awfully thin.

    No Jackson and Garcon would leave Jamison Crowder, Ryan Grant and Josh Doctson as the only credible options headed into the 2017 NFL draft. Doctson may not be so credible, since he appeared in just two games during an injury-filled rookie season after being selected in the first round of 2016's draft.

    Doctson's lack of development means the cupboard would still look light even if one of Jackson or Garcon can be persuaded to stick around. Fortunately, there are some intriguing options available in free agency who would improve the state of play at wideout for the Redskins.

    Robert Woods

    Robert Woods of the Buffalo Bills is one such option. He's no burner, but Woods is an outstanding route-runner, one naturally smooth and precise in and out of his breaks.

    Woods is in the mold of a classic possession-style receiver, one who recorded 30 of his 51 total receptions in 2016 on passes thrown in the one to 10 yards range, according to ESPN.com. The same source also noted how Woods made eight grabs for 89 yards on third down with six or more yards to go—evidence he's a true clutch target.

    Woods is the type of intermediate catch machine who wins on the routes that have made Cousins a star quarterback in this league. If they lose one of their star flankers, the Redskins should go all-out for Woods, who would be a natural replacement for Garcon.

    Andre Holmes

    One other free-agent receiver worth considering is Andre Holmes. The Oakland Raiders' "other" wide receiver has still managed to impress despite playing in the shadows of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree during 2016. In particular, he was one of the few Raiders who emerged from the playoff loss to the Houston Texans with any credit, after catching four passes for 50 yards and a score.

    Holmes is a big target at 6'4" and 210 pounds, one also possessing the speed to take the top off coverage. The latter quality is something Cousins and the Redskins' passing game would surely miss if Jackson left town. A combination of Holmes and a healthy Doctson would help offset the loss of D-Jax.

    The situation with both of Washington's star receivers remains fluid. CBS DC's Brian McNally revealed how the team has yet to talk about a new deal with either player. However, Jackson has told Redskins Nation TV host Larry Michael (h/t ESPN.com's John Keim) he wants to stay in Washington, although Keim insists No. 11 will still take the biggest offer on the table during free agency.

    McCloughan needn't spend big to replace Garcon or Jackson, should either leave. This offense is built on yards after the catch, something all-world tight end Jordan Reed and the rapidly improving Crowder would still provide.

    But there's still room for another quarterback-friendly target should the numbers be reduced. Woods and Holmes are the smartest options.

    Spending smartly has to be the theme for the Redskins during free agency. McCloughan can't avoid spending when there are too many holes to fix with another draft class, especially after 2016's rookie haul proved so uninspiring.

    But Washington's main team-builder must be selective with the cap money and use the dollars to target capable and versatile veterans who will slot  straight into positions of need and deliver consistently solid performances.