Washington Redskins' Updated To-Do List Ahead of Free Agency
It's a more-than-average to-do list for the Washington Redskins ahead of the start of 2017 NFL Free Agency. Yet, those pending issues may not be the biggest problem the NFC East club needs to solve.
Instead, Washington's biggest issue this offseason may be clarifying the power structure and re-establishing some credibility. Recent reports have put both under the microscope as questions persist about the role of general manager Scot McCloughan and his relationship with team president Bruce Allen and head coach Jay Gruden.
Letting the rest of the league know who is in charge of a team with enough talent to book a rapid return to the playoffs is a must.
Read on for the Redskins' full to-do list as the franchise prepares itself for free agency.
1. Re-Sign Key Defensive Players
Maybe this should read "re-sign key defensive player," because after D-tackle Chris Baker, it's tough to determine which free agents the Redskins should keep on this side of the ball.
Yet, there can be little doubt Baker needs to stay at Redskins Park for a few more years. He is the most disruptive lineman on a roster woefully short of talented trench warriors.
Fortunately, the Redskins seem appropriately aware of Baker's value. The team has already spoken with the 29-year-old's people and an offer is expected, according to Mike Jones of the Washington Post.
ESPN's John Keim echoed the news, but he added the potentially worrying caveat that other teams have shown interest in Baker. It may not be easy for Washington to fend off the interest in a surprisingly agile 320-pounder who can thrive at end or 0-technique on a three-man front.
However, this team is already set to shed linemen during free agency, with Ziggy Hood, Cullen Jenkins and Kedric Golston all set for the open market. The Redskins simply cannot afford to let Baker—the player they should be building a new-look defensive front around—leave town as well.
Of the other defensive players ticketed for free agency, it would be prudent to welcome back veteran safety Donte Whitner. The 31-year-old is a serviceable starter who, at the very least, can provide invaluable experience and leadership at a position otherwise in its now-typical state of flux.
In particular, Whitner should act as a useful mentor to second-year man Su'a Cravens, whom the Redskins need to make a starting safety spot his own this season.
2. Bring Back Leaders on Offense
Similar to the situation on defense, Washington would be foolish to let its obvious leaders on offense walk out the door without a fight. Among them, well-travelled tight end Vernon Davis is a veteran playmaker this team should work to keep.
He may be 33, but Davis remains a more-than-useful blocker, who has established a niche as an underneath target. Those skills lend tremendous flexibility to Washington's offense whenever Davis is on the field with fellow tight end Jordan Reed.
To illustrate the point, quarterback Cousins posted his best completion percentage, 73.3, along with his highest yards-per-completion average, 10.21, when throwing out of two tight end sets last season, per ESPN.
Cousins also had a 126.2 rating when the Redskins had three or more tight ends on the field, according to the same source.
Naturally, Davis is a big part of Washington's multi-tight end schemes. He is also fond of the offense Gruden runs, citing the head coach as a reason he wants to stay in D.C., per a podcast interview with CSN's JP Finlay (h/t CSN Mid-Atlantic's Peter Hailey):
I love him, I love him, and that's one of the other reasons that I wouldn't mind staying here. He allows the players to play really, really loose, and you want that in a coach.
Gruden should be equally enamoured with Davis, thanks to the latter's ability to be a leader on and off the field. This is a former Pro Bowler who has played in some big games with the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos.
Davis' experience and leadership are qualities too valuable to let go.
3. Make Pierre Garcon an Offer
As discussed twice previously, it makes more sense for the Redskins to re-sign Pierre Garcon than to try to keep DeSean Jackson this offseason. The former is more of a positive influence on the dressing room and more of a dependable outlet on the field.
In this context, it is more than a little worrying that there has still been no movement from the Redskins to bring Garcon back.
I have not heard anything at all. But everybody does strategic moves right before free agency, or right during free agency, so I couldn’t tell you what they're up to.
Frankly, the strategy should be simple, namely to re-sign Garcon as quickly as possible. He is the most complete wideout on the roster, a pass-catching weapon capable of bossing the middle, as well as stretching coverage vertically.
Garcon is a also a receiver likely to be in demand once the market opens on Thursday. Last month, ESPN's John Keim noted how the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers, both coached by Garcon's last two offensive coordinators in Washington, Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, respectively, have a shared interest in No. 88.
The Redskins cannot easily overlook Garcon's value as a leader. Gruden has previously explained how the latter quality is important in determining which free agents his team should keep, per CSN Mid-Atlantic's JP Finlay.
He said: "It's our job to make sure we target the ones we definitely want back that really have an impact on this football team, not only from a talent standpoint but from a leadership standpoint."
Finlay also pointed out how "Garcon brings a more consistent approach at practice and on the field."
Like Davis, having Garcon around in 2017 will be important for a team needing the consistency to makes its obvious talent count more often. He is a big element in the process, not to mention the most reliable pair of hands in the passing game.
With Jamison Crowder entering just his third season, 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson yet to prove he can stay healthy, and Jordan Reed a regular victim of the injury bug, the Redskins need to be able count on Garcon's reliability a little longer.
4. Target Underrated Running Back Need Once the Market Opens
No matter which receiving weapons return to aid the passing game, the Redskins will remain worryingly one-sided on offense until they address the running back position. It is perhaps the most underrated need of the offseason.
Without a credible rushing attack, Washington will lack balance offensively. Kirk Cousins and his receivers will then be left to pick holes in defenses tailored to stopping them with seven- and eight-man coverage shells or heavy diets of blitz pressure.
Yet, think how much more effective the Burgundy and Gold's offense would be if the unit could seamlessly switch gears between moving the ball on the deck and airing it out.
Of course, such symmetry in play-calling is the dream of every offense. It may not be so easy to achieve, but it will be impossible if the Redskins stick with their current backfield rotation.
Gruden, Allen and McCloughan simply must find upgrades for fumble-prone Matt Jones, tough-but-limited grinder Robert Kelley and restricted free agent Chris Thompson. Fortunately, the means are available to address this need, both in free agency and the 2017 NFL draft.
First, the veteran market offers some intriguing choices, including dual-threat 31-year-old James Starks. His skills as a runner, receiver and blocker are ideal for an offense with West Coast principles like the one Gruden calls in Washington.
If Starks isn't deemed suitable, then the Redskins should choose from a loaded draft class. It's a rookie crop featuring Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. There are also plenty of late-round projections to entice a savvy GM, prospects such as Marlon Mack, Kareem Hunt, Jeremy McNichols and De'Veon Smith.
In other words, there is no excuse for Washington not to bolster a running game anaemic for most of 2016. The Redskins averaged just 106 yards on the ground and managed a mere 44 runs of 10 yards or more last season, according to Sporting Charts.
Both numbers need to be a whole lot better this year.
5. Hurry Up and Give Kirk Cousins a New Contract
It is still staggering to think Washington needed to slap a second franchise tag on its Pro Bowl quarterback. Somehow in a league woefully short on competent passers, the Redskins still can't decide how much they should value Cousins.
The answer is a simple one, though. Washington should value Cousins and the stability he offers under center a whole lot.
Fortunately for team brass, the exclusive franchise tag the Redskins used last month still gives the franchise until July 15 to agree a long-term deal, according to Jake Kring-Schreifels of the team's official website.
Of course, the process will demand Cousins first signing his franchise tender. It's something he is still to do, according to Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio. His report also cited ongoing uncertainty about the situation at the top of the franchise as a potential reason for Cousins' delay.
Whatever the reason, Cousins' status—or lack thereof—is threatening to undermine the whole offseason. Losing a capable, nay, a record-setting quarterback, would set this team back fatally in the NFC playoff picture.
It doesn't help when the San Francisco 49ers and Cousins' former OC Kyle Shanahan maintain an interest, at least for the moment, per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
It's becoming easier to think pride is getting in the way of keeping Cousins in Washington. After all, the quarterback holds all the cards in the negotiations thanks both to his performances and the dearth of talent at the position available elsewhere.
Being backed into a corner and forced to dole out an exorbitant contract understandably may not be a position McCloughan and Co. feel most comfortable in. However, there may be little way of avoiding paying up given the necessity to have some continuity at football's most important position.
Either way, the clock is ticking for the Redskins to strike the deal that much of their hopes for the new season will likely depend on.
6. Restore Some Credibility to the Front Office
Just who is calling the shots in Washington this offseason? It's a question looming larger every day amid what appears to be a tussle for influence between general manager Scot McCloughan and team president Bruce Allen.
In fact, there is now reportedly a growing perception the Redskins are in a mess at the top of the franchise. The Washington Post's Mike Jones and Master Tesfatsion have recounted how this view has been taking shape during this year's NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis:
But many outsiders, namely agents of potential free agent targets, including some of Washington's own players with expiring contracts, aren't sold. They expressed concern that there was more to McCloughan's absence than the Feb. 6 death of his 100-year-old grandmother. People also worried about the significance of the perceived organizational dysfunction.
One agent who had contact with Redskins officials during the week in Indianapolis described his impression of the franchise as 'in disarray.' Another said, 'I'm not exactly sure who's in charge over there now.'
If the team's own players don't know who is in charge, then it is time to start worrying. Indeed, the time has already come, according to Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post, who believes McCloughan's influence is being thinned by Allen's interference:
Allen, the team president who hasn't fully dismissed himself from his previous GM duties, has silenced McCloughan. He has spurred the narrative that McCloughan had a subpar second draft and free agency and needs to do better, even though it's too early to make a definitive declaration about last year's draft and even though McCloughan, overall, has done good work in only two years.
At the middle of this suggested tug-of-war is Gruden, a head coach with just one playoff appearance in three years to his credit. Yet, he is also a sideline general who has recently agreed a new two-year contract extension, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport (h/t Quang M. Lam of the league's official website).
Perhaps prolonging Gruden's stay is an Allen move. After all, he is the man who hired the one-time Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator back in 2014. Gruden is also the coach who benched running back Matt Jones, a McCloughan draft pick, during last season.
It is true McCloughan's second draft in charge looks initially underwhelming. It's also valid to state not all of Allen's decisions as general manager before McCloughan's arrival hurt this team.
Allen draft picks such as O-linemen Morgan Moses and Spencer Long have become valuable contributors. Meanwhile, Allen's main free-agent prize Jackson has brought big plays to the passing game.
However, regardless of the merits and weaknesses of both Allen and McCloughan, Washington's front office needs a clear chain of command, even if it's just for public-relations purposes. Specifically, the franchise needs to exude confidence and structure with the main events on the offseason calendar now looming large.
The whims of McCloughan and Allen will influence every decision the Redskins make. They will determine how or if Cousins gets paid, what weight is lent to free agency compared to the draft and which veterans are brought back.
This franchise has the means to bolster its roster in style this offseason. There is an estimated $36,609,171 worth of space under the salary cap to invest in free agents and new contracts. The Burgundy and Gold are also armed with 10 picks for this year's draft.
Yet, resembling a muddled, mutinous mess at the top won't help get the big decisions made, nor will it make Washington an appealing landing spot for either veteran players or budding rookie stars.