Bargain Bin Free Agents Washington Redskins Should Target to Fill Biggest Needs

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMarch 8, 2017

Bargain Bin Free Agents Washington Redskins Should Target to Fill Biggest Needs

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    Relying on veteran players was once a proud tradition for the Washington Redskins. From George Allen's Over the Hill Gang in the seventies to Joe Gibbs' plan-B retreads in the late-eighties and early nineties, Washington used to place its faith in an experienced core.

    However, veteran has become something of a dirty word in D.C. since the dark days of the 2000s, when this franchise wasted big money on old-time stars in free agency.

    Having been burned by the experience of signing Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Adam Archuleta and Albert Haynesworth, many fans of the Burgundy and Gold are wary of bringing in free agents the wrong side of 30.

    The problem with that outlook is it rules out the savvy contributors who are usually found in the market's bargain bin. This year's NFL free-agent market is no exception, with as many as eight players available who could fix the Redskins' biggest needs.

    Among them is a former member of the team who reached his first Pro Bowl at the age of 33 in 2016. He is joined by two more 30-plus defensive players. There's also room for a versatile running back with a Super Bowl ring to his credit.

    Those wanting the younger generation to be represented need not fear. The Redskins can find excellent value by reaching into the bin for a flexible, 26-year-old rush end who represents a true steal in free agency.

    Read on for the full list of bargain-bin free agents Washington should target to address the franchise's biggest needs.

8. Akeem Ayers, OLB

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    Akeem Ayers may have played on four teams in six seasons, but he is a sneaky good pass-rusher who would be a perfect fit for new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky's schemes in Washington.

    Manusky saw firsthand what Ayers can do during last season, when the 27-year-old logged a pair of sacks and snatched an interception for the Indianapolis Colts. Ayers reminded onlookers of his talents after a tough 2015 with the then-St. Louis Rams.

    Things didn't work out for the UCLA product in the Gateway to the West because Ayers was ill-suited to playing linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. Instead, this 6'3", 255-pounder is built for an outside rush role in a 3-4 defense.

    What Ayers brings to the edge is the versatility to line up in a three-point stance or rush from a standing position. He is also flexible enough to rush from either side of a formation.

    Not surprisingly, the New England Patriots and their hybrid schemes took full advantage of those skills during 2014. The Pats plucked Ayers off the scrapheap after he had been dumped by first club the Tennessee Titans seven games into that season.

    Ayers recorded four sacks and an interception during nine regular-season games with the Patriots. He became a useful piece in New England's complex and pressure-based sub-packages.

    Taking a similar chance and bringing Ayers to Redskins Park would not only give Manusky a player he knows well, it would also add a situational playmaker to a pass-rush rotation needing an infusion of talent to go with incumbents Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and Junior Galette.

7. Brandon Spikes, MLB

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    Washington's linebacker corps doesn't just need help on the outside. Some beef also needs adding to the middle, making heavy hitter Brandon Spikes a free agent worth considering.

    Spikes' career may have stuttered somewhat since being dumped by the Patriots in 2013. He has played two seasons with the Buffalo Bills since, despite being out of football in 2015.

    However, Spikes still has core skills the Redskins need at the heart of the front seven, such as the ability to be a downhill thumper who will plug inside running lanes. Spikes is a 6'2", 255-pound bruiser who lives in the A-gaps either side of a center and takes a running game away.

    Taking away rushing threats isn't something the Redskins have done a lot of the last two seasons. In fact, opposing runners gained 4.5 yards an attempt against the Burgundy and Gold in 2016, according to Sporting Charts.

    The same source also noted how Washington's defense surrendered 55 runs of 10 yards or more, 28th in the league.

    Putting Spikes behind a couple of more imposing D-linemen would quickly turn a shaky run defense into a stingy one. It's something Washington will need to compete with the Dallas Cowboys, led by a giant offensive line and dynamic running back Ezekiel Elliott, in the NFC East.

6. Glenn Dorsey, NT

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    The Redskins still need a credible nose tackle to anchor their 3-4 front. That line has been applicable every year since then-head coach Mike Shanahan switched the team's defensive scheme to a three-man front back in 2010.

    Fortunately, Washington's decision-makers can cast their eyes over a veteran market loaded with quality 0-technique monsters. Among them, Glenn Dorsey is one seasoned nose guard who shouldn't slip under the team's radar.

    In many ways, Dorsey is a throwback to the old-fashioned nose tackle, in the sense the San Francisco 49ers vet rarely shows up on highlight reels. Yet he stands out to the keen-eyed observer looking for those who do the gritty work in the trenches.

    Dorsey quietly goes about the lonely but essential work of occupying double teams over the ball so others can chase the glory.  The 31-year-old plays with terrific leverage at 6'1", often getting underneath the pads to move a blocker off his spot and generate a fierce push inside.

    The Louisiana native is no three-down lineman, but he would be a focal point for Washington's base front. Injuries are a concern, though. Dorsey has only made seven starts in each of the last two seasons after missing all of 2014 with a torn biceps.

    However, Dorsey is worth the risk for a Redskins D desperately needing more power and smarts along the interior. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula worked with Dorsey in San Fran and may be able to get big No. 90 back to the outstanding form he showed in 2013.

    Dorsey could soon be expendable after the 49ers have actively pursued D-tackles this offseason. They have already signed Earl Mitchell and talks are progressing with another free agent, Terrell McClain, according to NFL Network's Jane Slater.

    The Redskins are also keen on Cowboys nose tackle McClain, admittedly a underrated 0-technique, per Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports. However, Dorsey would be a more than adequate consolation prize if McClain chooses the Bay Area over life in D.C.

5. Nick Fairley, DT

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    There was a time when Nick Fairley would have commanded top dollar on any free-agent market. Yet that was before this former first-round pick of the Detroit Lions bounced on to two more teams since 2014.

    Fairley was a bust with the Rams in 2015, but he quietly played some good football with the New Orleans Saints last season. His performances included a career-best 6.5 sacks, proof Fairley can still wreck the interior when he is motivated.

    The combination of inside pressure and a natural aptitude for stuffing the run makes Fairley an underrated candidate to play over the ball in Washington. He would be unlikely to lack for motivation with a line coach as enthusiastic as Tomsula coaxing him to give his best.

    Of course, Fairley would also have to prove he can stay healthy, something he managed last season by starting 16 games in the Big Easy. Still just 29, Fairley has all the tools to be the kind of playmaker Washington has sought at nose tackle for the last seven years.

    Snatching Fairley from what would be the top end of the bargain bin could give the Redskins one of the true steals of this year's market.

4. Luke Willson, TE

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    Yes, Washington already has Jordan Reed at tight end, while Vernon Davis is a useful veteran the Redskins have now re-signed, according to Stephen Czarda of the team's official website.

    However, it doesn't mean the Burgundy and Gold should pass up the chance to add another potential playmaker at a position that's become a greater feature of the offense in recent years.

    Luke Willson fits the mold for what Washington has wanted from its tight ends under both the Shanahan regime and since Jay Gruden became head coach in 2014. Willson is tall, athletic and flexible enough to be moved across formations.

    Despite his ample size at 6'5" and 252 pounds, the 27-year-old also boasts the move skills to stretch the seams vertically. The latter trait is something Willson is able to perform from the slot, flexed out wide or even as a classic in-line tight end.

    Frankly, the Seattle Seahawks didn't always take full advantage of Willson's versatile skill set. He caught just 15 passes in 11 games last season but did average 8.6 yards a grab.

    Willson won't make many waves on the market, but he's an underrated and underused player who would pair well with Reed and Davis in Washington.

3. James Starks, RB

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    The running back class suddenly looks top heavy in this year's free agency market. Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles joining Latavius Murray and LeGarrette Blount means more than one workhorse is sure to cash in this month.

    The embarrassment of riches may actually work against the Redskins, though. There is no denying Washington needs to boost options in the backfield. However, with so many other pressing needs, spending big on a Charles, AP or Blount is likely going to be out of this team's reach.

    Fortunately, a reach into the bargain bin should find James Starks available to add some much-needed stability to the Redskins' running game. The 31-year-old provided a late flourish to the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl run in 2010. Since then, Starks has refined his game as a runner, receiver and blocker with a keen understanding of west-coast offense concepts.

    Gruden calls a similar scheme in Washington and could use a back with Starks' all-round game. He is a tougher and more imaginative runner than he is often given credit for, while offering a reliable outlet in the passing game.

    Reliability is not something Matt Jones offers as a workhorse of choice due to ongoing issues fumbling the rock. Meanwhile, last year's rookie free-agent find Robert Kelley is a useful grinder but not dynamic enough to carry the load by his lonesome. However, Kelley would work well in tandem with an able veteran like Starks.

    The latter's agent, Dave Butz, confirmed his client's desire to play an eighth NFL season while also indicating a return to Green Bay is possible. Per ESPN's Rob Demovsky, Butz said: "I don't think (the Packers) are opposed to bringing him back."

    The Redskins should move fast to convince Starks his next campaign ought to be spent away from the Packers.

2. Lorenzo Alexander, OLB

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    Normally, a player coming off a Pro Bowl berth wouldn't be anywhere near the bargain bin. However, Lorenzo Alexander is 33 and had just one season posting double-digit sacks after notching 12.5 for the Buffalo Bills in 2016.

    Those factors mean he is unlikely to command a major payday on the market. Yet the Redskins are one of the few NFL teams who can appreciate what Alexander is all about. After all, he spent seven seasons in Washington, where he became a special teams demon who lined up everywhere from defensive tackle to inside linebacker.

    However, rush linebacker is the position Alexander would fit best if he returned to Redskins Park. The Burgundy and Gold's need for additional pressure potential on the outside was recently compounded with the news Trent Murphy could be suspended for the first four games of 2017 for a PED violation, according to Master Tesfatsion of the Washington Post.

    Murphy has appealed, per Tesfatsion, but if he loses, the Redskins will miss a player who recorded nine sacks in 2016. Murphy's absence would further stretch a rotation still counting on Junior Galette making the field after missing two years with Achilles injuries.

    Alexander would be a great fit to assume a starting role on his former team. However, his representatives have already had a positive meeting regarding a return to the Bills, per Sal Capaccio of the AFC East club's official website, although Capaccio did say nothing has been signed yet.

    The player wants to get paid, though, according to Michael Silver of the league's official website:

    Now, Alexander is hoping to score in free agency, citing the recent extension signed by 35-year-old Dolphins pass rusher Cameron Wake (two years, $18 million, $11 million guaranteed) as a comparable launching point. That might be a bit ambitious, but Alexander -- who plans to continue playing special teams in 2017 and beyond -- is convinced that 2016 was not an aberration.

    Silver is right to call that aim "ambitious," but Alexander is still the type of determined and productive workaholic the Redskins need to help them graft their way back to the postseason.

1. John Simon, OLB

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    If Alexander is deemed too expensive to be considered a bargain, the Redskins should take a long look at Houston Texans' role player John Simon. They will see a versatile force on the edge who can attack offenses as a D-end or standup linebacker.

    Simon has quietly honed his skills as a situational menace in the complex schemes of 3-4 master Romeo Crennel in Houston. Learning from position coach Mike Vrabel, a hybrid star on three Super Bowl teams with the Patriots, Simon has collected 10 sacks in the last three years.

    The 26-year-old has also taken on coverage responsibilities in underneath zones and spent time with his hand in the dirt. He has got genuine steal potential for a team running a hybrid 3-4 like the one Manusky will call in Washington.

    Simon's status on the market is summed up best by Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling of the league's official website: "An unflashy outside linebacker who can handle a variety of roles at a high level, Simon is one of our favorite bargain free agents."

    This is an edge defender who won't get a starter's role in Houston while Jadeveon Clowney and the brilliant Whitney Mercilus are around. Yet Simon would work well alongside Kerrigan, Smith, Murphy and Galette to give Washington a deep arsenal of weapons for pressuring the pocket in 2017.

    Free agency is going to be a tricky process for the Redskins with general manager Scot McCloughan's status still uncertain. McCloughan remains absent from the team's facility as the veteran market prepares to open on Thursday, according to Liz Clarke and Mike Jones of the Washington Post.

    However, given McCloughan's past reticence to make free agency a priority, particularly when it comes to signing players over 30, his absence could be a signal for a shift in thinking. It's may lead to the Redskins landing more than one useful bargain at positions of need this month.