Following a pair of strong months, the Redskins are in the drivers seat of the NFC East for the next decade.
The first observation is that this is not entirely to their credit. The Redskins had little to do with the Eagles crashing back to earth, and with the Giants' overall age catching up to them. The Redskins had something to do with the Cowboys not making the playoffs this past season, but very little to do with the fact that Dallas has gone almost exactly .500 since Jason Garrett took over as head coach. In fact, Garrett's record might have been worse than that had he not already played the Redskins five times.
The NFC East has done it's fair share to annoint RG3 and the Redskins as it's favorites over the next five to six years. Now the job for the Redskins' decision makers is easy: don't let success catch you off guard.
The Redskins will fortunately return most of it's coaching staff in 2013, dodging the first major hurdle in the defense of the NFC East title. Special teams coach Danny Smith has moved on to Pittsburgh, but that's a relatively minor move considering that at midseason, Kyle Shanahan looked to be on his way out, and the Redskins were openly talking about firing Jim Haslett. Both now return for at least one more season.
The Shanahans have earned something of a leash here for 2013 with the positive steps the team has taken over the last two seasons. They have earned some time to figure out how to take things to the next level. Of course, that's the trickiest part of building a championship contender: the march to the first round of the playoffs is the easy part. The hard part is improving beyond that without bumping your head against the ceiling.
Expectations may be the major enemy that the Redskins face in 2013. Regression from any seven game win streak is to be expected: even the best team in the NFL would not be expected to beat the worst team seven consecutive times. And especially not after losing Robert Griffin III to injury in the middle of the streak. But because the playoff loss ended the run abruptly, it feels like the Redskins are moving into 2013 on something of a hot streak.
But as the news around RG3's knee gets more and more optimistic, the Redskins are going to lose the built-in example of why they can't expect to just go win six of their first seven games in 2013. The actual reason -- no matter who starts at quarterback -- is because it's tough to beat NFL teams week after week with no setbacks (or even a series of setbacks). But if Griffin plays from Week 1, the Redskins will be expected to be in the NFC East lead at the mid-way point of the 2013 season. That's just not realistic - they don't give out half-season titles in the NFL anyway. The goal, with or without Griffin, should be to improve on the 3-5 start they produced last year.
The Redskins should be aiming for five to six wins in the first half of next season, not seven to eight.
But even to hit such moderate goals, improvement throughout the roster will be needed, and the Redskins don't even have the benefit of the cap room or high first round picks they have enjoyed in recent years. Luckily, they do have stability at nearly all the major positions on the roster, quarterback being the lone exception with RG3's knee.
What follows is a loosely-placed plan as to how the Redskins can take their limited resources and progress as a team.
Step #1 - Free up cap space by restructuring those who have higher salary numbers than their performance can defend:
This is a list that would include:
-CB DeAngelo Hall
-WR Joshua Morgan
-S Brandon Meriweather
-LB London Fletcher
Fletcher's presence on the roster may very well be necessary for a team that isn't quite ready to move on without it's defensive leader, but the Redskins will have to push salary around in order to not lose their leader. A $5.5 million base salary can not be afforded by the Redskins under the burden of the cap penalty, but pushed into future seasons where they have access to a full cap, the Redskins can justify one final year of London Fletcher on defense.
DeAngelo Hall is more than willing to restructure his contract to stay with the Redskins, but without a significant pay cut, it's just not worth it to the Redskins to keep him around. A possible structure that would benefit both sides would be similar to the kind of pay cut that former college teammate Michael Vick took to stay with the Eagles: $2 million up front, and another $1.9 million in salary. It would allow Hall to stay on as the Redskins' top paid CB, but just fractionally over Josh Wilson, and would save the Redskins almost $4 million on the salary cap. In the abscence of such a mutual agreement, an outright release would save the Redskins almost $7.5 million on the salary cap, and would be preferrable to just keeping him and paying his salary.
Joshua Morgan was the weak link of the Redskins receiving corps by most measures last year, although he earned his keep by being a positive net asset as a blocker. But unless the Redskins have reason to suspect Pierre Garcon will miss more time next year, its probably better just to cut ties with Morgan at this point and save some cash rather than to let him stay on through the 2013 season and void the remainder of his contract after that. Designating Morgan a post-June 1 cut would save the Redskins over $2.0 million on the salary cap.
Brandon Meriweather played one game last season before being lost for the year. Rather than let him rehab his ACL on the company time, it would be wise to part ways with the physically talented, but rehabbing safety. They can save about $1.8 million by doing so.
The Redskins can free up $14 million by terminating/restructuring those four players, and by reducing the base salaries of Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen, and Trent Williams, they can free up an estimated $9 million (about $3 million/player).
The Redskins are slightly over the projected cap as this article is being written, so making all those moves gives Washington about $20 million in available cap to work with this season.
Step #2 Identify the roster holes and free agents to be retained
Obviously, most people would start in the secondary here, especially after the releases of Hall and Meriweather. And it is a big hole, given that they only return Josh Wilson, Richard Crawford, Chase Minnifield, Dejon Gomes, Jordan Bernstine and Reed Doughty under contract. The Redskins are going to have to spend more money at this position than last year, even considering the money-saving releases of Hall and Meriweather.
But perhaps the bigger roster holes are about to be created by the eligible free agents from the 2012 Redskins. The Redskins will have two impending free agents who may fall into a class B pay grade, a class where the total contract value received may be worth more than $20 million: OLB Rob Jackson, and TE Fred Davis. Retaining either may cost the Redskins 20-25% of their available cap room, so one (probably Davis) will be prioritized over the other. It is possible both are retained, but only if the price tag on one or both falls below expected.
Losing Jackson would stretch the Redskins thin at the OLB position, but they are getting Brian Orakpo back from injury - and there is no spot in the starting lineup anyway unless you feel Jackson can compete for Ryan Kerrigan's starting spot. The market for tight ends is far less competitive, and the Redksins might not face a serious suitor to resign the talented and producitive, but focus-challenged Davis.
The only other Redskins starter who is free agent eligible is Kory Lichtenstieger, who is likely to resign with the Redskins, albeit only for starters money. The kind of contract the Redskins gave Will Montgomery last offseason is a likely framework for this. They'll have to allocate between $1 and $2 million to retain Lichtensteiger on a long term contract. The same deal might be necessary at worst to keep special teams ace Lorenzo Alexander around, who becomes more necessary on defense if Rob Jackson signs elsewhere.
After the major resignings, the Redskins still have huge issues at corner and safety, and have to replace at least one if not two members of the front seven via the draft. They also have no right tackle on the roster beyond Tom Compton now that Jammal Brown's contract voided. If the Redskins are smart, they'll wait on tendering Tyler Polumbus a contract, because he will be available late in the offseason if they need him.
The single top free agent target for the Washington Redskins this offseason may be Cincinnati Bengals OT Andre Smith. The Redskins have specifically targeted 25 and 26 year old players on the free agent market these past two offseasons, and Smith's age separates him from the rest of the free agent class. He will likely be (along with Jake Long) the highest paid OT in a very strong FA class, but he's really the only one who fits the Redskins' team building philosophy. Signing Smith will put a dent in the budget for the rest of the offseason, and will impair the Redskins ability to build their secondary. But he also fixes the biggest hole in the Redskins offense, and might be a necessity in order for the Redskins to throw longer developing routes out of the shotgun this year, something they were unable to do with Tyler Polumbus last season.
This will likely take the Redskins out of the running to sign Miami Dolphins CB Sean Smith, who may also be pretty high up there on the Redskins' wish list, along with Jerraud Powers of the Colts, Aqib Talib of the Pats, Captain Munnerlyn of the Panthers, Tracy Porter of the Broncos, Antoine Cason of the Chargers, Kyle Arrington of the Pats, and Derek Cox of the Jaguars.
Kenny Phillips of the Giants and Louis Delmas of the Lions could be the top targets at safety for Washington, but again, the financial flexibility to sign a highly desired safety is unlikely to be there. The NFL draft is very deep on corners and on safeties, and is likely to provide better value (although the addition of a veteran in the secondary is inevitable). Glover Quin of the Texans is a hybrid-type corner/safety who could be a better fit for what the Redskins may want to do next year on defense than Phillips is. It might not be possible for the Redskins to address the secondary right from day one of free agency like they did with their receiver situation last year. After two to three weeks, they should be able to take their pick from the remainder of the market, when Amari Spievey -- the Lions' other safety -- could be a target.
Knowing what holes need to be filled in the draft will be critical. There will still be no less than two major defensive holes no matter what the Redskins do with their available cap room in free agency, and just two picks to address them with.
Step #3: Using non-financial resources to address the holes
The Redskins may get a little bit creative to address their defense, as they very well might have the cap room to add Smith, Talib, and Quin, for example, if they take their hits on the offensive side. That means Davis could play elsewhere in 2013 as a financial decision, and right tackle would be handed again to Tyler Polumbus or a C-tier free agent or the unproven Tom Compton. While I don't believe this to be ideal given the current state of RG3's knee, it would certainly be creative.
But almost the only way to approach the second round of the draft (outside of trying to obtain extra picks in a trade) is to take best player available at a premium position. What this means is that the Redskins could very easily end up with a pass rusher in the second round in what is a deep class for pass rushers. Such a pick would replace Rob Jackson's absence in this year's lineup and would take some pressure off the Redskins to replace London Fletcher because it would give Keenan Robinson an extra year to develop coming off major knee surgery. But it also gives the Redskins just a solo shot to address the secondary on the second day of the draft.
I would explore a trade up back into the top half of the fourth round or end of the third round after the Redskins have picked twice, but lets say for the sake of argument that the draft hands the Redskins a pass rusher such as FSU's Brandon Jenkins and a rangy safety such as Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson in the third round. This will still leave one position on the defense unsettled (cornerback, in our hypothetical). The Redskins will have to address their remaining hole without a highly touted draft pick and without a ton of cap room.
The defense after the draft, using just the names thrown around above:
DL- Bowen, Cofield, J. Jenkins, (Carriker, Baker)
LB- Orakpo, Kerrigan, Riley, Fletcher (B. Jenkins, Robinson, Alexander)
DB- Wilson, Crawford, Gomes, Doughty (Bernstine, Jefferson, Minnifield, Pugh, Murphy)
Truth is, a little creativity can go a long way here. If the only way to actively improve the secondary beyond the above scenario is to give up a little value to fill a need (corner and safety), then pouncing on a player such as Rutgers' Logan Ryan or pulling off a trade for a corner at the end of their rookie contract after the draft may be the way to go.
The Patriots found Alfonzo Dennard in the 7th round last season, one year after multiple scouting sources put a higher grade on the Junior Cornhusker than they did on current NY Giants CB Prince Amukamara, the 20th pick in the 2011 draft.
Step #4 address remaining holes thoroughly before training camp begins
At such a point, the Redskins would have to get creative to address their needs in the secondary if they haven't been already addressed by day two of the NFL Draft, but I did take a snapshot at this time last year of the top rated college corners and safeties with respect to the 2013 draft, and not all of them remain as first two round picks today.
We know about the saga Tyrann Mathieu, but I see him as more of a candidate to replace Brandon Banks on the roster than to fix the secondary. Beyond the honey badger: NC State's David Amerson has moved from a first round projection to a third round projection in the last year, Georgia's Baccari Rambo has been passed on boards by sexier candidates, and Alabama's Robert Lester had a poor season on a great team, and has free-fallen to a later-round projection, as has USC S T.J. McDonald. Meanwhile, Miami Hurricane SS Ray Ray Armstrong has almost fallen off draft boards entirely. The value at the safety position is there to be had later on.
Plus, veteran's with a track record coming off a bad year tend to be in high supply at the start of training camp. Expect the Redskins to talk up Chase Minnifield most of the offseason, giving them plenty of time to pan the veteran market for a solution this offseason.
Overall, the tone of the offseason has already been set by the relative lack of upheaval in the coaching staff: the roster is going to look much the same in 2013 as it did in 2012. The biggest key for the future is to trim the roster fat now and not later. The biggest challenge is going to be with the longest tenured Redskins such as Fletcher (2007), Hall (2008), and Moss (2005). These players are coming to the end of their player contracts anyway. It would be easy to credit their efforts for putting the Redskins in the playoffs last season, but the real reason the Redskins are where they are is the contribution of players like Griffin and Alfred Morris, not the veterans who were around through the tough times.
Proper roster management will make the Redskins salary cap penalty not that big of a deal. The Redskins are probably not going to take a huge step forward in 2013, but simply by sustaining the majority of their gains, they can win the NFC East for a second straight year.