In free agency, the Washington Redskins have needs across the roster


Browns safety T.J. Ward, below, and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, left, tackle New England’s Rob Gronkowski in a December game. Ward is a free-agent target; Jackson just signed with the Colts. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)

After weeks of meetings, film-study sessions and more meetings as they formulate a plan on how to rebound from last season’s 3-13 campaign, the Washington Redskins in the coming days will spring into action as the NFL’s free agency period begins.

Beginning Saturday, teams are permitted to hold negotiations with prospective players and their representatives. Then at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, teams can sign players to contracts.

Burdened by needs on both sides of the ball, but the beneficiaries of having roughly $20 million in cap space, the Redskins figure to take an aggressive approach to free agency.

As new Coach Jay Gruden put it when he last addressed the media at the NFL combine, “We have a lot of holes everywhere. . . . Any time we’re 3-13, there’s a lot of needs, so we have to figure those out quickly and address them.”

Fixing a defense that surrendered far too many points and yards and generated too few takeaways ranks high on the Redskins’ list.

The Post Sports Live crew tries to decipher what the move by the Redskins to franchise linebacker Brian Orakpo means for Orakpo's future with the team and for the defense in 2014. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

That work has begun already. As Washington entered the offseason, eight of the 11 defensive starters had expiring contracts. The team re-signed top cornerback DeAngelo Hall and rising defensive end Chris Baker, and earlier this week placed the franchise tag on leading pass rusher Brian Orakpo.

The Redskins still need to fill starting slots at cornerback, free safety, strong safety and both inside linebacker positions. Additional moves to bolster the depth of the linebacker position and defensive line remain possible as well.

Washington would still like to re-sign fifth-year inside linebacker Perry Riley Jr., but he and the team remain far apart on a new deal, according to people with knowledge of the situation. As a result, Riley is expected to test the waters of free agency. The Redskins will then decide whether to engage in a bidding war on their leading tackler from 2013.

Meanwhile, London Fletcher’s retirement created a void at the other inside linebacker position. Washington had interest in D’Qwell Jackson, whom Cleveland released last week, but he signed with Indianapolis on Thursday. Arizona’s Karlos Dansby, Baltimore’s Daryl Smith, New England’s Brandon Spikes and Houston’s Joe Mays are possible targets for Washington at that spot.

Improving the back end carries equal importance, because Washington ranked 20th in the league against the pass in 2013. Strong safety Brandon Meriweather had only moderate success last season for Washington and is now a free agent. Sixth-round pick Bacarri Rambo struggled mightily at free safety, while fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas missed all of the year with an injury. That marked a continuation of a long-standing problem for the Redskins, who since 2006 have used 27 different starters at safety.

Fortunately for Washington, this year’s free agent class appears deep at safety, with Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd, Cleveland’s T.J. Ward, San Francisco’s Donte Whitner, Miami’s Chris Clemons, Indianapolis’s Antoine Bethea and Carolina’s Mike Mitchell, and Detroit’s Louis Delmas leading the way.

A starting cornerback spot opposite Hall remains up for grabs, and veterans Aqib Talib (New England), Sam Shields (Green Bay), Vontae Davis (Indianapolis) and Brandon Browner (Seattle) also will hit the market. But because of their plentiful needs, it’s unclear if the Redskins will be able to afford to spend big at this position.

When it comes to the offense, Washington has a number of key pieces in place, including quarterback Robert Griffin III, left tackle Trent Williams, running back Alfred Morris, wide receiver Pierre Garcon, fullback Darrel Young and tight ends Jordan Reed and Logan Paulsen.

But deficiencies remain along the line and at wide receiver.

All five of last year’s starting offensive linemen are under contract, and the Redskins have produced one of the top rushing attacks in each of the past two seasons. But pass protection represents an area of weakness.

“That’s something we’re battling,” Gruden said. “Those are good players, but sometimes on third and eight, they get pushed back a little bit.”

“You have to get better,” the coach added.

The Redskins are expected to pursue Cincinnati right tackle Anthony Collins, who played for Gruden the past three seasons. Meanwhile, guards Geoff Schwartz of Kansas City and Rodger Saffold of St. Louis, and Green Bay center Evan Dietrich-Smith rank among possible targets as well.

Upgrading the line would go a long way to ensuring the health and continued development of Griffin. So would giving the third-year pro more weapons to work with.

Outside of Garcon, who led the NFL in catches, the Redskins didn’t have a reliable pass-catching threat. Reed battled injury and didn’t play a full 16-game schedule as a rookie. Wide receivers Josh Morgan and Santana Moss are free agents now, and Aldrick Robinson and Leonard Hankerson struggled with consistency. Hankerson is coming off of a torn anterior cruciate ligament as well.

Talented slot receivers Julian Edelman and Andre Roberts both will hit the market, as will outside threats Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks and Golden Tate.

Speaking of his wide receiver unit, Gruden said, “It’s something we have to look at very closely, both free agency and this draft.”

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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