Mike Shanahan enters this offseason with a chance to make the Redskins better

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 12:32 AM

Coach Mike Shanahan struggled during his first season, which ended with Sunday's 17-14 loss by the Redskins to the New York Giants at FedEx Field. He must succeed this offseason - and he could accomplish big things in free agency.

Washington seems poised to become a major player in free agency if the NFL labor situation cooperates, and "when you finish the way we did, with six wins [6-10], you've got some areas to work on," Shanahan said after the game.

Shanahan took the wrong approach with defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth during the previous offseason, failing to convince the two-time all-pro player that he was suited for the team's new 3-4 defense.

He erred in trading second- and fourth-round picks to the Philadelphia Eagles for Donovan McNabb, and then bungled his exit strategy when he decided to move forward without the six-time Pro Bowler.

With Washington lacking the personnel to function effectively in the 3-4, Shanahan should have delayed the switch from the base 4-3 at least a year to acquire some of the needed players through the draft and free agency.

One of those costly mistakes could derail a season. Shanahan had three.

Shanahan could rebound nicely next season, however, because two of the people who work for him - General Manager Bruce Allen and Eric Schaffer, vice president of football administration - managed the payroll well in the uncapped 2010 season.

The 2011 free agent class promises to be filled with top-level players, and the Redskins have many roster holes and the financial flexibility to fill them.

Rookie left tackle Trent Williams will be guaranteed $7.85 million in 2011 if he achieves salary escalators and one-time bonuses tied to his percentage of plays, the team's victories and performance on offense. Otherwise, Williams will be guaranteed about $3 million.

No other Redskins player has guaranteed money next season (McNabb would receive $1.75 million if he were released because of injury).

That means Washington could overhaul its roster (the team had 30 new players on the 2010 opening-day roster) for the second time in as many seasons under Shanahan. As part of their strategy, the Redskins did not seek to sign the top free agents in 2010.

This offseason, though, Washington presumably would pursue the type of proven players who were unavailable to them previously. Many free agents who would have been unrestricted were restricted in 2010 under the terms of the uncapped season.

The Redskins, having such little money guaranteed to only one player, could release some players in an attempt to upgrade significantly in areas of weakness. Unprompted, Shanahan has pointed out that Washington did not have the benefit of full free agency before his first season.

Apparently, he would welcome the opportunity.

The Redskins have almost $100 million committed in team salary for the 2011 season, excluding bonuses. Although only Williams has guaranteed money, productive players such as strong safety LaRon Landry, outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and inside linebacker London Fletcher are under contract. Shanahan typically does not release players who can help him win.

Changes will occur, though, because "we haven't won around here in a long time," outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "Who knows what will happen with free agency and the whole [collective bargaining negotiations], but there could be a lot of guys out there. I'm sure Coach Shanahan knows that."

Seeking quick fixes in free agency has not worked well during owner Daniel Snyder's tenure. Washington has made many high-priced mistakes, and building through the draft is the best way to do business if you have time.

Shanahan must pick up the pace after the Redskins' third straight disappointing season, albeit his first with the team. The draft is important for Washington's future, but the team created flexibility to deal with its most pressing needs immediately.

The Redskins currently have seven picks in the upcoming draft, including selections in the first and second rounds. Washington does not pick in the third or fourth rounds, has one selection in the fifth round and two each in the sixth and seventh rounds.

Combined with their financial flexibility, the Redskins would seem to possess the tools to take a big step forward next season, assuming the NFL has a 2011 season. But will Shanahan deliver?

"You looking for the future, to get it done as quickly as possible," Shanahan said. "But you're also realistic that it takes a good draft, it takes a number of free agents [and] it takes a lot of things going the right way."

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