After years of failed offseason roster overhauls based on pricey free agent talent, the Washington Redskins made a few calculated moves in 2005, and through six games those transactions seem to have been a success.
Santana Moss, acquired from the New York Jets for wide receiver Laveranues Coles, is the leading receiver in the NFL, while free agent David Patten has become a solid complementary receiver. Free agent center Casey Rabach has been a stabilizing force in the interior of the offensive line. Warrick Holdman, signed for the veteran minimum salary, has started every game at weak-side linebacker. Rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers, the ninth pick in April's draft, has filled in admirably when required to start, as has reserve safety Pierson Prioleau, who was signed to a veteran-minimum deal.
The offense has made dramatic strides, led by Moss and 35-year-old quarterback Mark Brunell, who some organizations might have released after a dismal 2004. The defense, already one of the best in the league, hasn't seemed to feel the loss of high-priced free agent linebacker Antonio Pierce and cornerback Fred Smoot, who were allowed to sign elsewhere. The Redskins filled those spots with modestly compensated free agents and youngsters. Washington's newcomers are of particular concern to the New York Giants, who host the Redskins tomorrow in a critical divisional game.
"As I look at their record and how well they've played," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said, "those players are certainly making strong contributions, and they're certainly playing well."
Coach Joe Gibbs's first offseason was hectic: He reshaped the roster on both sides of the ball and brought in key players such as Brunell, running back Clinton Portis and defensive linchpins Marcus Washington, Cornelius Griffin, Shawn Springs, Phillip Daniels, Walt Harris and Joe Salave'a. The 2005 additions were tailored more to specific needs and far less expensive; only 13 of 53 players on the roster are new this season, including four little-used rookies.
"The free agency thing has been excellent for us," said Gibbs, whose initial tenure as coach of the Redskins ended before free agency. "Two years ago we thought we had a great class. Some of those guys are just stalwarts for us, and we think they're going to be people who stay here and play here for a long time. This year, we were more selective for a number of reasons. We went after fewer people, but the ones that we got I was really pleased with."
Some point out that the Redskins' massive spending in 2004, coupled with Coles's $9 million salary cap hit and the cost of re-signing some veterans, left the team unable to splurge in 2005, but regardless, the team did well as it addressed specific needs.
"I think you have to give a lot of the credit to Joe," one NFL general manager said. "He knew what he needed and they went out and got it done. They swallowed hard on Coles and got a speed guy [Moss] and they're really using him. I think he caught 10 balls the other week. That's the thing about Joe, he's always been able to get the most out of his guys.
"And on defense, the linebacker [Holdman] is athletic and the safety [Prioleau] is really just a guy, but they played for those coaches before and they know the system and they seem to know what they're supposed to do. I think those moves came right from the coaching staff, and those are players they were already comfortable with."
Moss has provided the most striking results. He has revived a moribund long passing game with a league-leading 743 receiving yards and five touchdowns. But before shuffling their wide receivers, the Redskins targeted the offensive line. Left tackle Chris Samuels was signed to a seven-year, $46 million contract extension containing the largest bonus in franchise history ($15.75 million), and he has responded with a sterling start. Rabach was Washington's initial focus the moment the free agent signing period began in March, quickly signing a five-year, $13.5 million deal.
"It's a lot of fun to have Casey here," left guard Derrick Dockery said. "We enjoy him, just his presence and his personality, and he's a great player, too."
The biggest questions surrounding Washington's defense -- which ranked third overall in 2004 and currently stands fourth -- was how it would compensate for the loss of Smoot and Pierce. But Harris has recovered from career-threatening knee surgery, and Rogers has filled in admirably. The Vikings, meanwhile, are reeling in the wake of a sex scandal in which Smoot has been implicated, and their defense ranks 24th. Outside linebacker Lemar Marshall, an undrafted free agent, shifted to the middle to replace Pierce, with Holdman replacing Marshall on the weak side; Pierce's Giants, meantime, have the NFL's second-worst defense thus far.
"I thought [Pierce] was an outstanding part of their team," Coughlin said. "He was a central cog in their defense, and their defense is playing extremely well again, so obviously they've done an outstanding job without him."
With injuries ravaging the secondary, Prioleau has played more than some expected, and contributed on defense and special teams. All of the newcomers have blended in the locker room as well.
"Now in the days of free agency you've got to be able to bring in the right guys that fit in the locker room," Springs said. "You've got to give a compliment to our scouting department, because it seems like all the guys are a good fit. Bringing in me, Cornelius and Marcus and Phillip in one year on defense, that was kind of cool; we didn't know each other and it all kind of jelled. And they've kept on getting the right kind of guys with the right attitude."