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Five players the Redskins should target in free agency

Running back James Starks had a career-best 601 rushing yards last season with the Packers. (Elsa/Getty Images)

The Redskins will surely address some defensive needs at the NFL draft, which starts April 28, but first they must find modest-priced veterans to fill several gaps when free agency begins March 9. General manager Scot McCloughan often looks for inexpensive players in their late 20s who have some upside. He’ll probably sign only three or four notable players — mostly on the defense — but a veteran running back and center wouldn’t hurt, either. Here are five pending free agents the Redskins should consider.

Ben Jones, Texans center

This would be a classic McCloughan signing — a young, big lineman with plenty of potential. While center isn’t a top priority, the Redskins wouldn’t mind getting bigger and younger than incumbent Kory Lichtensteiger. Jones, 26, is 12 pounds heavier (308) and four years younger than Lichtensteiger. More importantly, he played both guard positions before returning to center last season, which would give the Redskins options. Jones wouldn’t have a hard time changing teams, given that he played with four quarterbacks last year with Houston. The former Georgia center is known for walking the field barefoot during pregame warmups.

Ian Williams, 49ers nose tackle

If the Redskins don’t re-sign nose tackle Terrance Knighton, Williams would be a solid Plan B — even though he weighs at least 50 pounds less than “Pot Roast.” Williams, 26, played the run well for the 49ers last season and would be a quicker and more durable playmaker at 305 pounds. An improved inside pass rush would demand more attention from opposing offensive lines and give the Redskins’ outside rushers less traffic. Williams would also be more salary cap-friendly than Knighton, who cost $4 million last season, though San Francisco may overpay to try to keep the nose tackle.

Andre Branch, Jaguars defensive end

The Redskins may wait for the draft to go after a defensive end since this year’s class is deep in that position. Still, injuries to the Redskins’ line last year showed how essential depth is. The former Clemson pass rusher wilted in the Jaguars’ 4-3 system. The chance to play in a 3-4 like he did in his senior year in college, when he recorded 10½ sacks, would be attractive. Branch was a better run stopper than pass rusher in Jacksonville because of the ill-fitted scheme. That’s fine because Washington needs a better run defense, too. Branch, 26, would provide balance with the Redskins.

James Starks, Packers running back

If there’s an exception to McCloughan’s policy of not signing free agents 30 or older, it could be the Packers running back. Starks, 30, is a career backup with only 555 carries in six seasons. He comes off a career-best 601 rushing yards and, even more importantly, had 43 catches last year. The Redskins would love to have a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield. The starting job is still Matt Jones’ to lose, but Starks teamed well with Eddie Lacy in Green Bay. While Chicago running back Matt Forte is also an option, Starks might have more upside because he has less wear on his body than Forte.

Zach Brown, Titans linebacker

The former 2012 second-round pick started for two years before suffering a season-ending pectoral muscle tear four snaps into the 2014 opener. He lost his starting job after five games last season and played little at the end of the year. So why take him? Brown, 26, still has potential and experience, and he has more coverage speed in the middle than the Redskins possessed last season. Washington will scramble to find middle linebackers and Brown could be an inexpensive stopgap solution for a couple seasons. Brown could also be a classic example of a player who benefits from a change of scenery.

Read more columns from Rick Snider:

For the Redskins, interviews will be more important than times at the NFL combine

Placing the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins may not be such a bad idea

Broncos provide a blueprint for the Redskins to follow

For Redskins GM Scot McCloughan, the draft is still his key building tool