A question mark hangs over offseason deliberations at Redskins Park, where coaches and front office staff are setting priorities for free agency and April’s NFL draft. It’s the uncertainty over whether quarterback Kirk Cousins is returning and, if so, at what price and with what implications for the salary cap.
And it has complicated the process of prioritizing the team’s needs this offseason, if 2018 is to be better than last season’s 7-9 disappointment.
Having failed to strike a long-term contract with Cousins when the price would have been manageable, the Redskins used the costly stopgap tactic of barring his departure via the NFL franchise tag in back-to-back years. That, in turn, has landed the team in a financial straitjacket of its own making — like a homeowner who has rented living-room furniture for two years and now must decide, heading into Year 3, if it’s worth buying at full price. And if so, what’s left in the bank account to furnish the other rooms?
Regardless of whether Cousins stays or goes — a question that almost certainly won’t be resolved before the March 6 deadline for applying franchise tags — the rest of the Redskins’ “house” must be furnished. Figuring out how to so, given the uncertainty at their most significant position, demands two-track planning: One scenario if Cousins returns, in which bolstering the defense and adding offensive playmakers become the top priority; another scenario if Cousins departs, in which quarterback vaults ahead of all other needs.
“[Cousins’s future] is a huge piece of the puzzle right there,” said former player agent Joel Corry, an analyst for CBS Sports. “And it really does need to be resolved. Until then, you have to have both game-plans: Here’s what we do if he stays; here’s what we do if he doesn’t. You’d be foolish otherwise, because it’s two totally different things: The [salary] cap room is freed up without having Cousins there; and if you have Cousins, that limits your options.”
The only prudent option for bringing Cousins back in 2018 is negotiating a long-term contract. That appears a long shot. Redskins President Bruce Allen’s modest proposals to date have been unpersuasive, and his public blaming of Cousins in July for the failure to reach a deal last summer did little toward building a foundation of trust. Cousins, for his part, has made clear he wants to test the free agent market, noting at a January fan forum hosted by 106.7 The Fan’s Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier, that he has never had the chance to choose his NFL employer.
But should the two sides buck expectations and reach a mutually agreeable long-term deal, in which the salary cap ramification of Cousins’s contract can be spread over the life of a four- or five-year contract, the team can devote what remains under the cap to other pressing needs.
That should start with the defensive line.
Rookie Jonathan Allen, the team’s first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft, made an impact up to the point he injured his left foot, requiring surgery ultimately ended his season. But even with Allen healthy, the line needs help. Matt Ioannidis proved a valuable contributor, as did Stacy McGee. But there wasn’t enough quality depth up front to consistently rattle quarterbacks or stuff running plays.
After finishing 28th in total yards allowed in back-to-back seasons, the Redskins’ defense improved to 21st under coordinator Greg Manusky in 2017. But the unit backslid in points allowed (from 19th to 27th), surrendering 24.2 points per game, a lot for an injury-strapped offense to overcome.
If the Redskins aren’t forced to spend their first-round pick (13th overall) on a quarterback, that would free them to use it on a top defensive lineman for a second consecutive year. In doing do, they’d adhere to the philosophy former general manager Scot McCloughan ushered in of building the team in the trenches. It would also please former Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot, a firm believer in prioritizing linemen.
“That’s where it all starts: It’s about the big uglies,” Smoot said in a telephone interview. “Jonathan Allen showed he can be dominant at times; we have to have somebody else dominate.”
Smoot’s choice of defensive linemen — N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb, recipient of the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s top defender — is likely out of the Redskins’ reach at 13th. But Clemson and Alabama have schooled appealing defensive linemen, too. Free agency is also an option.
“I always had my better years when the quarterback was throwing off his back foot and making mistakes because of the big boys up front,” Smoot said. “So that’s where I spend my money.”
The Redskins also need a big-bodied, playmaking wide receiver who can separate from defenders, win contested balls and catch poorly thrown balls. As the 2017 season demonstrated, the team’s front office miscalculated the impact of losing both Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson (who combined for 2,046 receiving yards in 2016) and were overly robust in expectations for free agent Terrelle Pryor, who’s still early in the process of converting from quarterback.
Former Redskins running back Clinton Portis agrees that a playmaking wide receiver is a need — but only after the team finds an explosive running back with 4.3 speed who can make meaningful gains on first and second downs. That ought to be the Redskins’ top offseason priority, Portis believes, even if they continue developing Samaje Perine and get a healthy Chris Thompson back for third-down situations.
Pro Football Focus, whose grading system provides one outside gauge of NFL players’ productivity, attests to the Redskins’ injury-ravaged season at running back.
Of the six backs graded, only Perine, a rookie from Oklahoma, played enough snaps to earn a statistically meaningful grade (46.3 on a 100-point scale). Of the remaining five, late-season signee Kapri Bibbs earned the highest marks (62.8). In limited duty, Rob Kelley and Byron Marshall showed promise.
Yet all those priorities take a back seat to quarterback if Cousins doesn’t return.
Coach Jay Gruden has great confidence in backup Colt McCoy, who led the Redskins to an overtime victory at Dallas in 2014 – as do Redskins players. That’s largely why McCoy is signed through 2018, and why Gruden felt comfortable with just two quarterbacks on his roster last season rather than three. The downside of that decision, however, is that the team has no young quarterback in its pipeline.
If Cousins departs, the Redskins will be forced to do two things: Draft a young prospect, ideally with their first-round pick; and sign a veteran free agent to challenge for the starting job while the rookie learns Gruden’s system.
In his first mock draft of the offseason, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. on Thursday predicted the Redskins will take Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield 13th overall.
Smoot likes Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. But Mayfield would suit owner Daniel Snyder’s style, bringing Heisman Trophy buzz and credentials (for the second time in six years) to energize a dispirited fan base.
As for a veteran, the Redskins would likely pursue 33-year-old Alex Smith if he parts with Kansas City, or one of Minnesota’s triumvirate. All three Vikings quarterbacks — Case Keenum, Sam Bradford (another former Heisman winner) and Teddy Bridgewater — are pending free agents.
“It’s all a domino effect,” Corry said, “and it starts with Cousins.”
As for the question of what the Redskins should have done regarding Cousins, Corry notes, “it’s a little too late” for that.
“What they did is they created the blueprint for how not to handle a good quarterback,” said Corry, citing the modest contract offers when the marketplace dictated more. “They set the wrong tone generally the whole way around. To me, if you’re serious about keeping the guy, you’ve got to put your best foot forward to show you’re trying to mend fences. If you’re not doing that, you’re not creating any path to getting a long-term deal done.”
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