When Alex Smith signed a $94 million deal with the Redskins last offseason, the contract was pricey but not unreasonable for an established starter coming off a career year and a team facing a transitional moment after parting ways with Kirk Cousins.
That deal, however, has left the team in a tight position after Smith suffered a gruesome broken leg in November, then developed an infection that further delayed his recovery. The team has declined to give a timeline on Smith’s return, though he is expected to miss all of the 2019 season, and perhaps more.
Now Washington must try to improve its roster, including the quarterback position, while taking a $20.4 million cap hit from Smith’s deal. The Redskins’ cap space is projected to be $17.72 million, according to OverTheCap.com, which would rank just 24th in the 32-team league. . The Colts, by comparison, have the most cap space in the NFL: $109.07 million.
The Redskins have plenty of decisions to make as they determine which free agents to pursue and try to build a roster capable of a playoff run after making just one appearance in the past six seasons. There are also significant needs at safety, guard and receiver.
“The biggest story line for them in the offseason is going to be Alex Smith,” former Redskins salary cap analyst J.I. Halsell said. “How do they navigate his cap number given the fact that there’s a strong likelihood he won’t be available in 2019 and 2020 is questionable at best?”
What the team decides to do at quarterback will have a ripple effect on every other decision. The team could pursue a veteran to compete with Colt McCoy — who also suffered a broken leg this past season — for the starting job. Teddy Bridgewater, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyrod Taylor, among others, likely will be unrestricted free agents for whom the Redskins would have to make cap room. Nick Foles would be a pricier option. Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State), Will Grier (West Virginia), Daniel Jones (Duke), Drew Lock (Missouri) and Heisman winner Kyler Murray (Oklahoma) are all signal callers thought to be early-round draft prospects.
“You have to take the premise that [Smith’s] not going to play again,” said Charley Casserly, NFL Network analyst and former Redskins general manager. “If he plays again, that’s a boost. … [Foles and Bridgewater], they’re all going to be a lot of money. So that may not be what you feel you can do with your football team at this point in time.
“Unless you can get a young guy, you’ve got to go with Colt or maybe try some other guy in there. It’s not a perfect situation.”
The team seems interested in bringing back Josh Johnson, who started the last three games last season after McCoy was injured and the Mark Sanchez experiment failed, but he probably isn’t the solution. Coach Jay Gruden and others in the organization are staunch supporters of McCoy, but he has been injury-prone and has yet to prove himself a worthy 16-game starter.
President Bruce Allen said at the Senior Bowl that team still had time to make a decision.
“Obviously we like Colt a lot. That’s why we signed him last year,” Allen said. “You have to appreciate these injuries from a player’s perspective. Their dream is to get on the field. Alex felt bad for Colt’s unfortunate injury. Colt’s going to be ready to go at the beginning of the offseason program. I’m sure he’s looking forward to competing for the starting job.”
The front office has a multitude of options to find cap space in existing contracts but several players seem most likely to have their deals altered.
The most logical starting point is an extension for Brandon Scherff. The Pro Bowl guard is coming off a season-ending torn pectoral muscle, but is generally considered a play-through-injuries tough guy with just two missed games in three seasons before 2018. He is slated to make $12.525 million in the final year of his rookie deal and to count that much against the cap. An extension would knock that number down and lock up one of the better guards in the league before he hits free agency.
Linebacker Zach Brown could be released after being benched late in 2018, and admitted at the end of the season that he was unsure of his future in Washington. The team would have $3 million in dead cap money and $5.75 million in 2019 cap savings if Brown is released before June 1. After June 1, the savings would be $7.25 million with $1.5 million in dead cap money in both 2019 and 2020. Shaun Dion Hamilton, a rookie in 2018, replaced Brown down the stretch and Reuben Foster could be a factor as well. The 2017 first-round pick is being investigated by the league for a possible violation of the personal conduct policy due to a domestic violence arrest.
Both pass-catching tight ends, Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis, also could provide savings. The oft-injured Reed was a 2016 Pro Bowler, but managed just 54 catches and two touchdowns last season. He has three seasons left on a five-year, $46.75 million deal, but the team would save $6.074 million in 2019 with $3.6 million in dead cap space if he were released before June 1.
Davis’s deal represents $4.968 million in cap savings in 2019 against $1.333 in dead cap money if he’s released before June 1.
Cornerback Josh Norman seems safe at a thin position, but he is the highest-paid corner in the NFL. He’ll currently cost $14.5 million against the cap, but the team would have $6 million in dead cap with $8.5 million in savings if he were released before June 1. Norman struggled at times last season, but remains the top cornerback on the roster.
The Redskins also have to decide where to allocate money to their own free agents. Linebacker Preston Smith, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and receiver Jamison Crowder are considered the top three Redskins set to be unrestricted free agents.
The Redskins have options to solve their cap problem, but whatever they decide must begin at quarterback.
“You probably need to address (quarterback) in the draft regardless,” Halsell said. “There is no young quarterback on this team that you’re developing that you’re hoping can be the successor, hoping can be the answer . . . Given all the other things [Scherff, Brown, Reed or Davis], if you do that, then you probably create enough space to pursue a Teddy Bridgewater or pursue a Ryan Fitzpatrick.
“I think they can afford one of those types of guys.”