Of the top eight salaries on the roster, it can be argued that at least six have not provided the value expected at their cost — providing a reminder of how quickly things can fall apart for an NFL team when its major investments don’t deliver.
“The guys who you have big money invested in, those guys have got to be key contributors,” former Redskins salary cap analyst J.I. Halsell said. “And when they’re not and if there’s a bunch of them, there’s a threshold where it becomes insurmountable and you just can’t navigate it.”
The reasons vary by the player. Quarterback Alex Smith, whose total contract value of $94 million is the largest of the team, missed the season as he continues to recover from a gruesome broken leg suffered in November 2018. He might never return. Another cornerstone of the offense, tight end Jordan Reed ($46.75 million), has been out the entire year because of a concussion. Star left tackle Trent Williams ($66 million) never played a game this season after holding out, saying that team doctors misdiagnosed a cancerous growth on his head and eventually being placed on the non-football injury list.
Wide receiver Paul Richardson Jr. ($40 million) has been limited by injuries, but when he has played, he has struggled to find a role in an offense that ranks last in the NFL in yards per game and has skewed more run-heavy since Bill Callahan took over as interim head coach.
“I’m playing for my future in terms of being a part of the future plans of this organization,” Richardson said this season. “. . . That vision is blurred because of the position I play. There’s only so much I can do without the ball.”
Things haven’t been much better for Washington’s big investments on the defensive side. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan ($57.5 million) has been banged up in recent weeks and saw his consecutive games streak end at 139. He is on pace for a career-low sack total, ranking as the No. 74 edge rusher in the NFL, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus.
Cornerback Josh Norman ($75 million) has been perhaps the biggest enigma, struggling early in the season (PFF ranks him as the No. 113 cornerback in the league this year) and being benched three weeks ago in favor of younger defensive backs. Norman excelled playing zone in Carolina before signing in 2016 with Washington, where he often has been used in a man-to-man coverage scheme.
All of it points to a major issue: NFL teams need their top earners to produce at high levels, and in many cases, the Redskins haven’t gotten that.
“When you’re building a team, you have finite resources,” former NFL executive and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum said. “Be it salary cap or draft choice allocation, you want to be as efficient as possible and pay the right players the appropriate amount. With that said, nobody bats a thousand. … You want to create maximum flexibility so if and when players’ contributions change either from a positive or negative standpoint, you have the ability to pivot within reason.”
Halsell said that when he was with the organization, it had a three-year plan looking at salary and roster structure, evaluating every player, contract and draft pick to formulate a vision for two to three years down the road.
“That three-year road map was dynamic. It was fluid,” said Halsell, who worked for the Redskins during the 2007 and 2008 seasons. “If we decided to move on from a veteran player, what would be the ramifications?”
Washington probably will have to confront several of those decisions this offseason. Norman is a candidate to be released. Kerrigan has been a model of consistency for the franchise, but he is 31 years old and has just one year remaining on his deal, and the team would save $11.75 million with no dead money if it released him before June 1, according to salary website Over the Cap.
Reed has two years left on his contract, but his concussion history could influence a decision for either him or the team. Williams has said he hopes the team will finally trade him this offseason.
Built into those decisions is a need to get upper-level contributions from players on cheap contracts, and the Redskins have found some success in that regard, with cornerback Quinton Dunbar and rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin as prime examples.
They also have used their poor start to their benefit by getting a good look at their young players in the second half of the season. Rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins was elevated to the starting role, and rookie wide receivers Kelvin Harmon and Steven Sims Jr. have seen extensive action alongside McLaurin. On defense, Fabian Moreau has gotten opportunities at outside cornerback, with rookie Jimmy Moreland taking over in the slot.
“A few factors are, who else is in the mix?” Tannenbaum said of deciding when to move on from high-cost players. “Who are we going to get to replace him? How much is that player going to cost? Are they in-house, or do you have to go outside of the program to get them?”
It’s difficult to predict how the Redskins will handle those major offseason roster decisions, especially because the team will be hiring a new head coach and potentially contemplating changes to its front office.
But it seems almost certain that there will be turnover near the top of the roster scale. Halsell spoke of the tipping point an NFL roster can reach when too many of its highest-paid players aren’t contributing enough value, and it appears the Redskins have crossed that threshold.
“They absolutely have,” Halsell said.