The team targeted a splash signing — reportedly offering more than $100 million to wide receiver Amari Cooper — but Cooper chose to stay with the Dallas Cowboys, and the Redskins returned to laying bricks.
Last month at the NFL scouting combine, one agent who regularly deals with the Redskins guessed they would be “disciplined” in free agency, that “right or wrong, they’ll stick to their plan.”
“You won’t see them being all over the board like you’ve seen at times in the past,” he added. “They might not turn it around right away, but at least you’ll see them building toward something in a way that makes sense.”
These early moves — and how they all fit together — are that first step. This is how the players fit the team’s plans.
Start with Kendall Fuller. He is Rivera’s most significant signing and a core piece of the rebuild moving forward. The 25-year-old fits into the defense as one of the NFL’s better slot cornerbacks, with the skill set and smarts to play outside cornerback and free safety if injuries or schemes dictate. In the Super Bowl, the Kansas City Chiefs sometimes pushed Fuller to safety against the San Francisco 49ers — a strategy the Redskins could spring on opponents in part because of Sean Davis.
The Redskins signed Davis, a Maryland alum, to further boost their versatility in the defensive backfield. He’s a natural free safety with range — enough to let strong safety Landon Collins play to his strengths and creep closer to the line of scrimmage — but he also has played strong safety and slot cornerback. Fuller probably will play mostly slot cornerback and Davis mostly free safety (potentially competing for the starting job), but their familiarity with each other’s positions would allow the Redskins to swap them if they want a certain wrinkle or matchup.
The Redskins are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive scheme — four linemen, three linebackers — because, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said, the team wants its edge rushers, such as Montez Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan (and maybe Ohio State star Chase Young, a candidate for Washington with the second draft pick), to rush more and cover less.
The Redskins probably will play mostly nickel coverage, with a slot cornerback and two linebackers, but one weakness the 4-3 exposes is the Redskins’ linebackers in coverage. The scheme has three linebacker roles: middle; strong side, lined up on the side with more offensive players (usually the tight end); and weak side, lined up on the side with fewer offensive players. It’s important for the strong-side linebacker to excel in coverage, especially against tight ends.
The Redskins re-signed Jon Bostic, who probably will stay at middle linebacker, and added Thomas Davis, who profiles as a weak-side linebacker. Davis is solid in coverage, but he is 37 and tight ends have shown they can outrun him up the seam. That means Cole Holcomb projects as the strong-side linebacker, though he was inconsistent in coverage last season.
The Redskins have other linebackers — Shaun Dion Hamilton, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Kevin Pierre-Louis and Reuben Foster — but none stands out more than Holcomb as a coverage option. Newly signed Pierre-Louis probably will remain the special teams ace he has been for the first six seasons of his career. The re-signed Nate Orchard, who played weak-side linebacker last year in the 3-4, probably will bump to the defensive line for pass-rush depth.
Davis and Bostic, despite age and struggles in coverage, are still smart and physical linebackers. Those two moves, as much as anything else, seem to be about Rivera’s continued installation of the culture he covets.
Rivera’s additions on offense seem to echo the signing of Pierre-Louis. There’s not a definitive starter among them — tight end Logan Thomas, guard Wes Schweitzer, tackle Cornelius Lucas, running back J.D. McKissic — but they all possess traits to fill important roles.
In Schweitzer, the Redskins have competition for Wes Martin at left guard. Schweitzer is a cheaper and more nimble alternative to previous left guard Ereck Flowers. Schweitzer — 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds — excelled in the Atlanta Falcons’ zone-blocking system, and if he doesn’t beat out Martin, he could be a capable backup.
Down the line, Lucas projects as a swing tackle regardless of what happens with left tackle Trent Williams. The six-year veteran has versatility and experience — he started eight games for the Chicago Bears last season — but doesn’t seem to be a full-time starter.
McKissic’s skill set gives the Redskins the do-it-all running back they needed on third down. The Redskins’ top ballcarriers — Adrian Peterson, Derrius Guice and Bryce Love — are downhill runners with limited receiving experience, and Guice and Love are returning from significant injuries. The Redskins had a player like McKissic in Chris Thompson, but injury troubles derailed his promising career, and the Redskins have moved on.
In McKissic, Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner have a backfield pass-catching threat reminiscent of Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey. McKissic has not produced at anywhere near the same level as McCaffrey, but he played mostly wide receiver at Arkansas State and has flashed his ability to be a difficult matchup for opposing linebackers and safeties. The 26-year-old is also viewed as a good blocker in pass protection.
Thomas, a former Virginia Tech quarterback, isn’t a game-changing modern NFL tight end, but at 6-6 with good hands and room to grow (this will be only his fourth year at the position), he might be a good fit as Washington’s No. 2 tight end and could develop into a consistent red-zone target. The Redskins don’t yet have a starter to replace Jordan Reed.
Read more on the Washington Redskins: