Washington should be in a strong position for free agency. The website Over the Cap projects the team will have about $52 million in salary cap space, fourth-most in the NFL, once it officially releases quarterback Alex Smith. Some teams view free agency as inefficient — the competition for a limited number of high-caliber players often forces teams to overpay — but there could be hidden value this year. Because the salary cap is lower as a result of the NFL’s revenue losses during the pandemic, teams may have to shed salaries of more quality veteran players than usual.
The legal negotiating period for unrestricted free agents begins March 15, and deals can become official March 17 at 4 p.m., the start of the new league year. Here are notable players Washington could target.
It seems increasingly unlikely that Dallas’s Dak Prescott will hit the open market, so Washington must turn its search to the next tier of quarterbacks. That includes Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameis Winston, Cam Newton and Jacoby Brissett. None of them are expected to cost more than $12 million or so per year, though — much less than the roughly $39 million average Prescott is expected to command. Washington also could choose to stay out of the free agent quarterback market and instead pursue a veteran via trade or wait until the draft.
Either way, Washington is a strong candidate to pursue a high-priced wide receiver. The team pushed hard for Amari Cooper last year before he re-signed with the Cowboys, and during the season, Rivera said the team needed more from the position. Chicago’s Allen Robinson, Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin, Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster and Detroit’s Kenny Golladay are top talents capable of complementing Terry McLaurin, if they aren’t franchise-tagged or re-signed by their current teams. But none of them would come cheap. Over the Cap’s Jason Fitzgerald estimated each would cost between $17 million and $20 million per year.
Washington could pursue premium options at other need positions, such as tight end (the Los Angeles Chargers’ Hunter Henry, Tennessee’s Jonnu Smith), cornerback (Seattle’s Shaquill Griffin, Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, Cincinnati’s William Jackson III) and linebacker (Buffalo’s Matt Milano, Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David, Tennessee’s Jayon Brown).
This is the range in which Washington shopped during most of last year’s free agency period. The team found some high-value returns, including tight end Logan Thomas and running back J.D. McKissic, but also missed on a few players, including linebacker Thomas Davis and safety Sean Davis.
Washington probably won’t look here for a quarterback because its two current options, Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke, are in this tier. But Washington could find good value at wide receiver, cornerback and linebacker because of the volume of players available. There are a few wideouts, including Las Vegas’s Nelson Agholor and the Los Angeles Rams’ Josh Reynolds, and a few cornerbacks, including the Chargers’ Michael Davis and Tennessee’s Desmond King, who could bring the speed the front office is looking for. King also could help shore up the slot corner position, which Washington wanted to improve last season.
There should be plenty of linebackers available at a bargain rate of around $6 million per year. Two potentially affordable linebackers who are known for being solid in coverage — which is a need for Washington — include Seattle veteran K.J. Wright and Indianapolis’s Anthony Walker.
Washington is also not set at left tackle. If the team doesn’t trust Cornelius Lucas or Geron Christian to sustain their levels of production from last season, it could pay Carolina’s Russell Okung or Pittsburgh’s Alejandro Villanueva on short-term deals to step in.
Two other players who could make sense are Carolina wide receiver Curtis Samuel and Los Angeles Rams tight end Gerald Everett. They are both fast for their position and have the type of versatility Rivera values. Samuel played for Rivera in Carolina and is a good fit for offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s system, and Everett could complement Thomas as a pass-catching weapon, as he has with Tyler Higbee in Los Angeles. Neither would be cheap, but neither is expected to command salaries at the top of the market, either.
Washington’s in-house list probably starts with Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Scherff. The team wants to strike a long-term deal with the 29-year-old, but the franchise tag remains an option, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. Scherff could reset the guard market and re-sign for about $15 million per year.
Two defensive ends, Ryan Kerrigan and Ryan Anderson, are likely to depart, so the team’s next question mark is cornerback Ronald Darby. The 27-year-old started all 16 games and helped stabilize the outside for Washington’s pass coverage after the team signed him on a one-year flier. There’s “mutual interest” in a reunion, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
The last free agent starter is kicker Dustin Hopkins. He’s one of the team’s longest-tenured players, but last season he made 86.4 percent of his kicks, tied for the lowest mark of his career, and ranked 25th of 33 qualified kickers. Washington could, if it wants to move on, pursue Chicago’s Cairo Santos or Las Vegas’s Daniel Carlson, who were among the league’s best last season.
Other notable depth free agents — linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, cornerback Fabian Moreau, tight end Jeremy Sprinkle and right tackle David Sharpe — could be back for the right price. Linebacker Reuben Foster, a former first-round pick who missed the past two seasons, could return if the team believes he can regain the speed and mobility he lost with a devastating knee injury in 2019.
Nicki Jhabvala contributed to this report.