Washington’s predicament on the line is a welcome one; the team has the kind of talent up front that any franchise would be happy to have. But it’s still a challenge, because after spending first-round draft picks on defensive linemen each of the past four years, the team must start deciding which pieces to build around, and at what price.
Those decisions will start as early as this offseason, with the first of those first-rounders, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, entering the final year of his contract. Washington also has until May 3 to pick up Daron Payne’s fifth-year option, a projected $8.5 million, per overthecap.com, and the team is likely to do so. The team would seem to have time to make its remaining long-term decisions — Payne would be a free agent after 2022, and if their options are picked up, Montez Sweat after 2023 and Chase Young after 2024 — but each move is connected.
“Do you want to pay two edge rushers, or do you want to keep the interior intact?” said Joel Corry, a former agent and salary cap expert. “It all depends on what they value.”
All options remain on the table for Washington, which has a lot of salary cap space. But ultimately, it’s unlikely the team can keep all top four linemen beyond their rookie deals. This is where the money comes in. Most teams that pay a premium up front had defensive lines with salary cap charges between $48 and $54 million last season, according to Over the Cap. Some prioritized the interior (Los Angeles Rams), others the edge (Green Bay), and a few were more evenly split (Pittsburgh). But given its current personnel, it’s reasonable to expect Washington will eventually spend in that range once the linemen’s rookie contracts expire.
The question then becomes which ones the team will try to retain. Washington’s situation is tricky because its two edge rushers, the most expensive position on defense, are the last to be up for contract extensions. Sweat and Young could each cost at least $20 million per year on long-term deals. If the team were to eventually extend Sweat and Young, it probably would only be able to afford one high-level veteran interior lineman.
If the team extends Allen this offseason (not a certainty, but at 26, Allen is a productive player who has overcome injury concerns to play in all but one game over the past three seasons), its attention would turn to Payne. Washington could wait at least a year before making a decision — giving the newly revamped front office another full season to evaluate Payne, Sweat and Young. But at that point, the decision-makers could face some tough calls.
The 49ers faced a similar quandary a year ago. Last offseason, they effectively had to choose between two defensive linemen to give a long-term contract: Arik Armstead, a free agent, or DeForest Buckner, who was entering his fifth-year option. Edge rusher Nick Bosa was coming off a defensive rookie of the year season, so the team surely figured it would have to pay for a major contract extension for him in the future. The 49ers traded Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick and signed Armstead to a five-year contract worth $17 million per year.
Fortunately for Washington, it doesn’t find itself in that position quite yet.
“They shouldn’t have to make a desperation move,” said Brad Spielberger, a salary cap expert for Pro Football Focus. “They’re still healthy cap-wise, and they have time.”
Spielberger believes Washington should pay Young and Sweat because not only are they talented, but Washington is deeper on the interior. He noted that picking one of Payne or Allen and starting him alongside Tim Settle or Matt Ioannidis would be an affordable option that keeps Washington strong up the middle. Settle and Ioannidis are two of the league’s better reserves, although Ioannidis suffered a season-ending biceps injury in Week 3 last season.
Washington has the option of waiting until next offseason to completely sort out its puzzle along the line. This offseason, though, the focus is on Allen. Washington could prioritize him over Payne, and if it makes a serious effort to re-sign him, the future is up to him. He could take less money for a longer deal and solidify himself as an anchor, or he could bet on himself and hope to cash in with Washington or in free agency. He is, for now, the one to watch.