The Washington Football Team is riding the surprise success of last year into a crucial free agency period for Coach Ron Rivera’s rebuild. A year ago, Washington largely sat back and identified some lower-risk gambles because Rivera was evaluating the roster. But now, in an unusual year of free agency, the team might look to make bigger bets to acquire the talent it will need to push deeper into the playoffs.

The uncertainty of the salary cap and instability at key positions promise to make this a challenging task for Rivera and his remade front office. Here is an analysis of the team’s salary cap situation and a look at in-house free agents, positions of need and potential outside targets.

Salary cap

Based on a $180.5 million salary cap projection, Washington will have $54.2 million in space, fourth most in the NFL, according to Over the Cap. Releasing quarterback Alex Smith added $14.9 million. Good cap position is particularly important this year because the final cap number remains uncertain because of revenue lost during the coronavirus pandemic and pending television rights deals.

The cap is expected to settle near $180 million, down from $198.2 million the year before. As a result, many teams are expected to release talented veterans, and there could be fewer teams able to offer big contracts to free agents — potentially creating more opportunities for teams in Washington’s position.

Team
Cap space (millions)
Jacksonville
$84.6
New York Jets
$77.1
New England
$66.5
Washington
$54.2
Indianapolis
$44.7

Washington’s free agents

Notable free agents: QB Alex Smith, G Brandon Scherff, DE Ryan Kerrigan, DT Ryan Anderson, QB Kyle Allen, CB Ronald Darby, T David Sharpe, WR Cam Sims, K Dustin Hopkins, LS Nick Sundberg

Washington preempted free agency by releasing Smith but has yet to finalize the futures of its 18 other free agents, 14 of whom will be unrestricted this month.

It placed a second non-exclusive tag on Scherff to keep him in the fold for at least 2021, but the hope is to re-sign him to a long-term deal, which could lower his cap charge. The tag is worth $18.04 million, and the sides have until July 15 to reach a new deal or have Scherff play on the tag.

Washington is interested in retaining Darby, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Darby joined the team on a one-year prove-it deal in 2020 and could be looking at a significant pay increase to $9 million or $10 million a year.

Sharpe is possibly another candidate to return, given Washington’s lack of depth at the tackle position, and Sims may be tendered as a restricted free agent. If he signs an offer sheet elsewhere, Washington could match it or let him walk for draft capital. A second-round tender is projected to cost $3.38 million and right of first refusal only roughly $2.1 million, per Over the Cap.

Allen is the team’s only exclusive rights free agent, so he is expected to be back on a one-year deal with an $850,000 salary, unless the team opts to re-sign him to a longer contract as it did with Taylor Heinicke.

Kerrigan and Anderson probably will be in new uniforms next season, and Washington doesn’t have any other obvious “cap casualty” candidates now that Smith has been released. Jon Bostic could be in the mix if Washington looks to remake its linebacker corps, but his 2021 salary cap charge is just $3.57 million.

Free agent targets

Quarterback

Quarterback: Washington’s central roster question is still quarterback — as it has been for most of the past two decades. The free agent options are limited. Washington has four main options in free agency, but none are ideal or long-term solutions.

Washington could bet on Jameis Winston, the most talented player available, and hope he refined his game during a year in New Orleans. Or it could sign a stopgap veteran such as Ryan Fitzpatrick or Tyrod Taylor. Or it could sign Cam Newton and hope his regression in New England is reversible. Or it could gamble on a displaced starter such as Mitchell Trubisky or Jacoby Brissett.

Marcus Mariota, 27, could soon become a free agent. The Las Vegas backup reportedly has been unwilling to restructure his contract to help in a trade. Washington could give Mariota a chance to become the next Ryan Tannehill, a talented passer who excelled after restarting his career in a new situation.

Wide receiver

Giving Terry McLaurin and the rest of the offense some help is paramount to Washington’s rebuild. The good news is it figures to have plenty of top-tier options in free agency, with Allen Robinson II, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay and JuJu Smith-Schuster leading the list. The not-so-good news is they’ll be pricey.

Curtis Samuel would be a slightly less expensive upgrade. Washington covets players with versatility and position flexibility, and Samuel (851 receiving and 200 rushing yards last season for Carolina) fits the mold while providing great speed.

Corey Davis is coming off his best season with Tennessee, which declined his fifth-year contract option last offseason. Davis had 984 receiving yards in 14 games and boasted one of the league’s lowest drop ratings per Pro Football Focus, which projects his value at $16.25 million per year.

Tight end

Logan Thomas broke out and played like a true No. 1 last year, but he also was on the field for 93 percent of the team’s snaps. That is a difficult standard for any skill position player to maintain — and Thomas will turn 30 in July. Washington could also lose No. 2 tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, primarily a blocker, in free agency.

Thomas’s emergence means Washington doesn’t have to spend big on the top tier of free agents (Hunter Henry, Gerald Everett, Jonnu Smith). The team could complement Thomas with an inexpensive, versatile veteran (Tyler Eifert, Josh Hill) or a younger, mid-tier player (Mo Alie-Cox, Jacob Hollister).

Offensive line

If Scherff signs the franchise tag, Washington is in line to have the right side of its line intact for at least another year. But the left side is less clear, particularly at tackle.

Taylor Moton, who was drafted in the second round by the Panthers when Rivera was their coach and Marty Hurney was their general manager, knows the system and is dependable but is also expected to receive the franchise tag from Carolina. Washington could add a mid-tier veteran tackle, such as Pittsburgh’s Alejandro Villanueva, on a short-term deal or look to his former teammate Matt Feiler, who played both tackle and guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers. For depth, former Denver Broncos tackle Elijah Wilkinson is another player who makes sense for his versatility.

Linebacker

Rivera often was critical of his linebackers last season. Two starters — Bostic and Cole Holcomb — are set to return, but Bostic turns 30 in May and could be released. The team figures to look for linebackers who excel in coverage, because opponents often attacked the unit through the passing game last season.

The top coverage linebackers on the market are Matt Milano and Jayon Brown. Milano excelled in Buffalo under former Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and is seen as having a higher upside than Brown. Over the Cap projects each would cost about $10 million per year over three or four years.

Defensive backs

Washington needs a true free safety and a reliable slot cornerback — an unofficial starting role because defenses play primarily in subpackages. Late-round gem Kam Curl thrived in relief of Landon Collins (Achilles’ tendon tear) last year, but Collins’s contract appears too unwieldy to even consider moving. Deshazor Everett, who was promoted in place of Troy Apke at free safety last year, has two years left on his deal but no guaranteed money. And he, too, is coming off an injury, a torn pectoral.

Washington could splurge to try to get Marcus Williams or Anthony Harris, but consider that Kendall Fuller and Collins account for more than $30 million in salary cap space in 2021.

According to a person with knowledge of the situation, the team is expected to show interest in safety Tre Boston, a 28-year-old who reportedly will be cut by Carolina and has the flexibility to play in the box and at free safety. The cornerback market is thin, but Troy Hill and Desmond King II offer intrigue in the slot.