“Washington has cornered the market on overpaying [players] and guys underperforming their contracts, and everyone in the league knows it,” a former NFL coach said a couple of years ago, recounting the perceptions held in his teams’ front offices. “Agents will never tell you this, but when they have a free agent client who they want to get paid, the first team they call is Washington.”
But a lot has changed in a short time. The impulsiveness that ruled the franchise was gone when Washington entered free agency Monday morning with roughly $38 million of salary cap space to spend. This time, the approach was aggressive but also targeted, methodical and refined.
There were no crazed, $100 million long shots, no haphazard grabs at big names with no plan for how those names would fit a team. The first days of Ron Rivera’s second free agency as Washington’s coach came with a plan, and the plan actually made the team better.
Needing a quarterback, wide receiver and cornerback, Rivera and new front-office executives Marty Hurney and Martin Mayhew came out with a solid one-year quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick, an excellent cover cornerback in William Jackson III and a versatile, explosive receiver in Curtis Samuel — all on reasonable contracts that work well with the team’s future cap. So efficient were the deals that Washington still has room to add depth and pay this spring’s draft picks.
On Wednesday night, after Samuel agreed to a three-year contract worth up to $35.5 million, former Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns president Joe Banner tweeted: “Putting [Washington] on short list of teams being smart so far. Long time since we could say that.” A lot of team executives must be saying the same thing.
There are two kinds of winning in free agency: the kind where a team signs the biggest name for the most money, owning the chatter for the following few days, and the kind where a team carefully adds necessary players while leaving cap space to build essential depth. After years of racing to get the Albert Haynesworths at free agency’s dawn, Washington waited for the players it needed and spent wisely, landing Samuel and Jackson in their 20s, with their careers on the rise, as opposed to their 30s, when they are older and no longer in their athletic prime.
Never was that more clear than in its pursuit of Samuel. Wide receiver has been a particular fascination of this franchise in the past two decades. Coaches and executives have long complained about Snyder’s yearning for star receivers, wasting years with foolish free agent signings and first-round picks that rarely led to postseason games. But by the end of last season, it was painfully clear that Washington needed a top receiver to match with its best offensive player, Terry McLaurin.
Samuel was always the perfect fit, having already played for Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner with Carolina. He is fast, with the rare ability to not only beat the defense deep but also cut across the middle of the field and make plays as a ballcarrier after handoffs. He is also a close friend of McLaurin’s, a teammate at Ohio State. Almost to prove how much this team needed him, he tore it apart with 158 total yards in a 20-13 Panthers victory in December at FedEx Field.
He is exactly the kind of player the team would crave so much that it would race to sign him in free agency’s first minutes, regardless of what it cost to get him at that moment. But this time, Washington waited.
Rivera has preached a careful rebuild, something Hurney did when they worked together with the Panthers. With a lower salary cap this year and a promising group of wide receivers in next month’s draft, most of the top wideouts in free agency went unsigned as the negotiation window opened. When the New York Jets agreed to sign Tennessee’s Corey Davis for a reported three years and $37.5 million, the temptation must have been there for Washington to rush to get a deal done with Samuel — who was also being pursued by the Las Vegas Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
Rivera, Hurney and Mayhew didn’t jump. Instead, they signed Fitzpatrick and Jackson, refusing to overspend for the playmaker they badly wanted. They held on until the other receivers realized they weren’t getting the same money as Davis, and Samuel agreed to come for the expected average of $11 million per year.
By being patient, Washington can slowly add depth to its roster, something it didn’t have before last season, when former vice president of player personnel Kyle Smith worked with Rivera to bring in several inexpensive free agents who helped the team win the NFC East.
It’s a different kind of winning for a team that used to own the free agency news cycle. With a quarterback who can be a solid one-year bridge to the franchise’s next, as well as ascending players in Samuel and Jackson who are upgrades at premium positions, Washington already was better three days into free agency than it was when it began.