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Caught in quarterback limbo, Commanders focus on other positions to fortify roster

Washington Commanders General Manager Martin Mayhew speaks to reporters during a news conference at the NFL football scouting combine Wednesday. (Michael Conroy/AP)
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INDIANAPOLIS — While the Washington Commanders wait for the quarterback dominoes to fall, the team’s front office is using the NFL scouting combine to lay groundwork for moves at other positions.

General Manager Martin Mayhew said Wednesday that the team has met or would meet with the agents of three impending free agents: running back J.D. McKissic, safety Bobby McCain and wide receiver Cam Sims. Mayhew said the team also would meet with the agents of players still under contract — including safety Landon Collins and wide receiver Terry McLaurin — but the most pressing are with those with clients set to hit the market when free agency officially opens March 16.

Washington hasn’t made contract offers to McKissic, McCain and others, Mayhew said, because it is waiting for the quarterback market to take shape. Washington has the ninth-most salary cap space in the league at $31.9 million, according to OverTheCap.com, but how it would use that space would drastically differ if it traded for a star veteran or signed a mid-tier free agent.

“When the negotiation period begins [March 14], [free agents will] have the opportunity to go out and talk to other teams, and we want them to keep us informed as to where they are contractually and what kind of offers they’re looking at,” Mayhew said. “That’s what our purpose here is, to express that we want those guys back.”

For now, the NFL’s entire quarterback market appears stuck in limbo, with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers undecided on his future and Houston’s Deshaun Watson still mired in lawsuits. There may be movement in the next two weeks — Rodgers is expected to make his decision soon, and teams will want to know their budgets when free agency opens — and Mayhew said Washington has developed several plans it can implement for downstream roster moves depending on which quarterback it acquires, if any.

Draft a quarterback? Trade for a veteran? Ron Rivera is not ruling anything out.

In the meantime, the franchise’s brain trust, including Mayhew and Coach Ron Rivera, will try to refine the margins of the roster. The Commanders are planning to exercise the fifth-year contract option of defensive end Montez Sweat, according to multiple people familiar with the situation. The salary, projected to be around $10.5 million for 2023, will be fully guaranteed immediately once exercised.

The only potential free agent the team locked up after the season was left tackle Charles Leno, Jr., who signed a three-year, $37.5 million extension. Mayhew was asked what differentiated Leno from the others who went unsigned.

“Well, we talked to a lot of people at the end of the season,” Mayhew said. “There were multiple guys we talked to about extending, and Charles was the one we were able to get done. And so we did it.”

One of the most difficult decisions may be with Collins, who played well in a smaller role last season but has cap charges of $16 million, $17.2 million and $15.2 million over the next three seasons.

When asked whether Collins could return on his current contract, Mayhew said, “Time will tell.”

“There are a number of players who are under contract right now that may be looked at, that may need to renegotiate those,” he added. “I'm not even saying Landon is one of those. But those situations are all individual situations.”

J.D. McKissic waited years for his chance, then ran with it in Washington

Conversely, Washington will have to prepare to give McLaurin a lot more money. The 2019 third-round pick from Ohio State has been one of the league’s best bargains over the past three years; he has posted 222 catches, 3,090 yards and 16 touchdowns while earning $2.8 million total. Mayhew said the team plans to meet with McLaurin’s agent, Buddy Baker, and the sides will convene Friday, according to a person familiar with the plans.

Baker also represents wide receiver DeAndre Carter, who is also set to hit the free agent market this month.

Mayhew was asked whether Washington might want to sign McLaurin sooner rather than later because the 2019 draft class is full of star wide receivers — Tennessee’s A.J. Brown, Seattle’s DK Metcalf and San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel among them — who may drive one another’s value higher and higher with each subsequent contract.

“I don’t want to get into all that,” Mayhew said. “But like I said, Terry’s been great; we love having him; he’s been kind of a face-of-the-program type of guy for us. He’s very good out in the community and a good teammate and leader for us. And he made a ton of plays for us. So he’s important to us.”

There seemed to be little optimism about re-signing all-pro right guard Brandon Scherff, who was franchise-tagged twice and has long seemed destined for free agency. At a news conference in January, Mayhew said that, before the 2021 season, the team offered to make Scherff the highest-paid guard in NFL history. But on Wednesday, Mayhew said his comments might have “crossed a line” by negotiating through the media.

“I felt like, in that situation, that needed to be said because what I sensed was, from the media, the fans and things that I was reading, was that we weren't doing enough to try to get that deal done,” he said. “And that's why I made the comment that I made. But I don't plan on making any real comments about it. I'm planning to work with him and his agent in the way it should be done.”

After he finished speaking to reporters Wednesday, Mayhew walked out of the convention center ballroom, back toward the meetings where he would try to configure all the pieces and reshape the roster. The most pressing moves? Mayhew pointed to McKissic, Sims and McCain.

“They were really important to what we did last year; we’d love to have ’em for this year,” he said. “The important thing is going to be: Can we come up with the number that makes sense for everybody involved, and how does that fit into the puzzle of putting our football team together?”

Nicki Jhabvala contributed to this report.

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