INDIANAPOLIS — The Washington Commanders placed the nonexclusive franchise tag on defensive tackle Daron Payne, potentially keeping him around for at least another year, if not longer. The tag, which the team announced Tuesday, is worth $18.9 million for one season and becomes fully guaranteed once signed.
“Just showing the commitment to try to get him signed and keep him here,” Coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine. “The guy has been very integral to this football team and this defense, as well as the other guys he plays alongside, and we just wanted to make sure everybody understood we are serious.”
Washington has until July 15 to sign Payne to a new deal. In the meantime, he can negotiate with other teams, but the Commanders have the right to match. If he signs elsewhere, Washington will receive two first-round draft picks in exchange — all but ensuring he will stay for at least a little while.
Should talks on a longer-term deal fizzle out, Washington would have another option at its disposal: a trade. Payne is only 25 (he turns 26 in May) and plays a premium position as a pass rusher.
Washington’s recent track record with franchise tags has worked against the team. Quarterback Kirk Cousins played on tags in 2016 and 2017, earning a total of $44 million before signing with the Minnesota Vikings in free agency in 2018.
Right guard Brandon Scherff followed suit, playing on franchise tags in 2020 and 2021 to become the highest-paid guard in the league. In 2021, he earned a salary of nearly $18 million. The following year he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent.
Washington has invested heavily in its defensive line, which boasts four first-round draft picks among its starters. After drafting Chase Young with the second pick in 2020, Washington re-signed defensive tackle Jonathan Allen to a four-year, $72 million deal in 2021. The team exercised Montez Sweat’s fifth-year contract option in 2022 and now could significantly raise Payne’s pay.
The Commanders also have to decide by May 1 whether to exercise Young’s fifth-year option, which is worth $17.5 million for the 2024 season.
Rivera indicated this month that Payne’s deal will have no bearing on Young’s, thanks largely to the increase in the salary cap and Washington’s cushion. Rivera cited Payne’s contract history as a potential example for how the team may handle Young.
In 2021, Washington exercised Payne’s fifth-year option instead of signing him to a new deal. In 2022, a contract season, he performed his best, collecting a career- and a team-high 11.5 sacks.
“It cost us,” Rivera said of the team not re-signing Payne to a long-term deal earlier. “But it cost us in a good way, because the young man played; he did things the right way. … Now we’re in that position where we have to find a way to say, ‘Thank you; you’ve earned it.’ ”
The cost of that “thank you” could be close to $19 million per year, topping Allen’s $18 million-per-year average.
Spotrac.com estimates Payne’s market value to be $19.4 million per year, which would make him the fifth-highest-paid interior defensive lineman in terms of average value.
“He fits the formula of what we want to do and how we want to play, and he’s got the skill set that you would like to have,” Rivera said in January. “We think his presence on the football field was outstanding this season, and he did a lot of good things for us.”
The Commanders have more leeway to make moves this offseason after releasing quarterback Carson Wentz and defensive back Bobby McCain on Monday. The cuts cleared more than $28 million in salary cap space, giving Washington more than $35 million to retool the roster this offseason, according to Overthecap.com.
The team’s reconfiguring extends to the staff, too.
On Tuesday, the Commanders announced they had hired Tavita Pritchard as quarterbacks coach; Pritchard will take over for Ken Zampese, who is now a senior offensive adviser/game management.
Pritchard played quarterback at Stanford from 2006 to 2009, and he spent the past five seasons as the Cardinal’s offensive coordinator. He joined the Stanford staff as an assistant in 2010 and was elevated to running backs coach and then quarterbacks and wide receivers coach before taking the helm of the offense.
Pritchard’s first season in the NFL will come with significant responsibility. He’ll help develop second-year quarterback Sam Howell and whomever else Washington adds to the room while the Commanders transition to a new system.
“He’s been in one place for a long time, but it’s been a prostyle type of offense,” Rivera said of Pritchard. “He and [offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy] had a relationship for the last 10 years, so they’re very familiar with each other, and you see it. When we brought Tavita in and sat down, I visited with him and interviewed him and listened to his philosophies on football and his ideas and stuff, and I could see how he and Eric are very similar.”
On the defensive side, Washington promoted Brent Vieselmeyer to defensive backs coach to replace Chris Harris, who left to be the Tennessee Titans’ defensive passing game coordinator. The team also promoted Richard Rodgers to senior defensive assistant/safeties and named Cristian Garcia its assistant defensive backs/nickel coach.
The Commanders still need a wide receivers coach following the departure of Drew Terrell. According to two people with knowledge of the matter, the team is expected to interview candidates while in Indianapolis for the combine. That list includes former UCLA and Colorado coach Karl Dorrell, a person with knowledge of the situation said.