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What’s at stake for the Commanders in NFL free agency?

Defensive tackle Daron Payne is one of the free agents the Commanders voiced the most interest in re-signing. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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The Washington Commanders have become accustomed to transition. In 2020, the team overhauled nearly its entire coaching staff. A year later, it reconfigured the front office. Quarterbacks have cycled in and out, the secondary has changed multiple times, and the system has undergone tweaks.

As Washington continues its quest for improvement, it could face its biggest transition yet, with not just a new offensive scheme but also the prospect of new ownership. The changes will have long-term implications, but the Commanders’ immediate future still rests with Coach Ron Rivera and his staff, who will guide the team in free agency.

The NFL’s legal tampering period, when free agents can agree to deals with new teams, starts at noon Eastern time Monday. Players can sign those agreements starting Wednesday at 4 p.m.

Washington released quarterback Carson Wentz and safety Bobby McCain last month to clear salary cap room. On Sunday, they agreed to terms with defensive tackle Daron Payne on a long-term contract. Here’s what else to expect:

Will the potential sale affect spending?

Rivera and General Manager Martin Mayhew say it’s business as usual. Rivera, who went through a similar situation in 2018 after Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson put the team up for sale, recalled having the same approach then.

“I’ve got a lot of support in the things that I want to do from ownership,” Rivera said at the combine. “... We put our plan together; I’ve met with [ownership], I’ve let them know exactly what we’re doing, and they’ve been very supportive and said, ‘Go out and do the things you need to do.’”

Which positions are the Commanders likely to target?

Washington has needs across the roster, but adding to its linebacking corps and offensive line may be the primary focus. Injuries have created issues at both positions, and the veteran market is deep.

It’s plausible Washington could follow its recent history of eyeing second-tier talent — players unlikely to get top dollar but who could provide value and depth and maybe start. They could target a swing tackle or a linebacker to rotate in with Jamin Davis.

At NFL combine, Commanders took a close look at offensive linemen

“[Free agent linebackers are] a market that always gets burned,” Joel Corry, a former agent and current CBS Sports salary cap expert, said. “There are a couple guys that get paid, and there are a bunch of guys who overprice themselves, and they end up going for peanuts. … There won’t be a ton of guys who get over $5 million or $6 million [a year]. Obviously, [Tremaine] Edmunds will get over that. I think T.J. Edwards will, too. That is not a seller’s market.”

Will Washington try to re-sign Cole Holcomb?

Yes, at the right price. The knee and foot injuries that limited Holcomb to seven games last season could hurt his market.

Holcomb’s agent could pursue a one-year deal in the hopes he stays healthy and plays well, which would maximize his value in free agency again in 2024. Or she could prioritize security via a two- or three-year deal with a lower average value per year (APY) but more guaranteed money. Recently, those deals have been between $3 million and $5 million APY.

What other free agents make sense for the Commanders?

It’s tempting to link them to one of the best players available at linebacker or offensive line, such as Kansas City left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. But at more than $20 million per year, Brown probably will be out of Washington’s price range.

In the second tier, Washington could target linemen who fit the mold of those new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy had in Kansas City: centers who stand about 6-foot-3 and weigh about 300 pounds and guards and tackles 6-5 or taller who weigh between 305 and 320 pounds.

There are some starting-caliber options at center (Garrett Bradbury, Bradley Bozeman), guard (Dalton Risner, Nate Davis, Connor McGovern) and tackle (Kaleb McGary, Jermaine Eluemunor, Andrew Wylie). Wylie was in Kansas City with Bieniemy. Another guard, Will Hernandez, checks several boxes, except height (6-2).

At NFL combine, Commanders took a close look at offensive linemen

Linebacker is a deep group. In the middle tiers, the Commanders could splurge a little on players such as Bobby Okereke, Bobby Wagner or Leighton Vander Esch. But given the team’s history, it seems more likely it will go for a bargain at the level of Holcomb — such as Alex Singleton, Kyzir White or Azeez Al-Shaair.

What type of veteran quarterback do they want?

The Commanders have said Sam Howell will get every chance to be the starter. He will have to earn it in camp, but the plan is to surround him with a veteran backup and maybe even another rookie, if not Jake Fromm. Plans can always change, but the thinking is that by keeping the quarterback position relatively cheap, the Commanders can spend elsewhere.

Retaining Taylor Heinicke, who has said he would be open to a backup role, would make a lot of sense. But the Commanders may not be inclined to pay top backup money, so Heinicke’s return may be dependent on his options on the open market.

Sam Howell is the Commanders’ first-string QB — for now

“I’d say anywhere from $5 million to $7 million [a year] on a one- or two-year deal, and you [add incentives] where, if he’s on the field, it can go as high as $10 [million], $11 [million], $12 million,” Corry said of a potential deal for Heinicke. “Ideally, you want someone like him to come back.”

If not Heinicke, perhaps the Commanders could consider a quarterback such as Andy Dalton, a veteran with a proven willingness to mentor and back up a younger player.

Could they make a surprise cut to create cap room?

It seems unlikely Washington will cut the veterans who’d offer the most cap savings: corner Kendall Fuller ($8.5 million), left tackle Charles Leno Jr. ($8 million) and wide receiver Curtis Samuel ($5.8 million). Early in the offseason, tight end Logan Thomas ($5.2 million) looked like a cut candidate, but since the Bieniemy hire, team officials have repeatedly expressed confidence in Thomas’s ability to return to form.

If Washington makes another veteran cut, the most likely are center Chase Roullier ($4.3 million), backup tackle Cornelius Lucas ($3.5 million) and guard Andrew Norwell ($2.3 million).

The Commanders could also restructure contracts by converting base salaries into bonuses and spreading out the cap hit. This essentially creates short-term relief in exchange for long-term commitment.

Which free agents from last year’s roster are likely to return?

Besides Holcomb and Heinicke (and Payne), Washington has nine unrestricted free agents and two restricted free agents (players with fewer than four accrued seasons). Among the restricted free agents is all-pro special teamer Jeremy Reaves, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Commanders try to re-sign him to a new deal.

NFL owners discuss Commanders sale, Daniel Snyder at committee meeting

What would a long-term deal for Payne look like?

UPDATE: On Sunday, Payne agreed to a four-year, $90 million contract with the Commanders that includes $60 million in guarantees, according to two people with direct knowledge of the deal.

The floor is north of $20 million per year, according to Corry. For a time, the ceiling for defensive tackles was Aaron Donald’s deal, which has a $22.5 million APY. DeForest Buckner and Leonard Williams ($21 million) came in just underneath.

But in June, the Los Angeles Rams dramatically raised the ceiling by giving Donald a contract extension that bumped his APY to $31.7 million. Joel Segal, the agent who negotiated Buckner’s deal, represents Payne.

“I’d imagine the first thing Joel Segal is going to do [is] he’s going to adjust that [Buckner] deal for cap inflation,” Corry said. “That’s going to get you close to $24 million [a year]. Payne won’t get $24 million, but I don’t see anything for under $22 million, $22.5 million.”

Would such hefty D-line spending hurt the team long term?

As Corry put it: “You can do a lot of different things if you’re not paying a quarterback. You pay your good players. You figure out how to make it work.” Howell’s contract has cap hits of $960,400 in 2023 and approximately $1.1 million in 2024 and $1.2 million in 2025 — peanuts compared with most starting quarterbacks.

But is it possible to devote so much of the leftover resources to one position group and still build a balanced team?

“We’ll find that out,” Mayhew said at the combine. “It would be great, wouldn’t it? But there’s a salary cap, so we’ll have to find that out.”

What about Chase Young’s fifth-year option?

The Commanders have until May 1 to exercise Young’s fifth-year option ($17.452 million), and Rivera has indicated picking it up isn’t a lock. Young recently met with James Andrews, his surgeon, and got high marks for his recovery from the knee injury he suffered in 2021, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. But Washington has to consider the long term.

Picking up the option now would avoid the situation the New York Giants faced this offseason with Daniel Jones. Instead of paying him $22.384 million on a fifth-year option in 2023, they’ll pay him a reported average of $40 million a year on a new contract.

“The Commanders need to figure out who Chase Young is,” Corry said. “If he’s the guy that won [defensive] rookie of the year, you pick up the option. If he’s the guy in Year 2 who couldn’t get a sack to save his life before he tore up his knee, then you don’t pick up the option. I pick it up for this one reason: so I could trade him if I had to.”