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Why a potential sale could affect how the Commanders spend in free agency

Commanders owner Daniel Snyder, shown here at Coach Ron Rivera's introductory news conference, is evaluating whether to sell part or all of the team — a process that could complicate spending in free agency. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
5 min

When the NFL’s legal tampering period begins next week, the Commanders will be in a unique position as both buyers and sellers.

They have roughly $16 million of salary cap space to spend on improving their roster, though that figure could change as free agency nears. The franchise is also being shopped for a possible sale. Prospective bidders, including Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris, have toured the team’s facility in recent weeks, but it’s still unclear if all or part of the team will be sold.

Publicly, the Commanders have painted the coming weeks as business as usual. But questions of how much money and whose money they plan to spend this offseason have been just as pressing as whom they’ll sign.

“I’ve gotten a lot of support on the things that I’ve wanted to do from ownership,” Rivera said at the NFL combine. “ … I’ve met with them, I’ve let them know exactly what we’re doing and they’ve been very supportive. They say, ‘Go out and do the things you need to do.’ So that’s all we’re going to do.”

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The Commanders aren’t the first team to be in this position; the Denver Broncos went through the sale process during free agency last year before a group led by Walmart heir Rob Walton closed on a $4.65 billion purchase. And in early 2018, bidders vied for the Carolina Panthers before David Tepper won out and paid approximately $2.2 billion.

Rivera and Marty Hurney, now Washington’s executive vice president of football and player personnel, oversaw the Panthers’ 2018 offseason moves while Richardson sold the team. The Panthers took an approach similar to Washington’s in recent years: search for bargains and a second-tier player (or two) who may command $9 million to $10 million a year in average value.

“In Carolina, when I went through that, it was pretty much, ‘Ron, you’ve got to do business as normal,’” Rivera recalled last season. “And that’s what we tried to do. We tried to stay business as normal. We were prepared for the draft like we normally did. We tried to put all the pieces into place like we normally would. We went out and did the free-agency thing like we normally would.”

Free-agency guide: What's at stake for the Commanders?

Rivera has provided Washington stability in an era that has been anything but stable. His ability to shield the football operations from outside drama has become a hallmark of his tenure. But a possible sale has implications for all facets of the business, including his budget for personnel. The general principle for a team owner when selling is to minimize costs so as to not saddle a buyer with added debt or reduce the value of the product.

Rivera has given no indication the team will have to be especially frugal in free agency this year. But uncertainty could cloud the decisions, and even without a sale, ownership dictates just how liberally a team can spend.

NFL teams operate under the same collectively bargained rules — a hard salary cap, a spending floor, funding rules, certain contract structures — but budgets vary, depending on owners’ wealth and willingness to spend. Contracts can be finagled to adhere to the cap. But cash cannot.

Washington’s intent, at least for now, is to keep the quarterbacks room cheap. Sam Howell will get a chance to win the starting job, plausibly with a veteran as his backup and perhaps a younger player learning behind him.

The Commanders placed the nonexclusive franchise tag, worth $18.937 million, on defensive tackle Daron Payne but hope to sign him to a longer-term deal before the NFL’s July 15 deadline.

Over the past three years, the Commanders have allocated most of their offseason spending to retaining their own players, free agent or otherwise. They re-signed cornerback Kendall Fuller and franchise-tagged guard Brandon Scherff in 2020, gave defensive tackle Jonathan Allen and tight end Logan Thomas new deals in 2021 and signed receiver Terry McLaurin to a new contract in 2022. McLaurin received the largest full guarantee of any player signed since Rivera took over, at roughly $34.7 million, per

In between, Washington has relied on familiarity and value as guides to its free-agent deals. Many players — including receiver Curtis Samuel, guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner and linebacker David Mayo — played for Rivera in Carolina before signing in Washington. More notable is Washington’s eye for bargains on lesser free agents whom the team believes have higher values than what they’ve shown in the past. Thomas and running back J.D. McKissic are prime examples.

Everything you need to know about NFL free agency

As they go shopping again, it seems likely they’ll search for more of the same, in part because of their circumstances. While improved, the Commanders still may not be considered a top destination for players who have options in free agency. Washington hasn’t won a playoff game in 17 years, it doesn’t have a clear solution at quarterback, it’s been the subject of multiple investigations and controversies, and players recently ranked the facilities the worst in the league.

“Throw enough money to play, and all conviction goes out the window,” former agent and current CBS Sports analyst Joel Corry said.

But in Washington, whose money and how much may matter more than ever.