He believes in building through the draft. He puts his faith in big, bruising linemen who brawl in the trenches, where he thinks football is won. He’s committed to re-signing the Redskins’ own rather than embarking on free agent spending sprees, convinced that’s the recipe for a team-first culture that’s as loyal as it is tough.
And from the outset, nearly 16 months ago, McCloughan warned Redskins fans that the transformation would take time.
On Monday, three days after departing from that script — signing all-pro cornerback Josh Norman to a five-year, $75 million deal — McCloughan explained why the move was worth it and, in fact, complements rather than upends a slow-and-steady approach to roster-building that started to pay dividends last season.
“Free agency is a tool you use,” McCloughan said, speaking to reporters at Redskins Park for the first time since Norman’s whirlwind signing was announced. “I’m not a big proponent of it.”
What made Norman the exception, McCloughan noted, was the following: At 28, he’s “in the prime of his career;” he’s coming off an all-pro season; he fills a crucial position of need; and he boasts the grit and competitiveness the Redskins seek to instill on their roster.
“He’s going to help us win games, and that’s the bottom line,” McCloughan said of Norman, who had four interceptions last season and returned two for touchdowns. “This organization is about making us better each day, and he made us better.”
McCloughan clearly is proud of the signing — clinched by swift, aggressive maneuvering by the team’s front office, which outmuscled more than a half-dozen suitors to be the first to interview the former Carolina Panther and didn’t let him depart until he’d agreed to terms. But he was careful not to predict double-digit victories or an NFC championship as a direct result, noting that the slow-build transformation of the Redskins was under way last season.
“There’s more optimism, for sure,” McCloughan said, asked about the impact of Norman’s signing. “I think you saw what happened the second half of the season [when the Redskins won five of their last six games to clinch the NFC East]. We’ve done some nice things so far in this season. And we’re going to have a good draft.”
And he pointed to the returning veterans who were running hills just outside the press conference room — a cadre of defensive backs that included DeAngelo Hall, Bashaud Breeland and Duke Ihenacho.
“It’s going in the right direction,” McCloughan said. “Who knows — this year, next year, whatever? But we’re getting better, and the organization is getting stronger.”
With Norman in the fold, cornerback no longer is a dire draft-day need, which should enable the Redskins to focus their early-round picks on other positions in need of an upgrade, such as defensive tackle, safety and center.
The Redskins have eight picks, and McCloughan reiterated his interest in parlaying those into 12 picks but said no team had approached him yet about a trade for the 21st overall pick.
As for his priorities heading into the NFL draft, which gets underway Thursday in Chicago, McCloughan was tight-lipped. Like a savvy poker player, he held far more cards than he showed.
For starters, he dismissed a suggestion that the Redskins wouldn’t draft a cornerback now that Norman is under contract. Chris Culliver (anterior cruciate ligament) and Kyshoen Jarrett (shoulder) are both rehabilitating from significant injuries, and neither doctors nor trainers can pinpoint their readiness.
In the pass-happy NFL, a team can never have too many cornerbacks, he noted, just as it can’t have too many quarterbacks.
So yes, quarterback is a position the Redskins are eyeing, seeking a young signal-caller to groom and challenge Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy.
As for efforts to re-sign Cousins to a long-term deal, rather than rely on the franchise tag that will guarantee him a $19.9 million salary, McCloughan characterized them as “positive.”
“We’re still in discussions, and they’re positive,” McCloughan said. “It takes both sides to get to an agreement, but no, it’s a positive thing and he has a positive feeling here about him. He’s here. The whole thing, I mean, it’s a big contract. It’s negotiation. It’s back and forth. But we’re in contact — we would love to get something done prior to [the July 15 deadline].”
But for all the commentary and controversy that surrounded the quarterback position last season, defense is the crucial area of need. Washington’s defense ranked 28th last season, surrendering more than 380 yards per game. The defensive line wilted against the run, and the pass rush did little to rattle opposing quarterbacks.
While Norman represents a major upgrade to the defensive backfield, it’s doubtful he’ll have the same impact he had in Carolina unless the Redskins significantly improve their pass rush.
McCloughan said outside linebacker Junior Galette continues rehabilitating the Achilles’ injury that sidelined him before the 2015 season opened but looked “excellent.” Paired with veteran Ryan Kerrigan and second-year player Preston Smith, that gives the Redskins talent at the position. “Now, we need to add to it,” McCloughan said, “as we need to do at every position.”