We don’t have to hear “Washington Redskins free agent signing” and jump right to Dan Wilkinson and Albert Haynesworth, but the mind is conditioned that way by now, isn’t it? Their past plays into the evaluation of anything they do for the future. Maybe that’s not fair. It just happens to be true — undeniably so. No Washington free agent signing happens in a vacuum. They seem instead to happen in hurricanes.
In evaluating this latest move, consider whether the following sentence will ever be written: “Washington began its turnaround from irrelevant afterthought to Super Bowl champ by guaranteeing $45 million over three years to free agent safety Landon Collins.”
That’s what Washington reportedly did Monday, agreeing to terms with the former New York Giant who played his college ball at — you guessed it — Alabama. He is a player the Giants could have kept simply by designating him with the franchise tag. Yet they let him walk right down the New Jersey Turnpike to a division rival that essentially propped up what was supposed to be a lagging market for safeties by agreeing to a deal that could be (but never is in the NFL, is it?) worth as much as $84 million.
There are things to like here. Collins is a good player. Washington doesn’t have that many good players. He is a sure tackler, and if you believe the reports out of New York, he’s the kind of leader Washington needs more of. He’s only 25, so he’s more than two years younger than the guy he will essentially replace — D.J. Swearinger, who was jettisoned for insubordination near the end of last year.
Why, then, raise an eyebrow at this signing?
Well, first off, everyone from Wilkinson to Haynesworth to Deion Sanders to even Josh Norman has to make us gun shy about how this franchise has handled free agency. Not just under the current regime — under any regime. Even if you believe Washington has a defense that’s just a player or two away from being really good — a squishy argument for a middling unit, but one the club seems to believe — is Collins transformative? If he’s not, then why are you paying him the kind of money reserved for transformative players?
The highest-paid safety before this offseason kicked in, according to OverTheCap.com, was Kansas City’s Eric Berry, whose deal averaged $13 million per year and guaranteed him $40 million. So Washington ratcheted up the market for safeties. And when Washington ratchets up the market, you’re best off shopping elsewhere.
Think, too, about how this team is building its roster. To clear room under the salary cap for Collins, Washington is going to have to trade or — more likely — cut other players. That’s fine. That’s life in the NFL. Other teams will do the same when the new league year officially begins Wednesday.
But the last time Washington set the market in the defensive secondary came in the 2016 offseason. Then, it guaranteed Norman $50 million on a deal that averages $15 million per year — more than any other cornerback in the league. Man, did it make a splash. Norman’s next playoff game with Washington? That would be his first.
Now, with Collins, Washington has two possibilities. Either it will employ the most expensive cornerback and the most expensive safety in football, which is dubious given neither is the best at his position, or it will have to cut Norman to create the financial space for Collins. That would be downright rich, but darn it if it wouldn’t fit perfectly into this franchise’s mottled free agency tableau.
Think about those choices, though, in terms of building a roster. Second-guessing who-to-draft-and-who-to-sign decisions more than a year later is a sketchy business. But without it, what would we do around the water cooler or at tailgates?
Here, then, is a second-guess that’s not much of a stretch: What if Washington, picking 13th in the 2018 draft, had bypassed defensive lineman Daron Payne of — you guessed it — Alabama and instead selected Derwin James, a safety from Florida State who wasn’t expected to be on the board after the top 10?
The team could have then found a nose tackle at a reasonable cost in free agency this offseason. Its roster would be, arguably, in marginally better shape. Its finances would have been, inarguably, in markedly better shape.
Instead, James fell to the 17th pick and the Los Angeles Chargers, who turned him into a first-team all-pro as a rookie. And Washington is spending an extraordinary sum in a free agent market that was supposed to crater because of the glut of safeties available.
Maybe it’s the — you guessed it — Alabama factor. Collins’s arrival makes it seem as if Washington has something of an obsession with Crimson Tide players. Jonathan Allen and Payne are entrenched starters on the defensive line. Ryan Anderson and Shaun Dion Hamilton will compete to start at linebacker, particularly if Mason Foster and Zach Brown are jettisoned. The fate of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a free agent, still isn’t known. And then there’s Reuben Foster, who remains on the commissioner’s exempt list following his second domestic violence charge last year, although it later was dropped.
That’s more than half of a defensive lineup that could be filled by Alabama players. Washington realizes Clemson beat the Tide for the national title, right?
Maybe Washington figured making noise in free agency would revive a decidedly flaccid fan base. But so much of that fan base’s indifference is built on the foundation of free agent decisions gone sour. We are conditioned here not to welcome new, expensive Redskins with open arms, but instead with a decidedly raised eyebrow.
So, welcome, Landon. Here’s hoping you don’t fit into that overpaid, underperforming past. Forgive us for having the knee-jerk reaction that you will.
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