Commanders enter free agency with a lot of needs but not a lot of salary cap space
Last week, the team agreed to trade for quarterback Carson Wentz, the Philadelphia Eagles’ former No. 2 draft pick who was fired from Indianapolis after just one season. The Commanders took Wentz’s remaining contract as is, with a $28.3 million salary cap charge that consumes most of their salary cap space for this year.
When the NFL’s two-day window for “legal tampering” begins Monday, teams can make deals with other free agents. Then, at 4 p.m. EST on Wednesday, those deals and all trades can become official as teams race to drop below the $208.2 million salary cap.
According to the Salary Tracking website OvertheCap.com, Washington is sitting on just $1.43 million in effective cap space, which is the top 51 contracts on the roster and factors in the cap margin allocated to its drafted rookies ($4.4 million) . That wouldn’t even cover cornerback Darryl Roberts’ contract from last season.
For a team that just lost two seasons and is still firmly entrenched in a rebuild, the financial strain (coupled with the uncertainty of an improved game at quarterback) puts Washington in a tough spot when the market opens. . Commanders have 19 players who are set to become unrestricted free agents and plenty of holes in the roster — from center linebacker to right guard to wide receiver, safety and depth across the board.
“They don’t have a ton of flexibility,” said Brad Spielberger, salary cap analyst for Pro Football Focus. “This [the Colts] take Wentz’s full salary off the books, that’s a little crazy to me.
Although the trade was widely swept aside, its potential benefits are two-fold: First, Washington may have found an upgrade at quarterback, given Wentz’s strength and experience. And, second, while his contract is heavy for 2022, it gives COs a cleanup next year if they want to move on; his salaries for 2023 and 2024 are not guaranteed.
But for Washington to level up around him, he’ll have to do some roster gymnastics to make it work.
During the NFL combine, commanders weighed not just potential draft picks, but their own list, including those who should return and others who might leave. The team employs several consultants to work in conjunction with its staff to provide objective reports on its roster, helping Rivera and his staff sort through their options.
Behind the scenes, general manager Martin Mayhew and Rob Rogers, senior vice president of football administration, met with many representatives of the team’s impending free agents, including safety Bobby McCain, wide receiver/returner DeAndre Carter, running back JD McKissic and wide receiver Cam. Sims. Others, like tight end Ricky Seals-Jones and slot receiver Adam Humphries, became key parts of Washington’s offense last season, and a few others will be restricted free agents, giving the ‘equip a lever to guard them if they wish.
Washington has expressed interest in keeping a lot of them, but Mayhew said in early March the team could end up letting them test free agency.
“We want to get an idea of their contract situation,” Mayhew told the NFL Harvester. “We want to explain to them that we are not ready to make an offer now, but we want them to come back. … They will have the opportunity to come out and talk to other teams, and we want them to keep us informed of their contract situation and the type of offers they are considering.
This strategy, of course, carries the risk of losing players Washington had hoped to keep.
According to people with knowledge of the matter, discussions about Carter have continued, but starting Saturday, it seems likely that he and Humphries will test the open market. It’s possible that McKissic and McCain also hit free agency, and they could generate enough interest to get paid for a return to Washington.
Commanders won’t offer restricted free agent quarterback Kyle Allen a contract, but it would seem plausible they’ll try to keep kicker Joey Slye, another restricted free agent, who had 12 of 12 goals after his arriving in the middle of last season, either with a tender or an extension.
The quarterback was Washington’s biggest need this offseason, but not the only one.
The team needs a chief defense commander – a middle linebacker, or “Mike” who can play all three downs.
“Linebackers need to be able to cover,” Mayhew said. “There are very few guys now who are two-stop linebackers. I played with these guys in the 90s when I was playing, and these guys are dying out. Now you need to be able to be an athlete and perform in space. We are looking for players who can do this.
The Commanders thought they had found their man in last year’s first-round pick Jamin Davis, but realized he was probably better suited to play on the outside.
Several veterans, including Bobby Wagner and AJ Klein, who played for Rivera in Carolina, became available. But Washington’s minimal ceiling space might keep it from running.
One name worth pondering is Alexander Johnson, who has played in Denver’s 3-4 scheme the past four seasons. He is 30 years old and has just recovered from a pectoral muscle injury. But he’s 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, had 124 total tackles in 2020, and could give a jolt to a group that has lagged the past two seasons. Pro Football Focus projects its average value at around $7 million per year.
In the secondary, Washington needs a cornerback and could keep Danny Johnson at a relatively low price. But he may really need help with safety if he loses Landon Collins and McCain.
The good news, perhaps, is that the second-tier security market has been relatively affordable in recent years and could help Washington land a quality player.
Finding guard help should also be a priority for Washington, as Brandon Scherff is likely on the road. The five-time Pro Bowl selection has been tagged twice in the franchise, setting a high floor for any new deal. But he was the anchor of an improved offensive line, and finding some semblance of consistency will be important for Rivera.
James Daniels — the former Bears right guard whose Chicago offensive line coach was Washington’s newly hired tight ends coach Juan Castillo — might be a good fit. But it will be expensive — $8 million to $12 million a year, Spielberger said.
“We saw him last offseason and are already seeing him again this offseason with [former Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl pick] Rodger Saffold – a lot of veteran guards get cut. So maybe they explore that market and get a discount on some of these guys,” he said. “Maybe Andrew Norwell from Jacksonville isn’t as hot as he hoped.”
Commanders are expected to release Collins, according to people with knowledge of the situation, which will free up about $6.5 million and net them nearly $8 million in cap room.
To be active in free agency, they will need to clear even more space, through downsizing and restructuring contracts.
Safety Deshazor Everett, who finished the season on the non-football injured reserve list, could be released at some point, depending on his health and legal status stemming from a car accident in December. (Everett faces a charge of manslaughter and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for June 23.) If he lets go, Washington earns about $2 million over the cap.
Restructuring the contracts of some veterans, like cornerback Kendall Fuller and center Chase Roullier, could add even more room. But according to people familiar with the matter, there was no discussion about it with these two. The team could also add voidable years to Daron Payne’s contract to convert part of his fifth-year option into a signing bonus that can be prorated over multiple years. According to a person familiar with the team’s plans for Payne, there have been preliminary talks about a possible extension, but nothing substantial so far.
Another way to free up some space is to follow the Detroit Lions’ approach last season, when they traded for quarterback Jared Goff and converted most of his base salary into bonuses. But for now, it doesn’t appear that Washington is considering revising Wentz’s contract by pushing the cap fee into the future.
So while Commanders may have met their greatest need – at least for this season – their next moves could be just as difficult.