How Have The Redskins Fared This Offseason?
For even for the most ardent football fan, the period after the NFL Draft and before the start of training camp offers little inspiration. The main acts of the free agency circus have long since moved on, the electricity of the draft is fading, and broken bones and shredded soft tissue from the prior season have been repaired. Fans, embracing their cheating hearts, are flirting with playoff offerings of other sports. Players are indulging other personal interests, like enjoying mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby or, as Washington Redskins LB Brian Orakpo did recently, hosting charity golf tournaments. And coaches are, well…the coaches are probably still pouring over film, salary cap spreadsheets and the free agent discount rack (sickos).
While this part of the NFL calendar struggles to feed attention-grabbing headlines, it presents the perfect opportunity to analyze and grade a team’s offseason. The Washington Redskins, fresh off a rare division title, figured to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders for the first time in over a decade if Robert Griffin III’s recovery from reconstructive knee surgery realized its proclaimed superhuman arc and if the front office could score big on its player-personnel decisions.
RGIII’s status remains a mystery and soaked in propaganda, but the team’s tweaks to the 2012 roster have largely taken shape. So did head coach Mike Shanahan and GM Bruce Allen do enough to assemble a “final 53” worthy of lumping the ‘Skins in with the NFC’s elite? I’ve checked the spelling, combed through all of the math and assessed the organization’s behavior. Here’s the report card.
Best Move: Drafting Phillip Thomas
The Redskins entered the 2013 NFL Draft with definitive needs in the secondary, along the offensive line and at linebacker. Lacking a first-round pick, a consequence of last year’s acquisition of RGIII, Shanahan had his work cut out for him with the team’s remaining seven picks.
In all, the team plucked an intriguing haul of talent and, by all accounts, got good value with each selection. The strategy was clearly “best available” though, as the positions selected didn’t always match the assumed needs. In the fourth round, value and need wed when the Redskins took Fresno State S Phillip Thomas off the board. Thomas, a defensive playmaker that also has the physical tools to clean up the occasional messes made by the front seven, is exactly what the 30th-ranked pass defense needed.
Thomas has a great opportunity to start and make an immediate impact. I’ll tell you this: the first time he picks off a pass or defends a deep ball at FedEx Field next year, he will hear an ovation.
Worst Move: Organizational Misbehavior
The Redskins were largely bystanders during free agency; they were not players for any big names and found many other options unaffordable. It was an uncharacteristic position directly related to $36 million cap penalty levied by the league last year for allegedly manipulating the salary cap during the league’s uncapped 2010 season. The ‘Skins absorbed half of the penalty in 2012 and the remaining $18 million this year.
The team was able to work around the financial garnishment last year sufficiently to add Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan via free agency. This year, though, the cap hit clearly hamstrung the Redskins’ shopping list. More directly, it completely ended any hope the team had of contending for the available marquee talent.
Like just about any other disciplinary action administered by the NFL these days, the facts behind the $36 million cap penalty remain unclear. The 50,000-foot explanation is the NFL found that the ‘Skins violated league rules by structuring several contracts with the intent of cleaning up the team’s finances during the uncapped season. There’s some question whether the rules were actually written down or were some sort of “gentlemen’s agreement” (a.k.a. collusion) by the owners, but the harsh reality was this: the team stretched the rules, got caught and paid an untold price.
The rebel within each of us appreciates the Redskins’ gall. While it’s good to be cool, it’s costly to be too slick — especially with Roger Goodell as judge and jury.
Biggest Fill: The Secondary
I’ll just say it: the Redskins’ secondary was a sieve last year. Officially, the pass defense was ranked 30th, but it felt worse. The secondary caused fans to lose their religion (or acquire one in a desperate plea for mercy), coaches to age precipitously and weekend warriors to loosen their hamstrings for what might be a final shot at stardom. Opposing quarterback’s got well and wide receivers became instant fantasy football darlings. The secondary created hope for trailing opponents and anxiety for anyone in burgundy and gold.
After the suspension of Tanard Jackson just before the season and a preseason knee injury that effectively ended Brandon Meriweather’s year — the two projected starters at safety — the ‘Skins played the 2012 season with the worst safety tandem in the league. Cornerback wasn’t much better. Rarely, if ever, were starting CBs DeAngelo Hall’s or Josh Wilson’s matchups with opposing receivers considered “advantage Redskins.”
The Redskins’ brass got the message. During free agency, they kicked the tires on a few veteran corners before the draft, signed free agent corner E.J. Biggers from Tampa Bay and re-signed Hall to an economical deal shortly after he was released. Shanahan and crew weren’t done. The draft provided three more warm bodies: CB David Amerson in the second round, the aforementioned Phillip Thomas in the fourth and an intriguing flier on S Bacarri Rambo (dude is one strategically placed “d” in his first name from having the coolest name in sports) in the sixth round. With Meriweather slated to return from an ACL injury and Jackson presumably seeking and receiving reinstatement, the 2012 debacle that occurred just about every time an opponent hurled a football through the air is unlikely to recur.
Honorable mention: With only pennies on other teams’ dollars to spend (see “Worst Move” above), the ‘Skins did an incredible job of retaining their own free agents. Re-signing LG Kory Lichtensteiger and TE Fred Davis, both unrestricted free agents, was huge; retaining several unheralded restricted free agents — Logan Paulsen, Darrel Young, Rob Jackson, etc. — ensured the young core of the roster remained in house. The ‘Skins did lose linebacker and special teams ace Lorenzo Alexander, the football version of a Swiss Army Knife, but Alexander received a lucrative deal from Arizona — three years at roughly $9 million — that wasn’t prudent to match.
Biggest Void: Oh My, It’s The O-line
One of the Redskins’ primary offseason priorities was upgrading the offensive line and, specifically, the right tackle position. Ignoring the obvious, the team did not see fit to draft even a single offensive lineman and didn’t clearly upgrade any offensive line position via free agency.
Starting LG Kory Lichtensteiger and RT Tyler Polumbus were re-signed, Tony Pashos and Jeremy Trueblood were acquired via free agency and a few undrafted free agents were added. The quantity of signed offensive lineman acknowledges the need, but the quality of said signees instills little confidence that the unit will outperform the 2012 squad. Perhaps one of the free agents fits perfectly in Shanahan’s system or an undrafted free agent shocks the world. That sounds like a strategy based far too much in hope — a precarious reality when the franchise signal-caller’s health and long-term career will very much be in the balance during the 2013 season.
Dishonorable mention: inside linebacker. Here’s the reality at the position: London Fletcher will be 38 by the start of the season, and fellow starter on the inside, Perry Riley, is entering the final year of his contract. Oh, and there’s little depth behind them. The hunch is the ‘Skins bring in one of a plethora of veteran free agents later in the summer. For now, though, the center of the defense looks precariously thin.
Extra Credit: Restraint
It is odd to give a team extra credit for a player-personnel ledger lacking even a single headline-grabbing acquisition. But this is the Redskins, and resisting the temptation to borrow against future seasons to scratch a current-year itch is noteworthy. There were no frivolous contract restructures, overpayment for free agents or 2014 draft picks sacrificed. The ‘Redsins wisely stayed within the 2013’s significant financial and draft constraints while managing to noticeably upgrade the roster.
The Redskins’ workmanlike approach to free agency and the draft resembled that of the NFL’s best, most stable organizations. The roster is better; the competition in training camp should be intense at several positions.
While I’m not arguing that a bolder move should have been made — there just wasn’t one out there considering the salary cap situation and less than a full complement of draft picks — a few points need to be deducted for the mess that was the 2013 salary cap and the unknown signings that didn’t happen because of it.
So what’s the offseason grade? I’ll call it a solid B+.