NFL

Thrifty Spending Comes to Washington

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It should come as no surprise that the Washington Redskins were one of the most active teams in the league in March. Washington has long been one of the league’s most free agent friendly destinations and this year was no different as the Redskins added four players in the opening week of free agency.

But it’s how they made those additions this year that sets this class apart from years past and perhaps sets the course for a new way of doing things in D.C.

Washington set out this offseason to upgrade their defense, which ranked 20th in yards allowed per game and 29th in points allowed last season. But for once Daniel Snyder and his front office, led by new general manager Scot McCloughan, didn’t look to do so with a big splash. The Redskins were never really tied to the offseason’s biggest free agent, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, despite the fact that they had a need at the position. Instead the Miami Dolphins dished out the big bucks, inking Suh to a six-year, $114 million contract with nearly $60 million guaranteed. Meanwhile Washington spent far less money to add several pieces to their defense, including a trio of defensive linemen: Stephen Paea, Terrance Knighton and Ricky Jean-Francois.

Paea got the biggest commitment, receiving a four-year, $21 million deal from Washington with nearly $8 million guaranteed. But as other signing numbers were announced, that deal looked more and more like a bargain. Paea, a 2011 second round pick, spent four seasons with the Chicago Bears. During that period he elevated himself from depth defensive lineman to full-time starter at defensive tackle. Last season Paea played in all 16 games and was one of the highest-rated players on the Chicago defense. He finished the breakout season with six sacks, three pass deflections, two forced fumbles and 33 tackles.

But it was Paea’s versatility that attracted the Redskins to the soon to be 27-year-old lineman. Though he was in the middle as a nose tackle in Chicago’s 4-3 defense, it’s likely he’ll be used more on the outside in Washington’s 3-4 scheme. And Paea told ESPN that a discussion with Washington coaches about how he would be used in their defense, as a pass rusher, led to his signing in D.C. despite other better offers.

“If I get one-on-one on first and second down I feel I can do some damage and get in the backfield, versus playing nose like I did here in Chicago,” he said of playing defensive end. “Other teams were offering me a little bit more, but the way Washington would use me in their defense was the reason I chose Washington. Whatever they feel that I would fit best, they’ll put me in there. I’m there to help, not only playing the run but the pass. I’m all for that.”

Paea’s move toward the outside was further strengthened by Washington’s other addition to their line, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. Coming off a second straight season starting all sixteen games for the Broncos, it was surprising to see Knighton sign just a one-year, $4.45 million deal with Washington. But the market never developed for the soon-to-be 29-year-old nose tackle, and the Redskins front office struck a deal at a bargain price. The deal could end up being mutually beneficial, with Knighton motivated to perform at a high level ahead of another shot at free agency next offseason.

“I’m the best nose tackle in the league,” Knighton said in an interview with Washington’s ESPN radio affiliate after the signing. “The Redskins got me for a bargain, but I’m going to prove myself, prove my worth in this league.”

While Paea can play the nose, the 6-foot-3, 331-lb Knighton is a more traditional fit as a 3-4 defensive tackle for the Redskins. The six-year veteran finished with two sacks and 30 tackles last season, but was known more as a gap-filling run stopper, bringing some balance to Washington’s defensive line where he’ll often be flanked by Paea and last year’s major free agent addition, Jason Hatcher.

In addition to Paea and Knighton, the Redskins also moved earlier in the offseason to sign defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois to a three-year, $9 million deal. Jean-Francois had been cut by the Indianapolis Colts after starting 13 of 16 games last season with three sacks, six passes defensed and 34 tackles. The trio joins Hatcher, Chris Baker and Kedric Golston, the main holdovers from last year’s defensive line, giving Washington a chance to show instant improvement up front.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll have this [defense] changed around, and I know for sure for sure that people will not be able to run the ball on the Redskins defense,” Knighton said. “I’m a big guy, I’m strong at the point of attack, it takes two people to move me, sometimes three…I’m not coming here to make this a process or anything. They [brought] me in to make an impact right away, and that’s what I plan on doing, doing my part in bringing that excitement back to the city about the Redskins.”

While thrifty spending allowed Washington to upgrade their defensive line at a bargain, it also allowed them to spend a little bit more elsewhere. As a result they were able to dive into a competitive market at defensive back to add a pair of players to their secondary. Most of that money went toward addressing their issues at cornerback by signing former 49ers corner Chris Culliver to a four-year, $32 million contract with $16 million guaranteed.

The deal was likely a little higher than the Redskins were aiming to go, but in an offseason where the top two corners each got seven-figure per year commitments, getting the third best at $8 million per year was a wise move. Culliver, a third round pick in 2011, grabbed a career-high four interceptions for the 49ers last season and tied a career-high with 15 passes defensed. The four-year veteran also had a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown.

In a division and conference where they’ll be competing against some of the best receivers in the league on a week-to-week basis, adding a young player of Culliver’s caliber was a power move at a decent price.

“Chris Culliver is one of the better corners we had graded – a major target for us,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said at the NFL owners meetings last week. “I like his toughness. He’s a great tackler, a great competitor. You could see that on tape and he has the ability to travel with the good receivers. We’ll see the Dez Bryants and Odell Beckhams in our division and give him an opportunity to do that.”

Culliver tops a cornerback depth chart that also includes veteran DeAngelo Hall and two promising young players, 23-year-old David Amerson who held his own while starting 15 games for the team last season and 2014 fourth round pick Bashaud Breeland, who is coming off an impressive rookie season during which he also started 15 games. Suddenly it appears the cornerback position, which has long been a weakness in Washington, is one of the team’s strengths.

The Redskins also made a move to upgrade their back end play, reeling in former Seahawks reserve Jaron Johnson on a two-year contract. Johnson bided his time behind a pair of All-Pros Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in Seattle, where he was also an ace on special teams. He’ll continue in that special teams role with Washington, though he will also get a chance to take hold of a starting job at safety, where the Redskins have no clear starter in place.

“He can play in the box [and] he can cover some ground. I think he’s an interesting prospect,” Gruden said of Johnson. “You want [safeties] to be interchangeable. With the change of strengths, and people going in motion and the no-huddle stuff, you want to be able to have safeties that can do both. And that’s what drew us to Johnson, that he can do both.”

Adding both talent and versatility has certainly been at the forefront of Washington’s offseason plan on defense. They still have some work to do on the back end at safety and in the middle at linebacker, where they lost standout Brian Orakpo via free agency, but the dedication to improving the defense is a good sign in D.C.

However, the best sign coming from Washington is the team’s sudden fiscal responsibility. The Redskins have been burned many times over by big dollar free agent additions that fell flat and set them back years. Perhaps with the addition of McCloughan, a long-time scout, to lead the front office, Daniel Snyder has finally decided to leave the football to the football guys. Redskins Team President Bruce Allen, who was promoted to that position when McCloughan was hired, seemed to indicate as much in remarks at the annual owners meetings.

“At the very beginning of the offseason, we decided we had to change the way we were doing business. We had to get better results,” Allen said. “Our game plan has been coming together very well. There were some free agents that went some other places that maybe we wish they had a different choice, but we are pleased. Really, we’re going to start hunkering down on the draft coming up and we’re going to make sure we hit a home run with that.”

The way the Redskins did business in the month of March 2015 is just a small step in what is not likely to be a brief rebuilding process in Washington. The 2015 draft will be an even bigger one and the impulsive Snyder could easily setback their progress if he gets too involved in the draft. But if the Redskins continue to manage their budget and their roster the way they did in March, 2015 could end up representing a tide change in D.C toward building a team the right way.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys