News & Analysis

Washington Football Team 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Jan 9, 2021; Landover, Maryland, USA; Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) passes the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The Washington Football Team will look to repeat as NFC East champions in 2020, but the odds are that it will be difficult to do so with another 7-9 season. Ron Rivera and his staff have seemingly built a solid foundation in Washington, as the team exceeded preseason expectations. The next step will be to continue building this roster for whoever takes over behind center next season. 

As what should be an active free agency period for Washington nears, questions at quarterback, wide receiver and cornerback begin to loom larger. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $38,207,074 (6th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 19, 51, 74, 82, 125, 166, 243, 245

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB ?
RB Antonio Gibson 14 / 70 $1.1 million
WR Terry McLaurin 26 / 127 $1.1 million
WR ?
WR ?
TE Logan Thomas 35 / 71 $3.6 million
LT ?
LG Wes Schweitzer 11 / 39 $5.0 million
C Chase Roullier 6 / 37 $4.6 million
RG ?
RT Morgan Moses 6 / 38 $9.7 million

The news of Alex Smith‘s impending release reduces the number of candidates for the starting quarterback job by one, but there are still several possibilities at the position for Washington.

Taylor Heinicke recently signed a two-year extension worth just over $4 million, making the one-game postseason wonder the leader in the clubhouse for the job as things stand right now. However, that contract won’t keep the Football Team from pursuing other options.

Secondary and tertiary receiving options behind McLaurin will remain a priority, as well. The team has several younger players under contract who can compete between Kelvin Harmon returning from injury, Steven Sims, Antonio Gandy-Golden and Isaiah Wright, but no one stands out as a clear-cut starter at this stage. 

Along the offensive line, Washington would do well to re-sign Brandon Scherff after a strong 2020 season played on the franchise tag. Schweitzer, Roullier and Moses all had solid 2020 campaigns and figure to be the favorites to maintain their starting jobs heading into next season, too. That leaves left tackle as the biggest question up front. Cornelius Lucas earned a 79.0 overall grade there last season, but he could battle for the job again this offseason, with Geron Christian, Saahdiq Charles and whoever else Washington decides to bring in as competition. 

Is going into the 2021 season with only Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen a bad idea?

It’s not hard to see why there is some optimism about what Heinicke brings to the table following his gutsy performance in Washington’s postseason loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His 92.0 overall grade in the game was the highest single-game mark of any quarterback in the 2020 postseason. 

That said, heading into the 2021 season with Heinicke as your starting quarterback is a significant risk for a team that is in a position to compete in the NFC East. Heinicke will turn 30 years old in just over a week, and he has started only two games in his NFL career, the first of which earned a 46.5 overall grade back in 2018 with the Carolina Panthers

The other option on the roster also has familiarity with Rivera from his time in Carolina. Allen started 12 games for the Panthers in 2019, earning just a 49.7 overall grade in the process. His limited action during the 2020 season in Washington before going down with injury didn’t give a whole lot of reason to believe he is anything more than a capable backup option, either. 

If Washington is serious about defending their title as NFC East champions in 2021, adding competition at quarterback either through trade, free agency or the draft should be priority No. 1.

What would adding a quality No. 2 receiver mean for Terry McLaurin’s production?

Among the wide receivers who played at least 100 snaps for Washington, here is how their overall grades finished for the 2020 season: 78.5, 62.5, 61.5, 57.6, 57.5, 44.6. McLaurin was the owner of that 78.5 PFF grade, as you could have probably guessed. To put the lack of receiving talent behind him in context, Cam Sims’ 62.5 grade — the next-highest mark from that group — ranked 97th among 127 qualifying players at the position. There simply weren’t any quality options behind McLaurin on the depth chart at wide receiver. 

Washington will get 2019 sixth-round pick Kelvin Harmon back from injury in 2021, but is that the guy who will turn the tide at the position? There was optimism last offseason around what young players like Harmon and Steven Sims could become, but WFT isn’t in a position to take a wait-and-see approach on what they have in their young guys for another year. 

As Richard Sherman said on the Cris Collinsworth podcast recently, “If he [McLaurin] had anybody else besides him and they couldn’t just double him … he’d be special.” McLaurin has already shown the ability to win both deep and after the catch with that additional attention. Washington should be trying to make his job easier this offseason by adding another legitimate threat out wide to share the field with him.

Does a long-term deal get done with Brandon Scherff?

It seems as if Washington is rightfully reluctant to let Scherff go. The six-year veteran out of Iowa has dealt with injuries throughout his career, but he has been one of the best guards in football when on the field. Scherff is coming off a 2020 season played on the franchise tag where he earned a career-high 86.3 PFF grade, third among all qualifying right guards behind only Wyatt Teller and Zack Martin. Scherff did miss several games early in the year, but his 929 offensive snaps played were his most since 2016.

Considering the potential instability on the left side of the offensive line, it makes sense for Washington to lock down Scherff and keep the solid Roullier-Scherff-Moses pairing from center through right tackle in place.  

Potential targets at open spots

Quarterback: Marcus Mariota, Tyrod Taylor

Washington’s postseason appearance means that they are likely out of the picture for the top quarterback prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft. For that reason, free agency or trade is probably where the team will be looking to add competition at quarterback in the coming weeks. 

Mariota flashed that he could still play in his cameo appearance in relief of Derek Carr this past season as the backup quarterback for the Las Vegas Raiders. He earned an 82.1 PFF grade in that Week 15 appearance. Mariota was making some progress in 2017 and 2018 with the Tennessee Titans before an elbow injury set him back. Now healthy, the former No. 2 overall pick deserves another starting opportunity in the NFL. 

Taylor is another mobile quarterback option Washington could turn to. After producing three straight seasons with PFF grades of 75.0 or better from 2015 through 2017 with the Buffalo Bills, Taylor’s luck has run dry. 

A poor start to the season in Cleveland followed by a head injury opened the door for a rookie Baker Mayfield in Week 3 of the 2018 season. Mayfield never gave the job up. Similarly, Taylor started the year as the Chargers' quarterback before the team doctor punctured his lung, giving Justin Herbert a starting opportunity that he never gave back. Perhaps Washington is the opportunity Taylor needs to get his career back on track. 

Wide receiver: Will Fuller V, Elijah Moore

Some additional speed at wide receiver would go a long way towards opening this offense up, and there is no better vertical threat in this free-agent wide receiver class than Fuller. The concern with any team offering Fuller a long-term deal is that injuries have been a major factor through the first five years of his NFL career. On top of that, his most successful season — 2020, a year in which Fuller was able to stay healthy — ended with a six-game PED suspension that will have one game remaining to serve in 2021. 

Fuller became the top target on Houston’s offense last season before that suspension. The attention that his speed commands would help open things up for McLaurin.  

Moore stands out as a cheaper, younger alternative in the draft that would still add some juice to Washington’s receiving corps. It’s hard to argue with the numbers he put up this past season at Ole Miss, and he has all the traits that you look for in a high-level slot receiver with the quickness to create separation underneath and the speed to get deep.   

Tackle: Christian Darrisaw, Liam Eichenberg 

It’s tough to see Washington adding a left tackle in free agency, given what they will need to pay Scherff to retain him. They already have a capable swing tackle in Cornelius Lucas, as well. That means the draft could be where they look for a long-term starter. 

Darrisaw is the guy who makes the most sense in Round 1. He is in a similar tier to Rashawn Slater on the PFF Big Board at 15th overall, capable of stepping in and having success early in his career. The power that he has to his game doesn’t only pay dividends in the run game but also in pass protection, where his punch has a real impact on rushers. Darrisaw is coming off a monstrous 95.6 overall grade in 2020 at Virginia Tech. 

Eichenberg would likely be a second-round target for Washington if they wanted to look elsewhere with their first-round pick. His bottom line in the PFF Draft Guide reads, “You can chase higher-end traits, but Eichenberg provides one of the higher floors in this class.” Technically, he’s capable of being a Day 1 starter. 

Guard: Brandon Scherff, Sadarius Hutcherson 

As I discussed above, keeping Scherff is the ideal outcome. Even with Washington bringing Scherff back, Hutcherson wouldn’t be a bad late-round developmental target. Listed at six-foot-four and 320 pounds, Hutcherson has the kind of size and explosiveness that teams want inside. He just has a long way to go on his technique. Hutcherson earned a career-high 74.9 overall grade with the Gamecocks in 2020. 

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Da’Ron Payne 38 / 125 $4.6 million
DI Jonathan Allen 18 / 125 $10.1 million
EDGE Chase Young 5 / 110 $7.9 million
EDGE Montez Sweat 11 / 110 $3.2 million
LB Cole Holcomb 23 / 83 $0.9 million
LB ?
LB ?
CB Kendall Fuller 42 / 121 $13.1 million
CB ?
CB Jimmy Moreland 75 / 121 $0.9 million
S Kamren Curl 32 / 94 $0.8 million
S ?

The defensive front for Washington is set with Payne, Allen, Young and Sweat. It’s one of the best front fours in the entire league, with each player still on his rookie deal. Behind that defensive line is where more questions begin to pop up. 

Holcomb is expected to keep a starting job with the team following a solid 2020 season in which he earned a 64.8 PFF grade on over 600 defensive snaps. However, there is less clarity behind him on the depth chart at the position. Jon Bostic could play another year in the middle of Washington’s defense, but it’s not as if the Football Team can’t look to get better at the position. Bostic’s release could net the team roughly $2.7 million. Khaleke Hudson could also look for more action in his second year out of Michigan, as well. 

In the secondary, Ronald Darby will be a free agent following a bounce-back campaign in which he graded out as Washington’s best cornerback. WFT will either need to bring him back or find another starter outside this offseason. They could also look to improve in the slot, where Moreland has produced sub-60.0 PFF grades in each of the last two seasons. 

Safety is an interesting position for Washington. Landon Collins is by far the highest-paid player at the position, but it’s not clear where he fits in following Curl's emergence as a rookie last season while Collins missed time with injury. Both are better suited for a role closer to the line of scrimmage. There has been talk in the past about Collins transitioning to more of a linebacker role. Perhaps 2021 is when that move happens. 

Troy Apke, Jeremy Reaves and Deshazor Everett are the players currently under contract who could fill the role at free safety. Reaves should have the advantage in that competition after earning an 84.1 overall grade on 336 defensive snaps down the stretch in 2020. Washington could also look outside the organization in a deep free-agent pool. 

Does Washington have the best defensive line in the NFL heading into the 2021 season?

They certainly boast one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. The young nucleus of Young, Sweat, Allen and Payne all finished among the top 40 players at their respective positions in PFF grade last season, with all but Payne finishing inside the top 20.

That play up front was a big reason Washington’s defense finished the season ranked third in expected points allowed per play behind only the Los Angeles Rams and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Teams like the Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles don’t make this a runaway, but Washington is at the forefront of the conversation with the jumps in play from Allen and Sweat, along with Young’s immediate impact off the edge in 2020.  

How confident should WFT be in Ronald Darby repeating his 2020 success?

Success as a defensive back in the NFL can be fickle. Darby went from two years earning at least 70.0 PFF coverage grades with the Eagles in 2017 and 2018 to a disastrous season in 2019. Darby allowed over 10 yards per target that year while picking up a coverage grade of just 39.8. 

That opened the door for Washington to buy low on the former second-round pick out of Florida State with a one-year, $3 million contract last offseason. Darby proceeded to rebound in Washington’s defense, finishing the year as a top-30 cornerback by overall grade. 

Now, the decision-makers in Washington must ask themselves just how likely Darby is to repeat that success in the future. Alternatively, how likely is a 2019-esque season if the team does re-sign him? 

Looking at Darby’s NFL resume as a whole, there has been more good than bad when healthy. The 2019 season was the only season in his six-year career with an overall grade below 68.0. A deal somewhere in the range of three years and $30 million, as currently projected on PFF’s free agency rankings page, doesn’t seem like a stretch for Washington, given their current cap situation.  

How does the safety position sort itself out for Washington?

Washington is in the unenviable position of needing to find a place to play someone who is making nearly $17 million next season. Landon Collins isn’t going anywhere, given the dead cap hit of $18.8 million should Washington designate him as a pre-June 1 cut, or $13.8 million on a pre-June 1 trade. He earned a solid 69.2 overall grade in his first year with the team in 2019 — buoyed by strong play against the run — but took a step back this past season before going down with injury. 

Complicating matters, seventh-round pick Kamren Curl played exceptionally well in Collins’ absence at strong safety. Curl’s 0.37 wins above replacement per PFF War was one of the higher marks of any safety in the 2020 draft class, and it earned him a spot on PFF’s All-Rookie team. Washington could play more three-safety defenses with Collins' skill set in the box, but Curl and Collins aren’t a natural fit together at safety. 

Adding another layer is Washington’s cap situation and the wealth of talent at free safety in free agency. They could look to make a splash signing on a player with some range in coverage in the coming weeks — it stands to be one of the more interesting positions on the team heading into 2021.

Potential targets at open spots

Linebacker: Lavonte David, Justin Hilliard 

NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo recently reported that David could be one of the members of Tampa Bay’s 2020 roster that isn’t brought back next season because of the cap issues facing the team. “I mean, at some point, you’re getting to a point where you just don’t have enough money for everybody. So, I think there is the general sense that Lavonte David is going to be headed elsewhere.”

Even at 31 years old, David hasn’t lost a step and stands out as one of the league’s best all-around linebackers. He’s especially valuable in coverage, where he has earned coverage grades of at least 74.0 in each of the past four years. David put that ability on display in Super Bowl LV in his matchup with Kansas City’s Travis Kelce

The drafting of Hilliard wouldn’t provide nearly as much of an instant impact, but there could be value to be had when he comes off the board. Injuries derailed Hilliard’s Ohio State career, but the former five-star recruit is one of the best all-around athletes coming out of the collegiate ranks this year at linebacker. He earned run-defense and coverage grades north of 80.0 across his 231 snaps this past season for the Buckeyes.    

Cornerback: Ronald Darby, Tay Gowan

I already touched on why it makes some sense to bring back Darby opposite Fuller on a mid-range deal. 

Gowan stands out as a guy who will likely come off the board later in the 2021 draft than where PFF slots him in this year’s cornerback class. The fifth-ranked cornerback on PFF’s Big Board and 51st-ranked prospect overall, Gowan has the length, movement skills and production of a first-round prospect. If Washington can get past the lack of tape against high-level competition, Gowan could be a source of value later on in the draft. 

Safety: Anthony Harris, Malik Hooker  

Free safety is a spot where Washington could add a more proven veteran presence, with Apke, Reaves and Everett standing out as the guys on the roster battling for that spot as things stand right now. 

Harris will likely be on the high-end of Washington’s budget, but he has been one of the very best free safeties in the NFL over his last three seasons in Minnesota. Harris’ 90.6 PFF grade over those three years is tied for the best mark of any safety in the league. He would add the kind of playmaker on the back end that Washington is currently lacking. 

Hooker would be a discounted version of Harris and will be coming off an Achilles injury. The talent is there, and it showed in flashes with Indianapolis, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued the first four seasons of the former first-round pick’s career. Turning 25 years old in April, Hooker could still provide a spark in the right situation, and he won’t cost as much as the top-of-the-market options. He has experience in both two-high and single-high coverages. 

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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