Redskin FA signings must pass the test in 2011

When I put together my free agency wishlist for 2011, I expect it to look very different from similar lists in past years.  There’s a coherent reason for this.  It’s because the 2011 Redskins are a very different team heading into this year than they’ve been in past years.

Each year since 2004, the Redskins have gone into the season with some justified optimism about being in the hunt in the NFC East.  2006 was supposed to be the cash-in year on the gains made in 2005.  2007 was an obvious rebound year from some fluke occurences that derailed the 2006 season.  I don’t remember a lot of preseason optimism in 2008, but the Redskins got off to their best start of the decade, and any tepid predictions for the year were replaced by justified expectations.  2009 brought a legit talent influx on a 8-8 season, and promised a down year for like-minded NFC East contenders.  2010 offered a new head coach with a very well placed roster and an obvious rebound opportunity.

Perhaps the best seasons the Redskins have had since the firing of Norv Turner have come with a healthy dose of preseason skepticism.  The Redskins exceeded media-based expectations in 2001, 2005, 2007, and 2008.  They failed to meet expectations in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2010. 2011 is shaping up as another year of tempered optimism, and though it may be a self-fufilling proficy (or ignorance of the regression to the mean principle), I would bet on the side of the Redskins vs. the betting line this upcoming season.

The obvious problem is that exceeding low expectations doesn’t do anything to put the Redskins in the playoffs in 2011.  And the moves made by the team in free agency needs to respect that reality.  They need to be able to improve the team, but one thing I’m not going to do is any variation of a win shares analysis on the Redskins and prospective free agents.  Any unforeseen improvement that propels this Redskins team towards a highly unlikely playoff berth will almost certainly have come through internal means.

To me, this introduction helps me draw three criteria I want in all free agent signings the Redskins make this year:

  • 1) Younger than the average NFL player at his position
  • 2) Will not block a homegrown Redskins rookie with legitimate upside
  • 3) The player must be able to perform in any scheme to warrent a guaranteed contract
  • Clauses 1) and 2) can be nullified if the player is a long-term solution onto himself (Asomugha principle)
  • One year, or effective one year contracts to aging vets acceptible if contract terms are release friendly at the roster cut-down date

One of the many reasons I’ve been a rare voice of opposition to bringing back Santana Moss is that when you outline the desires for the Redskins in free agency, as I have above, I’m not sure where Moss fits into a sound, long term plan.  He’s not young, he’s definately blocking 2011 Redskins draft picks, he was a non-factor for the two years that Jim Zorn and Sherman Smith ran the offense, and perhaps wasn’t one of the top five offensive players on the Redskins over those two years.  Is he a long term solution onto himself?  A declining yards per catch average suggests that would be a foolish investment as the Redskins no. 1 receiver.  And what about Moss on a one-year contract where he could get released on the 53-man cutdown day.  Well, sure that would be a great decision for the team, but I have no idea what’s in that arrangement for Santana Moss.

The allure of a guy like Nnamdi Asomugha is obvious: I, and 28 other analysts for different fanbases would love to have him suit up for them next year.  Now Cullen Jenkins, a much more reasonable target for the Redskins, fits the third clause better than any player on the market, perhaps.  He’s not young enough to fit the first clause, thus, he’s not the perfect free agent target.  But whether you like him enough to bypass the “blocking” qualification depends on what you think of Jarvis Jenkins’ upside as a prospect.  Because of the nature of the DL position, and the fact that even in his 20′s, Cullen Jenkins was a sub-Haynesworthian snaps per game player, I feel that this is only a semi blocking of a player who can definately still get his snaps if he plays up to his draft status.  It would be imperfect, but I would approve the acquisition of Cullen Jenkins at a lofty (but reasonable) price.

Now here are other players who have been linked to the Redskins at some point, and how they stack up against the qualifications above:

Santonio Holmes

I went long-form on Holmes earlier this week, making the case that it would be wise for the Redskins to pass on Holmes.  My reasoning was similar in nature to why I don’t particularly feel like bringing Santana Moss back is a great idea: blocking younger players, overpaying players like Holmes is what got the Redskins into this perpetual mess.

Holmes, though, is as young as the average starting NFL wide receiver and fits any scheme that the Redskins may run.  He would, in theory, take one of the starting WR positions away for the life of his contract.  And that’s a good thing.  If a Holmes signing went wrong, it would only be because the talent evaluators over-estimated how good he has actually been in his career to date.  Not because he was a non-fit.  Just because of the potential for a bad contract.  But outside of my misevaluation fears about Holmes, this actually would be a good signing for a team like the 2011 Redskins: the closest possible way to “buy” passing offense.  Outside, of course, of Sidney rice.

Braylon Edwards

I actually find the prospect of adding New York’s other free agent reciever to be far more intriguing, because the guaranteed financial committment would seemingly not be as steep, and there would be far less of a likelihood of overpaying for ultimately mediocre talent.  Like Holmes, Braylon Edwards also has a downside of “bad contract” but through extensive tape study of the Jets as well as statistical analysis, I feel like if we’re making rest of career projections between Edwards and Holmes, the smart man’s money would be on Edwards, even though Holmes has inflated value right now.

Edwards presents other problems as a 2011 Redskin.  He’s 28, meaning that he’s already at the average age for an NFL starter at receiver, and probably can be expected to post a 2007-like career year at some point in the next three seasons, after which, his decline phase will be inevitable.  So while Edwards is a valuable asset to hold between 2011 and 2013, and a free agent contract should reflect that, chasing a pro bowl receiver season hurts the development of the other players on the roster.  Edwards has historically proven a bit of a flake: he was very good in 2007 and in 2010, but he has six accrued seasons, and only two have been worth owning.  Which is to say, for whatever reason, even the brightest offensive minds have at times run into a situation where Edwards is more of a problem than a help to a growing offense.

Tarvaris Jackson

The average starting QB age in the NFL was 28.3, but that can be adjusted to under 28 if you drop Brett Favre from the conversation and consider Jackson to be a starter.  Jackson is 28 next season, meaning that the biggest problem with him is that his birth date doesn’t allow for high upside any more than Matt Leinart, Trent Edwards, Vince Young, or Bruce Gradkowski.  And at least two of those players are more accomplished in the pros than Jackson.  There are younger, projectable quarterbacks available on the free agent market this year (Nate Davis, Caleb Hanie, Matt Moore, Alex Smith), I just don’t see Jackson as one of them.

One thing that can be said about Jackson, or Matt Leinart, or Vince Young, who have all been tied to the Redskins at some point this offseason is that they’re certainly not ‘blocking’ a Redskins QB of the future.  Interesting fact here based on the average QB age stat above, a complete list of ALL quarterbacks ever rostered by the Redskins who will be under the age of 28 in the upcoming season:

Colt Brennan

That’s it.  Brennan, who will be 27 next season, is the youngest quarterback ever to suit up for the Redskins.  And suit up is a rough term because Brennan was never active for a game.  The youngest QB ever to play in an NFL game who also was under contract with the Redskins at some point: Richard Bartel, who is a month younger than Jason Campbell.

Now that I’ve shamelessly named dropped enough quarterbacks for web hits, I go back to my point: the Redskins haven’t even bothered to acquire a “young” QB since they drafted Campbell at age 23.  No QB younger than Campbell has ever taken a regular season snap for the Redskins.  Hopefully, they sign a UDFA this offseason and break that streak.

Marshal Yanda

Yanda is younger than the average starting OT in the NFL, there’s no one for him to block (metaphorically), and he’s undeniably a premier player with the flexibility to go play guard should the Redskins bring back Jammal Brown later in free agency.  So this is a really good target for the Redskins to lock on in free agency.  Maybe not as sweet as poaching Doug Free from the Cowboys as badly as they need him, and maybe not as sound a pickup as buying low on a guy like Willie Colon, but Yanda passes the major criteria for a free agency add.  If the Redskins sign him, he’s clearly versatile enough to perform in multiple schemes.  But perhaps his lack of athleticism will be a drawback to offering top FA dollar for the Ravens four year pro.

Davin Joseph

Joseph is a priority signing for the Tampa Bay Bucs, who have more cap space than they can actually use in 2011.  He would have been a good fit for the Redskins needs, but given that he hasn’t exceeded his first round draft prospects from 2005, there wouldn’t be any sense getting into a bidding war when he wants to stay in Tampa.  Under different circumstances, Joseph would make sense as a target because he’s significantly younger that the other top guards on the market (Harvey Dahl, for example).

Ryan Harris

Harris remains a Redskins target even though there appears to be no market for Jammal Brown, who would like to return.  Harris would give the Redskins a younger, better right tackle who is a better scheme fit and offers sound pass protection.  Here’s where you have to evaluate the 26 year old Harris: compare his market value to that of similarly aged Stephon Heyer.  If the Redskins can get Harris at somewhere near the 2011 cap value and guaranteed committment it would cost to bring back Heyer, it would make logical sense to go get the guy with success as a starter over the guy who remains a scouting projection.  What seems for certain at this point is, independant of what they do on the rest of the line, the Redskins are going to sign two offensive tackles in free agency.

You’ll notice that Yanda, Joseph, and Harris all fit all of my qualifications outlined above to enjoy met expectations in free agency.  Which means that in regards to their offensive line situation for 2011 and beyond, the Redskins appear to have their noses in the right place.

Aubrayo Franklin

It emerged around the same time that headway started being made in labor negotiations that the Redskins were targeting Franklin to be their nose tackle this year (they also were rumored to have interest in Kris Jenkins, who was distraught enough by those rumors to retire), and that talk has quieted down considerably, which is perhaps the easiest way to validate the inital rumors: that the Redskins have apparently put a moratorium on Franklin talk.

Franklin will be 31 in 2011.  His only value is as a run stuffing nose in the 3-4.  He isn’t directly blocking a prospect at this position though, which explains the legitimacy of the interest, and you can certainly see his value to the 2011 Redskins, but it’s hard to see where Franklin is valuable to even a winning organization, much less the Redskins, in 2012 in beyond.  This, to me, explains why San Francisco is letting him test the market.  He could be the O.J. Atogwe of 2011: he’s free to test the market, may be likely to re-sign with San Francisco for less then people thought he would be worth, and in 2012, he could be released from his contract with fairly limited fanfair.

This is not to suggest that Franklin is going to be out of the league a year from now, but supply and demand for 3-4 nose tackles is roughly equal in the NFL, and it would seem like a long term deal to a 31 year old nose is playing hard and loose with future market projects.  The contract COULD be valuable, if the college ranks don’t produce a nose tackle worth drafting for the next two years, but with the premier nose in 2010 being the likes of Antonio Garay, a Bears castoff, it’s worth pointing out that the Redskins already employ a Garay type player in Anthony Bryant: a scouting find attributable to a member of the front office’s familiarity with a player at a prior destination in a different defensive scheme, and a guy who really excelled at the position in the final weeks of 2010, prompting a bad unit to quietly “breakthrough” when no one was paying attention.

The Chargers released Jamal Williams not knowing that Garay would dominante in 2010, and were rewarded with the league’s best defense according to total yards in 2010.  The Redskins could only hope for such fortune, but it would start by not shooting the opportunity in the face with free agent dollars.

I like Alan Branch, particularly for insurance against Bryant’s lack of development, not actually as an obsticle that only money can buy.  Branch has not, to my knowledge, been mentioned by a source around the organization as a potential Redskin target.

Paul Posluszny

Posluszny would make sense for the Redskins because they’d be going back to one of their most successful free agent wells: Bills linebackers.  He’s young for a free agent, just 27, at the average age for a starting NFL linebacker.  Whether he’d be blocking Perry Riley or HB Blades has more to do with your opinion of Riley or Blades.  The excellence in this move would be that a long term contract to Posluzny would set the Skins up nicely for the post Fletcher days.  However, in 2011, I can’t say it might not be a better decision to offer Fletcher a much deserved contract extension aimed at letting him retire on his own terms.  It would be unorthodox to offer guaranteed money to a 36 year old player to stay, but Fletcher is a low risk to hold the organization hostage with declining play.  He’ll be here for 2011 + 12 on an extension, and if he doesn’t continue to defy age odds, I think he’ll get out of the game rather than play out his extension.  Plus, well deserved for a player of Fletcher’s caliber.

Posluszny is a priority for the Bills, so the Davin Joseph logic applies here as well.

Ike Taylor

Taylor seems like he would be a strong fit in any scheme, and he’s a nice player to have in your organization, but at age 31, he doesn’t qualify as younger than the average corner (hes actually well older), and though I don’t doubt his ability to provide a return in this scheme in 2011, he definately blocks Kevin Barnes as a starter.

This is a totally different recommendation if the Redskins decide they want to go in a different direction from DeAngelo Hall and invest in a guy who fits the scheme at one corner and a developing player in Barnes at the other.  But in the abscence of a radically different defensive approach in 2011 given 2010, Taylor’s upside here wouldn’t outweigh the problem his contract would cause in future seasons vs. a guy like Hall, who the Redskins can contractually drop at any time and save a lot of money.  I’d pass on Taylor and stick with Hall this year.  Hall has the much friendlier contract.  I’d have a different opinion if I thought the Redskins would be a super bowl contender.

Antonio Cromartie

A team with Antonio Cromartie and DeAngelo Hall at the corners would be a fascinating case study in how good a defense that ranks 32nd in total yardage against can truly be.  Cromartie is just 27.  Hall is a half year older than that.  This could acutally be a situation where the Redskins could find that they actually, given improved pass pressure, finally find themselves in a position where they are creating turnovers instead of just benefitting from the sporadic ones.  Problem is, there’s almost no way to acquire Cromartie without doing what the Redskins did with Hall, and giving him a free agent contract that he cannot possibly outplay.

This signing would look really, really good if the Redskins markedly improve their pass pressure on quarterbacks back to 2009 levels.  Of course, doing that would make any signing the Redskins make look really good.

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In conclusion, the Redskins would appear to be sniffing around the right free agents on the offensive side, but on the defensive side, they would appear to be using a more questionable approach, given how the unit performed at the end of last season, and where the team expects to be in 2011.  Given the history of Mike Shanahan as a roster-builder, none of this surprises me.  A surprisingly effective John Beck season is likely to be met by the yawns of a 7-9 finish, should the Redskins not refine their approach, particuarly on the defensive end, to favor youth and upside in free agency over experience and past production.  And a relatively ineffective Beck season? 5-11.  Safely out of the Pot of Luck, but in a position which would jepordize the jobs of the offensive coaches given their quarterback gamble and where the franchise would be at that point.