Through some good decision-making and a dash of luck, the Washington Football Team sits at the precipice of a major opportunity.
All across the NFL teams will be forced to cut veteran players in an effort to get below the 2021 salary cap, a reduced figure due to the global pandemic that kept fans out of stadiums during the 2020 season. For a decade the salary cap has gone up, year after year, but this year it will drop nearly 20 percent.
For a lot of teams, that’s causing chaos.
For Washington, that’s creating real opportunity.
After last Friday’s release of veteran quarterback Alex Smith, the Washington Football Team now finds itself with more than $52 million in salary cap space. That’s the fourth-most available cap space in the NFL, ranking only behind the Jaguars, Jets and Patriots.
Some of that might be snapped up by right guard Brandon Scherff, a pending free agent that Washington might elect to franchise tag, but even if that occurs the football team will still have more than $30 million to spend.
Compare that to the rest of the NFL and the numbers look even better.
- There are nine teams that are currently over the cap, which will force major changes.
- Another seven teams have fewer than $10 million available under the cap, much of which would be swallowed up by the incoming 2021 draft class.
That means 16 teams - half the league - have less than what it takes to sign a single Pro Bowl-caliber player, and for many of those teams, it seems much more likely their own Pro Bowl-caliber players could be released in the next week.
The legal tampering period opens March 15th with the official opening of the new league year on March 17th.
Between now and then a number of highly productive veteran players could find themselves unceremoniously cut, surprise releases only due to the shrinking cap.
Let's circle back specifically to Washington.
The defense is good, and could become great. The unit needs help at linebacker - which could definitely emerge via free agency. Jack Del Rio's group could also use more secondary help, and there could be veteran bargains available this year that don't normally present themselves, particularly at cornerback.
Offensively the obvious question is quarterback.
Be real - a depressed salary cap will have no impact on the best quarterback's salaries, and it seems unlikely that Washington's cap surplus will help the team land a top-flight passer.
There aren't enough top QBs in the NFL, and general managers across the league would cut off their own foot before they'd cut a top-tier passer.
Receiver will be interesting to watch, and expect Washington to be aggressive trying to address that position. Tight end could be another spot that Washington is able to land value.
The offensive line will be fascinating.
Washington has its own decision to make with Scherff, but it can't be good news for the star guard that so many other guards are hitting the marketplace. Keep in mind too, every team that is trying to trade a player now is likely prepared to cut that player next week.
Ron Rivera's team also needs to address left tackle, but that could be the top target in April during the draft. Last season Washington drafted LSU tackle Saahdiq Charles in the fourth round, though he floundered through an injured rookie season. Does the team still consider him a candidate to be the LT of the future? Could he shift inside to guard? Lots of questions.
It took until about October last year for Rivera to look at the landscape of the NFC East and realize his team could contend for the division title. That realization forced the coach to make changes to try and win the title. Sure enough, three months later, Washington won the NFC East.
Look at that landscape now.
Washington has significantly more cap space than all three of their divisional opponents, and some of those deltas are massive.
Dallas has about $20 million in cap space but faces a huge decision with QB Dak Prescott. The Giants have about $6 million in cap space, which ain't much, and beyond Kevin Zeitler and Nate Solder, there aren't many obvious cost shedding moves for New York.
The Eagles are a mess.
Philadelphia has the third-worst cap situation in the entire NFL and currently sit more than $34 million over the cap. Much of that comes from trading former franchise QB Carson Wentz this offseason. The Eagles will be forced to release some very popular veterans with big cap numbers, players that could raise eyebrows and attention across the league.
Add all of that up and it becomes much more clear - Washington has an opportunity here.
Rivera's team needs to take a calculated approach to spending, which should be expected. Washington had cap space last year too, made one major free agent offer to Amari Cooper though he turned it down to stay in Dallas. Washington didn't chase the next wideout on the market, but stayed put and held their cash.
That was smart, and the team should be smart again this offseason.
But being smart this offseason also means seeing the rest of the league struggle to balance the books and seizing opportunities.
Calculated and aggressive.
A strong offseason could put Washington in the driver's seat of the NFC East for the next three or four years, even without an immediate answer at quarterback.
The Burgundy and Gold won seven games last year with four different starting QBs. That's absurd. With just steady play at the position, Washington could be poised for much more this fall, and beyond.
The old Wall Street adage suggests that when there's blood on the streets, buy.
Now is that time for Washington.