Jay Gruden had enough.
At least that’s the apparent message upon learning the Washington Redskins released D.J. Swearinger Monday. The strong safety, a frequent public critic of the coaching staff, made another series of strong statements following Saturday’s road loss at Tennessee.
By choosing this moment and more specifically this player for some arguably needed pushback, Gruden and other decision makers shoved safety higher on the team’s 2019 need’s list.
How high? Putting aside the uncertainty with quarterback Alex Smith’s leg injury, safety is now arguably the No. 1 priority entering the offseason.
Several positions could make that claim including edge rusher, guard, inside linebacker and tight end depending on other personnel choices entering free agency. Safety ranked fifth in NBC Sports Washington’s recent projection for 2019 needs.
To some that seemed overcooked considering the presence of Swearinger, who was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate this season. That rank primarily indicated the concerns at the other safety slot and overall depth, but also the possibility of Swearinger not returning due to his penchant for outbursts.
The safety played in all 31 games for the Redskins during his two seasons after signing a 3-year, $13 million contract in 2017. His release costs the Redskins $1.33 million toward the salary cap for next season.
Now that the Redskins are eliminated from the playoff race, Swearinger’s departure ahead of Week 17 is more about the future than the present. Therefore it would seem to reason based on this personnel move that Gruden returns for 2019 despite recent speculation over his future. The Redskins have missed the playoffs in four of his five seasons as head coach.
Should the Redskins re-sign free agent linebacker Preston Smith, the edge need drops down the 2019 needs list, though more pass rush help is required. Same with keeping ILB Zach Brown (though that seems like a dubious assumption considering his recent benching) and tight end Jordan Reed, though the two veterans are potential cap casualties.
Washington’s offensive line remains a strength, when healthy, but the left guard spot needs a talent transfusion. None of the in-house candidates are obvious starters, but some are capable of filling in if available resources are spent elsewhere.
At safety, there is no backup plan for Swearinger. Should free safety and 2019 free agent Ha Ha Clinton-Dix not return, the Redskins would be down two starters.
Montae Nicholson, the one potential replacement for Clinton-Dix, was suspended for the final two weeks of the season following a recent arrest for his involvement in an altercation. Nicholson also barely played after Washington acquired Clinton-Dix before the NFL trading deadline.
Troy Apke, a 2018 fourth-round pick, made zero impact defensively before landing on injured reserve. Deshazor Everett remains more of a special teams option.
Amazingly, the Swearinger-Nicholson tandem gave Washington its best starting safeties in years. This position more than any other on the roster compared to the drummer drama for the fictional rock band Spinal Tap. No matter whom the organization signed or drafted, the plan always exploded in their face.
That seemingly changed last season. Swearinger provided the secondary with an assertive presence. This season Swearinger turned in some of his better work, particularly early in the campaign, though concerns with his tackling inconsistency exist. He had two games with two interceptions including the Week 8 road win over the Giants.
Washington selected Nicholson in the fourth round of the 2017 draft. Injuries limited the Michigan State product to eight games during his rookie season, but he started six. His size combined with impressive coverage range stood out. Gruden called Nicholson the Jordan Reed of the defense because of how he positively affected game plans.
Yet his struggles this season led to Washington trading a 2019 fourth round pick for Clinton-Dix. The one-time Pro Bowler hasn’t produced at that level for the Redskins. The Swearinger release could swing leverage with any upcoming negotiations Clinton-Dix’s way.
Swearinger’s pointed criticisms Saturday were hardly his first in the public forum. Along with X’s and O’s concerns, he’s been a frequent critic of how the stay-medium Gruden runs practices during his two seasons in Washington. Swearinger, who denied reports that he was disruptive during a previous stint with the Houston Texans, has played for four teams in six NFL seasons.
His exit from Washington certainly changes the perception at safety going forward and where the position ranks on the list of team needs entering the offseason.
MORE REDSKINS NEWS
- D.J. Timeline: Swearinger's NFL ups and downs
- Swearinger Cut: 'Skins cut ties with D.J. after controversial comments
- Inside the INT: What happened between Doctson and Johnson?
- The plan at QB: Who'll start in Week 17?