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What lies ahead for Redskins 2017 free agents?

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone who has read my comments on Hogs Haven over the past three years, has probably noticed that I am a fan of the website (OTC), which I often refer to as a source in my comments, and which I sometimes use to introduce topics for discussion in the Daily Slop or 5 o’clock club.

I realize that not many other people are as intrigued by the OTC website as I am, but I love it because it looks at the NFL as a business, and the players as assets of that business. OTC looks in-depth at player contracts, team-building, and front-office effectiveness. As a fan, my primary interest is in the Redskins’ wins & losses on the field, but as a guy who spent many years running businesses for myself and others, and who made a living out of negotiating for much of my life, I am equally fascinated by the business of the NFL.

One of the great features of OTC is the ability to look interactively at the salary cap position of every team in the NFL. If you’d like to take a look at the Redskins, for example, you can click here. By clicking on the “Calculator” tab, you get to play GM for the entire Redskins roster (or any other team in the NFL).

For people who enjoy mock-drafting on the Fanspeak website, this allows you to get an earlier start on the off season by making free agent decisions on your own free agent players in your role as mock General Manager.

OTC currently lists 25 Redskins players who are projected to be free agents in 2017. The list is subject to change, obviously. A player currently on the list might get cut during training camp, or sign a new long-term contract in the next few months.

But I thought it might be a fun exercise, while we’ve got a little down time before training camp starts in a week or so, to look into the crystal ball and predict what will happen with those 25 Redskins free agents, and how it could affect the salary cap going forward.

Here’s the list of the 25 guys that OTC currently projects as 2017 free agents:

1. Kirk Cousins

2. Chris Baker

3. DeSean Jackson

4. Pierre Garcon

5. Vernon Davis

6. Logan Paulsen

7. Junior Galette

8. Chris Thompson

9. Kory Lichtensteiger

10. Josh LeRibeus

11. Ty Nsekhe

12. Will Compton

13. Perry Riley

14. Nick Sundberg

15. Duke Ihenacho

16. Ziggy Hood

17. Jerrell Powe

18. Kendall Reyes

19. Adam Hayward (ILB)

20. Greg Toler (CB)

21. Terence Garvin (OLB)

22. Rashad Ross (WR)

23. Cody Booth (OT)

24. Dashaun Phillips (CB)

25. Al Bond (RG)

And here’s a brief overview of the Redskins salary cap space, as currently estimated by OTC:

2016 $11,009,645

2017 $40,513,272

2018 $79,368,971

Beyond 2018, there are so few players under contract as to render ‘cap space’ rather meaningless.

So, I’m going to dress in my best fortune teller robe, and doff my Scot McCloughan, GM hat, and look one year into the future to predict what is going to happen with the roster and the salary cap.

  1. Quarterback - Kirk Cousins

If the Redskins front office isn’t ready to sign Captain Kirk to a long-term contract next off-season, then there are deep problems that I don’t want to consider. After playing out the 2016 season on the $19.95m franchise tag, Kirk, at age 28, will sign his first big long-term contract with the Redskins.

The recent Andrew Luck contract is likely to provide some idea of the general structure of any deal Kirk signs.

I’m expecting something along these lines:

Kirk Cousins projected long-term contract structure

This contract mirrors the Luck contract in many ways, and allows the Redskins & Cousins to match (or better) the key headline numbers of the Luck contract, but — significantly for the team’s cap management — Kirk’s contract would be timed a year later than Luck’s, meaning that in “salary-cap dollars” its real effect will be that it is cheaper for the Redskins than Luck’s contract is for the Colts.

The contract sets up a commitment between the team and quarterback, but like most NFL contracts, it gets progressively easier for the team to cut the player, and invites an extension/renegotiation in the final year.

2. Defensive Line - Chris Baker

Baker had a very strong campaign in 2016 and is probably the Redskins best interior DL; he is currently the 9th highest paid 3-4 DT in the league at $3m per year, according to OTC. He’ll be 29 years old at this time next year, so this is likely to be his best chance to sign one more big contract before he retires. I’m guessing it’ll be another 3-year deal that will allow him one more crack at free agency at age 32, or a 4-year deal if he expects this to be his last contract.

I think the Redskins value him and that he’ll be a priority signing (maybe even this off season).

I would expect a new deal to be structured similarly to his last contract:

Chis Baker projected 2017 FA contract

This deal would match the current APY for Vince Wilfork and Brandon Mebane, and would tie Baker for 2nd place among 3-4 defensive linemen. It would also provide stability to a position where the Redskins badly need it.

3. Wide Receivers - Pierre Garcon and Desean Jackson

The decisions that Scot McCloughan makes on the Redskins starting wide receivers next year will likely be a matter of much discussion and disagreement. I’m a fan of both players, and I’d love to see them both remain with the Redskins. Looking at the business of the NFL, however, I think it’s unlikely.

In much the same way that the Andrew Luck contract re-defined the salaries for starting quarterbacks this season, salaries for free-agent wide receivers were ratcheted upwards this off-season, primarily due to the dearth of quality receivers in the free agent market.

Garcon and Jackson are both capable of starting for most teams in the NFL, and someone out there will be willing to pay the freight to sign each of them to a contract next season. I don’t think there’s any chance at all that the Redskins will be inking two contracts to keep these two guys in burgundy and gold.

I do think it’s possible that they keep one of them, and Scot & Jay are more likely to want to bring back DJax. Whether or not he is re-signed in 2017 will depend on a lot of factors: how healthy he is in ‘16 and how many games he plays, his production, and his salary expectations.

By drafting Josh Doctson in the first round this year, the Redskins put themselves out ahead of the curve. If one or both of these receivers leave, the Skins will be in a position, via the draft and free agency, to plug the hole.

The supply of free agent WRs in ‘17 is likely to be stronger than it was in ‘16, meaning a bit less upward pressure on salaries. In addition to Garcon & Jackson, the free agent market could include players like Alshon Jeffrey, Vincent Jackson, Emmanuel Sanders, Kenny Britt, Kamar Aiken, Ted Ginn, Terrance Williams, and Marcus Wheaton.

A solid starting wide receiver is likely to cost a team between $6m and $8m per year. If the Redskins can sign Desean Jackson to a contract at $8m or less, I think they’ll do it, but I think DJax is more likely to get a $10m payday from a team that has more pressing needs at the position.

I think the Redskins will spend in the neighborhood of $7m per year for a free agent receiver, and move forward without either of their two 2016 starting wideouts in training camp next season.

I’ll estimate a 4-year, $28m contract with cap hits of $5m, $7m, $8m, $8m on a 4-year contract for the replacement receiver.

4. Tight Ends - Vernon Davis and Logan Paulsen

Honestly, I didn’t expect Paulsen to make the 53 last season. In a sense, I think his injury may have ‘saved’ him.

I was, at first, surprised that he was re-signed this off-season, but on reflection, I could see how injuries and injury history at the position made it a wise move to offer him a contract.

In 2016, Paulsen will make $840,000, with $35k guaranteed. Vernon Davis can earn up to $2.4m. Davis got a $1.1m in full guarantees, but he has ‘game day active’ bonuses and other incentives, so he has to play to get paid his $2m+.

Scot McCloughan has already established a pattern of signing veteran free agents to one-year deals to plug holes in the roster, without committing the team to expensive long-term contracts with aging veterans.

Jordan Reed is already signed for the next few years, and Niles Paul is under contract through the ‘17 season.

I won’t be surprised to see both Paulsen and Davis make the Redskins roster this season, but I’ll be shocked if either of them is in training camp in 2017. It’ll be Reed, Paul and one other guy (Derek Carrier?) next year — Paulsen and Davis are merely one-year rentals this season.

5. Outside Linebacker/pass rusher - Junior Galette

For a guy who has never played a single down for the burgundy and gold, Galette sure has a lot of fan support and high expectations. Count me among those expecting big things from Junior in 2016.

If he doesn’t produce, there’ll be no reason to re-sign him, but if Galette delivers, he’s gonna want to get paid, and getting paid as a pass-rushing specialist in the NFL means that you’re in line for the big paycheck right behind the top quarterbacks in the league.

At $11.5m per year, Ryan Kerrigan gets the 4th highest average annual paycheck among 3-4 OLBs. Junior is likely to want even more on a long-term deal.

With Preston Smith’s rookie deal lasting until 2019 and Kerrigan’s deal running to 2021, the ‘Skins are likely to have stability at the position even without Galette. With Smith in line for a new contract in 2020, I don’t think the Redskins will want to commit money to a Galette contract beyond 2019. From the Redskins standpoint, a 2-year deal for Junior might be ideal.

But it’s not just a question of what the Redskins front office wants; what will Junior want? At age 29, Junior will either want (i) a very short deal that allows him to re-enter free agency early for a big contract, or (ii) a very long contract that will pay him among the top players at his position to the end of his career.

My prediction is that Galette will have the season he wants this year, and next year the front office will face a tough decision about whether to pay him or not.

Will the Redskins really need three talented OLBs? Could the money be better spent somewhere else?

Ordinarily, most teams in this situation would simply place the franchise tag on Junior Galette for the 2017 season, locking him up for one year. But that can be an expensive option.

This season (2016) the LB tag is $14.1m, which means it will probably be around $15m when Galette is set to hit free agency again in 2017. The Redskins are currently expected to have $40m in cap space expected at that time. After paying Kirk Cousins and Chris Baker, that number is likely to drop to around $24m. Then, after allowing $5m or so for the rookie pool, the question is whether the remaining $19m is likely to be enough to allow the Redskins to re-sign Junior Galette if they want to.

I think that $15m is going to be too rich for the Redskins — primarily due to the big bite of the apple ($20m) that is going to Josh Norman. Despite Scot McCloughan’s earlier assurances that the Norman contract would not prevent the Redskins from signing any player that they wanted to keep on the team, I think that Junior Galette will become a cap-casualty, not due to performance or injury, but merely because the Redskins will have to make a business decision on the salary cap.

Whether he performs very well or very poorly, Junior Galette will be finished with the Redskins at the end of this season. If he performs poorly, he will be cut; if he plays at a high level, he will enter free agency and get paid big by a team that is desperate for a pass rusher.

6. Running Back - Chris Thompson

Scott McCloughan surprised me three times this off-season when it comes to running backs. First, he let Alfred Morris go to the Dallas Cowboys for a paltry $1.75m per year. Second, he didn’t use a mid-round pick to select a running back in the draft. Third, he hasn’t placed any priority on bringing a veteran free-agent running back into camp.

I have come to the conclusion that Scot sees the running back position as being “disposable”, and that he values youth and low wear & tear over experience. In other words, it looks like our GM has ‘devalued’ the position along with many other NFL front office types.

Chris Thompson seems to be a Gruden favorite, but he’s never seemed durable, he doesn’t have an irrepleceable skill set, and presumably the Redskins will have 2 or 3 other experienced backs on the roster going into next season.

Chris Thompson will be allowed to walk and McCloughan will look to the draft or UDFA for a replacement.

7. Offensive Line - Kory Lichtensteiger, Josh LeRibeus, Ty Nsekhe

Lichtensteiger will be 32 years old this time next year. He is currently the 13th highest paid center in the league at $3.5m per year, according to OTC. For comparison, Alex Mack is #1 at $9m per year, Ryan Kelly is #17 at $2.6m annually, and Nick Martin’s contract pays him $1.1m per season.

The reports that the Redskins were hoping to draft Ryan Kelly this season make me think that there is a commitment in the organization to upgrade the center position.

I think Kory will be allowed to walk next year.

Whether his replacement comes via the draft, free agency, or whether his replacement is currently on the team, this shouldn’t have a very significant impact on the team’s salary cap situation. I doubt that the team will increase its spending on the position by moving into the top-10 in salaries. If anything, Kory’s replacement is likely to result in a small cap savings.

Josh LeRibeus will be 28 years old and coming off his rookie contract next off season. Josh is not a great lineman, but he is a versatile backup, and he knows the system. I expect him to be offered a new contract next off season. I would anticipate something like 3 years, $4.5m with a small signing bonus & low guarantee. Josh is currently on $920K per year so the salary cap impact would be negligible.

Ty Nsekhe has proven to be a valuable backup offensive tackle; so much so that Tom Compton was allowed to walk this off season. However, Nsekhe will be 31 years old next off season — not an outrageous age for an offensive lineman. He’s a salary cap bargain as the 73rd highest paid right tackle in the league right now, and there’s no reason to expect him to get anything above a league minimum deal.

I expect that the Redskins will re-sign Nsekhe, but look for the ‘Skins to be drafting a 5th round offensive tackle next April.

8. Inside Linebacker - Will Compton and Perry Riley

There is no shortage of people who will tell you that Perry Riley isn’t going to be a Redskin when the team takes the field against the Steelers 8 weeks from now.

Riley’s cap hit will be $5m this year, and the team can save $4m of that if they cut him in training camp. That savings could improve the team’s cap position, and rolling over a $4m savings might be enough to sign a key free agent in 2017. Riley may find himself fighting the salary cap in addition to other players in his effort to make the team this season.

Even if Riley survives 2016, I don’t see him being offered a contract by the Redskins in 2017.

Will Compton is a completely different story. Last season he followed in the footsteps of London Fletcher as a UDFA (2013) who took over the on-field signal calling for the defensive unit. Barring a huge regression this year, Compton is set to be offered a significant contract in 2017, in anticipation of him being a cornerstone of the Redskins defense for the foreseeable future.

Paul Posluszny and Rey Maualuga are tied for the 15th spot among inside linebackers at $5m per year. This seems to be a reasonable target for Will Compton. With a bit of structuring, his 2017 cap hit will probably be in the neighborhood of $3m.

9. Long Snapper - Nick Sundberg

He’ll be 29 next year, and his partners on Special Teams (punter Tress Way and Kicker Dustin Hopkins) are both young and expected to be around for a while.

Sundberg is consistent and the kicking unit has been successful, so there’s no reason to make a change here. Sundberg is reaching the end of a 4-year / $4m contract. I suspect he can be re-signed for a 4-year / $5m contract that will average around $1.25m per year.

10. Strong Safety - Duke Ihenacho

‘Nacho has been a Redskin for two seasons already, but has barely seen the field. He managed to survive into the 3rd game of the 2014 season, but broke his wrist in the opening game against Miami last year.

The good news (if you can call it that) is that Duke isn’t expensive, earning an average of $675,000 per year.

He’s likely to make the team this year, but whether he will be the starter, or backup to David Bruton is a question that should be answered in training camp.

If Ihenacho can stay healthy for 15 or 16 games and play decently this year then it’s reasonable to expect him back in 2017, but another injury or poor play will likely see him re-entering the free agent market.

If I were a betting man, I’d be putting my money on ‘Nacho playing somewhere else in 2017. Sometimes a guy’s just ‘snakebit’ and needs a fresh start. 2016 will be Duke’s last season wearing burgundy and gold.

11. Interior Defensive Line - Jerrell Powe, Ziggy Hood and Kendall Reyes

Jerrell Powe was drafted in the 6th round of the 2011 draft by the KC Chiefs. He appeared in 11 games in 3 seasons before being released for good by the Chiefs. He played a year in Houston before being released again.

In 2015 the Redskins brought him to training camp, but released him following the final pre-season game, and Powe did not play in the NFL last season.

Ziggy Hood was drafted by the Steelers at the end of the first round in 2009. He’s played 7 seasons and is currently 29 years old. He had a couple of good season in 2012 & 2013 with 3 sacks each year, and around 40 tackles.

He signed a 4-year, $16m contract with Jacksonville in ‘14 but was injured and released. He played two games for the Bears in 2015.

This is a player who had talent prior to his injury; Scot McCloughan seems to be banking on a return to form this season.

Reyes is now 26 years old, and was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft by the San Diego Chargers. He had a productive 4 years with the Chargers, averaging around 3.5 sacks and 30 tackles per season. At 6’4” and 300 pounds, Reyes will likely earn $2.5m with the Redskins in 2016.

Of the three interior lineman on the list, Reyes appears to have the best shot at playing well in 2016 and earning a spot on the Redskins roster in 2017. Ziggy Hood is going to need a return to form; in fact, he’s not a lock to make the squad this season. Powe looks to be a long shot. I doubt whether he can make the 53 this season barring injury to Kedric Golston or Matt Ioaniddis.

Scot McCloughan looks to be throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks where the defensive interior line is concerned. Reyes has a good chance to be on the team in 2017, Hood will be here only if he can show that he has recovered is pre-injury playing form, and Powe looks like a camp-body.

The Redskins will need to seriously address the NT/DT position in the 2017 draft if they want to field a team that can challenge for a Lombardi Trophy.

12. Special Team players - Adam Hayward (ILB), Greg Toler (CB), Terence Garvin (OLB), Rashad Ross (WR), Dashaun Phillips (CB)

These 5 players are primarily depth players, whose ability to make the team will probably rest on their contributions to special teams. It’s difficult to look a year ahead and predict with any certainty what will happen with them. In fact, there’s no guarantee that any or all of them will make the Redskins 53 this season.

In any event, whether these players are re-signed or whether different players take their places, there is likely to be very little salary cap impact.

13. They look like Camp Bodies - Cody Booth (OT), Al Bond (RG)

I’ve heard a few people say good things about Cody Booth, but — along with Jerrell Powe, whom I discussed with the Interior Defensive Linemen — these guys look like “camp bodies” to me. I doubt whether they will make the team in 2016, and they are unlikely to be around next off season.

So, there you have it.

These are my expectations for the 25 players that OTC currently lists as probable Redskins free agents in 2017.

It seems like a good idea to recap what likely effect my projections would have on the Redskins 2017 salary cap.

Obviously, the actual cap management of the front office would be more creative and more precise than this, but it illustrates that — even with Josh Norman’s $20m cap hit and a new contract for Kirk Cousins in 2017 — the salary cap numbers can work out.

Roster-building is a type of alchemy — a blend of science and art. Even the salary cap, with it’s underlying foundation in numbers and accounting, has a bit of wizardry to it — a touch of smoke and mirrors. In the end, every team has the same limitation of 53 players per season and a salary cap. Good coaches get the best out of the players on the roster, but good GMs get the best players on the roster that the salary cap will allow.

Here’s hoping that Scot McCloughan and Eric Shaffer are better at this than I am.