Alex Smith’s situation
The Washington Football Team has only one quarterback under contract for 2021 that has ever taken a snap in an NFL regular-season game: Alex Smith. They also have Steven Montez, the former Colorado quarterback. Montez is, in my eyes, a practice squad quarterback; the fact that Ron Rivera signed Taylor Heinicke off of his sofa in December rather than trusting Montez, who had been with the team since training camp, says all I need to know to inform that opinion.
Alex Smith’s situation seems problematic. First, his recent issues with his calf seem to drop him firmly into the “unreliable” category from a health standpoint. If you recall, he was unable to finish the 49ers game, missed the Seahawks and Panthers games, hobbled through the Week 17 contest against the Eagles, and then was inactive for the team’s playoff game against the Buccaneers. That means he was able to start and finish only one game in the final five played by Washington. The second problem is Smith’s salary cap hit. If he plays 16 regular-season games plus playoffs, then he is a bargain at $23.3m for 2021, but given the unreliability discussed above, he looks like a very expensive option. I love Alex’s leadership, mentorship and proven ability to win games, but Miami got all of that out of Ryan Fitzpatrick this season for only $8m, and he was fully healthy until Week 17.
Ultimately, Alex Smith’s future will be up to Alex Smith and, to a large degree, Ron Rivera, but if I were betting real money, I’d wager that Smith will announce his retirement sometime in February. I suspect he wants to keep playing, but he’ll recognize that his inabity to get on the field when Washington really needed him against Carolina, Seattle and Tampa Bay will be enough to finalize the decision. Reading between the lines of Alex’s comments, it sounds like his wife has been gently pushing in that direction anyway.
If Smith retires in February, as I predict he will, then the salary cap impact would be significant. The team would save $14.7m against the cap in 2021, and a further $21m in 2022. That’s a whopping $35.7m over the next two seasons.
If Smith chose not to retire, I suspect that the front office would cut him before the start of the league year anyway, and I question whether any other team would offer a contract to the soon-to-be 37-year-old quarterback with the reconstructed right leg. Washington could, perhaps, smooth the transition for Smith by offering him a role on the coaching staff or in the front office, or Alex might be able to do something similar in Kanas City if he wished to.
In any event, if you’d have asked me my opinion immediately after the Steelers game, I’d’ve said that I expected Smith back on the field with Washington next season, but his inability to finish out the ‘21 season due to a calf injury has changed that opinion.
So, no experienced quarterbacks under contract for 2021?
With Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke reaching the end of their current contracts with Washington in March, that sounds like it would leave Washington’s quarterback cupboard pretty bare, but it won’t.
The reason is that neither Allen nor Heinicke is an unrestricted free agent. Under the rules of the CBA, Kyle Allen is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent (ERFA) and Taylor Heinicke is a Restricted Free Agent.
RFA and Taylor Heinicke
RESTRICTED FREE AGENT (RFA)
- A restricted free agent (RFA) is any NFL veteran [that reaches the end of his contract] with three accrued seasons but not four accrued seasons of service. (Under certain restrictions, any NFL player with three accrued seasons shall be free to negotiate and sign a contract with any other NFL club).
- The RFA has a signing window of roughly one month—typically between early to mid-March, when free agency starts, and mid-April. The signing period must last a minimum of thirty-five days and cannot end later than five days before the annual NFL Draft.
- If an RFA player is tendered a Qualifying Offer, his original team has the right of first refusal and may receive a draft selection as compensation if the player signs a contract with a new team.
The original team can give a player one of four Qualifying tenders: Restricted Free Agent (RFA) Tenders
(a) right of first refusal only, or
(b) right of first refusal + draft selection at the player’s original draft round, (e.g. rounds three through seven) or
(c) right of first refusal + one second-round draft selection or
(d) right of first refusal + one first-round draft selection.
Over the Cap lists Heinicke as an RFA, and it has been confirmed:
Key point regarding Taylor Heinicke: he is set to be a restricted free agent as opposed to an unrestricted free agent. Just got clarification on this from @CoachWilder353, who spoke to Taylor & his agent. Makes it even more likely Taylor is back with #WashingtonFootball for 2021.— Al Galdi (@AlGaldi) January 11, 2021
The amount of RFA tenders in 2021 will be slightly different than in 2020, as they are tied to changes in the salary cap that have not yet been defined, but here is a list of the tender amounts for 2021 as estimated by OTC:
SInce Heinicke was an undrafted free agent coming out of college, there would be no draft compensation if Washington were to tender him at the “original round” amount and he were to sign with another team.
The only choice here is whether to offer Heinicke the lowest level of $2.24m or to use the Second Round tender offer that costs $3.42m. The extra $1.2m would simply be insurance intended to keep any other team from “poaching” the young quarterback.
Considering that Heinicke was out of the league completely in 2019 and most of 2020, and has played less than 5 quarters of professional football since the end of 2018, this seems like a pretty expensive premium.
I’ve also gotta think that Heinicke will see his best opportunity of sticking on a roster to lie with Scott Turner and Ron Rivera, and I think he might forgo an extra million or so of non-guaranteed money if he thought he might be given a shot at getting on the field in the regular season in Washington versus competing for a backup spot somewhere else.
My guess is that Washington will tender Heinicke at the lowest amount with little risk of him being signed away by another team (remember that the tender also comes with a right of first refusal if they want to match a competing offer). If they choose to spend the extra money on a second-round tender, however, that would virtually guarantee that he would enter camp with Washington in 2021.
Strengthening my opinion, I have to say that I was underwhelmed by Ron Rivera’s response after the Tampa Bay game when he was asked to assess Heinicke’s play. Ron praised him, but not effusively or with the unrestrained enthusiasm he usually gives, say, Alex Smith. Remember, Ron traded draft resources to Carolina to get Kyle Allen into Washington this past off-season when he could have signed Heinicke to a simple vet-minimum contract prior to training camp with no decrease in draft assets. Rivera just doesn’t seem to me to be as enamored with Taylor Heinicke as one might expect him to be in the circumstances.
The ERFA and Kyle Allen
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENT (ERFA)
- An exclusive rights free agent (ERFA) is any NFL veteran [who reaches the end of his contract] with less than three accrued seasons. A rookie (first-year player), second, and third-year player each fall into this category.
- A player with exclusive rights status may only sign a contract with their original team, if the original team placed the minimum salary tender, typically during the first days following the completion of the Super Bowl through the start of the new league year (mid-March).
- Any player who receives a team’s exclusive rights minimum salary tender will not be able to negotiate with another team, and the player must only re-sign with his original team.
- If the minimum salary tender is not given or the tender has been withdrawn by the original team to a player with less than three accrued seasons, that player will then be completely free to sign with any team without any penalty or any restrictions.
Kyle Allen is completely under the control of the Washington Football Team until the first day of the league year.
If the team offers him a vet-minimum contract any time prior to the end of the 2020 league year, then his only choices are to accept it or not to play. If the team does not tender the offer, then Allen would become — practically, if not technically — an unrestricted free agent on the first day of the new league year.
The cost of the ERFA for Kyle Allen in 2021 should be $850,000 for one year. That’s a no-brainer.
Kyle Allen, assuming he plays out the season in Washington, would still not be an unrestricted free agent in 2022, and the WFT would control his rights for at least the 2023 season on a very inexpensive contract.
Ron Rivera and Scott Turner seem to have a lot of belief in Allen. Don’t forget that he started 12 games for Rivera in Carolina last season, and Ron decided to trade for him this year. A couple of weeks ago, when a reporter asked a ‘softball’ question about whether the team would be where it is without the contribution of Alex Smith, Ron’s surprising reply was to say that the team would have been successful under Kyle Allen if he hadn’t been injured mid-season. Ron has constantly talked up Kyle Allen as an NFL quarterback.
Where would that leave Washington with regard to roster and salary cap?
Let’s assume that Rivera takes the approach I’ve discussed above. The quarterback room would comprise three young players:
- 28-year-old Taylor Heinicke - shoulder injury in playoff game
- 25-year-old Kyle Allen - dislocated and broken ankle in Week 9
- 24-year-old Steven Montez - no snaps in an NFL game
Salary cap impact
Right now, OverTheCap estimates Washington’s salary cap space to be $42.6m. That number will not be fully accurate; there will be adjustments between now and the new league year, both to the overall league cap and to Washington’s specific cap situation. Even now, for example, that number includes Shaun Dion Hamilton, who was released this week.
But since we’re working with broad strokes and hypotheticals, let’s use this as a starting point.
Where would the team’s salary cap end up as a result of the three roster moves discussed (Smith retires while Heinicke and Allen are retained on RFA & ERFA tenders respectively)?
$42.6m = Current estimated 2021 cap space
+14.7m = 2021 cap savings from Alex Smith retirement
-$2.24m = RFA tender for Taylor Heinicke
-$850K = ERFA tender for Kyle Allen
$54.2m = estimated adjusted cap space for 2021
Adding another quarterback
It’s possible, I guess, that Ron Rivera could choose to ride into the 2021 season relying on Allen, Heinicke, and Montez to man the QB spot at an overall cost of about $3.9m, but I don’t expect them to take that approach.
Adding another quarterback can happen in three major ways: trade, veteran free agency, or the draft.
Trade and vet free agency offer opportunities to sign either a high-dollar or low-dollar player (eg. trading for Alex Smith vs trading for Kyle Allen).
In the draft, the cost is measured in draft capital expended.
Potential Trade Targets:
- Deshaun Watson $10.5m cap hit in 2021
- Carson Wentz $25m or $35m cap hit in 2021 depending on timing due to contracted bonus
- Matt Ryan $23m cap hit in 2021
- Jimmy Garoppolo $25.5m cap hit in 2021
- Matt Stafford $20m cap hit in 2021
- Derek Carr $19.6m cap hit in 2021
- Teddy Bridgewater $18m cap hit in 2021
- Nick Foles $4m cap hit in 2021
- Sam Darnold $4.7m cap hit in 2021
- Jalen Hurts $883K cap hit in 2021
- Gardner Minshew $850K cap hit in 2021
Potential free-agent quarterbacks:
- Dak Prescott 29 yo
- Jacoby Brissett 30 yo
- Mitchell Trubisky 28 yo
- Tyrod Taylor 33 yo
- Ryan Fitzpatrick 40 yo
- Andy Dalton 35 yo
- Colt McCoy 36 yo
- Robert Griffin 32 yo
- Nate Sudfeld 29 yo
- Joe Flacco 37 yo
- Mike Glennon 33 yo
- Jameis Winston 28 yo
- Bryan Hoyer 37 yo
- Blake Bortles 31 yo
- CJ Beathard 29 yo
Quarterbacks expected to be eligible for the draft and available after top-10:
- Trey Lance North Dakota State - likely first-round pick
- Mac Jones Alabama - likely first-round pick
- Kyle Trask Florida - likely first/second-round pick
- Jamie Newman Georgia - possible Friday pick
- Kenny Pickett Pittsburgh - possible Friday pick
- Brock Purdy Iowa State - likely Saturday pick
- Tanner Morgan Minnesota - likely Saturday pick
- Kellen Mond Texas A&M - likely Saturday pick
What’s the future for Alex Smith?
This poll is closed
On the WFT roster in 2021
Traded to another team this off-season
Cut by the team the off-season
Retires this off-season
What will the team do with Taylor Heinicke?
This poll is closed
Give him a second-round tender ($3.4m)
Give him an "original round" tender ($2.24m)
Offer him a long-term contract
They won’t re-sign him
What will the team do with Kyle Allen?
This poll is closed
Offer him a long-term contract
Let him leave in free agency
What will the team do about adding another quarterback?
This poll is closed
Nothing; they’ll stand pat with the guys they have
Trade for a high-dollar NFL starter like Watson, Jimmy G or Stafford
Trade for a low-dollar veteran like Foles, Darnold or Minshew
Sign a veteran free agent
Draft a QB in the first round
Draft a QB on Friday (round 2 or 3)
Draft a QB on Saturday (round 4-7)