It seems like Ron Rivera and his GM team of Martin & Marty (Mayhew & Hurney) have a particular philosophy about NFL veteran free agency. They take one or two big swings, and also hit a lot of through-the-infield singles.
In 2020, the Washington Football Team front office had a big swing & a miss with Amari Cooper, who reportedly turned down a richer contract offer from Washington to stay in Dallas on a 5-year, $100m deal that, reportedly, owner/GM Jerry Jones is now not very happy with. If Riverboat Ron is still interested in Cooper, he might be able to get him in trade with 3 seasons (at exactly $20m per season) remaining on his contract.
In 2021, it was widely reported — and confirmed by Rivera himself — that the team actively tried to trade for Detroit Lions QB Matt Stafford, who eventually went to the LA Rams. Things worked out okay for Stafford, who just hoisted his first-ever Lombardi Trophy earlier this month. Things didn’t go as well for Rivera & Co., whose second choice for the QB position, Ryan Fitzpatrick, went down with an injury about 26 minutes into the season, never to return. Washington played out the season with backup Taylor Heinicke as the primary signal caller, and is once again shopping for a new starting QB this offseason.
This year’s big swing will almost absolutely come at the QB position, and it could be in the form of a blockbuster trade for a top-tier veteran, a bridge-QB paired with a draft pick who needs time to develop, or drafting one of the top-three quarterbacks in the 2022 draft.
But that’s for other people to talk about.
What I want to look at is some of the bunts & singles that the Commanders front office and coaches might look at during free agency. They’ve gotten on base successfully by bringing in veteran guys who looked like head-scratchers or camp bodies when they were signed.
Remember how underwhelmed most people were by Logan Thomas as a TE free agent? I personally laughed at the thought that JD McKissic would make the roster when he was brought to camp. On the other hand, I felt like the only guy in town who expected one of last year’s pleasant surprises — DeAndre Carter — to make the team and excel.
Wes Schweitzer barely caused a ripple in the pond when he was signed. A lot of people were puzzled when Charles Leno was brought to town on a budget contract and Morgan Moses was allowed to leave. And, while Bobby McCain’s first year has left fans divided as to his value, his $1.4m cap hit was a definite bargain price for the veteran free agent.
Washington’s free agent action in Ron Rivera’s first two seasons has been typified more by these under-the-radar and low-budget free agent signings, many (if not most) of which have turned out well.
So, while the headlines will be made by the search for a quarterback, I’m asking today: who are some of the guys that Ron & the Martys might find when they start shining their flashlights in dark corners and pawing through the bargain basement bin of free agency next month?
Four possible veteran free agents bargains in 2022
I’ve identified 4 players who each could be the type of veteran player that Ron and the Martins have targeted in the past two offseasons as the Washington Football Team. The front office may have a new approach as the Commanders, but if they continue to look for lower cost veterans who can make an impact in an effort to build a deep roster rather than a star-studded one, these are among the guys who could be targets.
WR: RUSSELL GAGE, FALCONS
Gage is about the same height as Terry McLaurin, but with a bit slighter build, at 6’0”, 184 pounds. He came out of LSU with DJ Chark in 2018, and I’ve seen his pro day 40 time reported as 4.50 and 4.42 in different places. Basically, he’s got decent speed and has 4 years of production in Atlanta to look at.
As you can see, over the past two seasons, he’s caught around 70 balls for around 780 yards and exactly 4 TDs per season, at a shade over 11 yards per reception.
As you can see from his 4 years of snap counts with the Falcons below, Russell Gage has flexibility to line up wide or in the slot. Though he played primarily from the slot in 2019-20, last year he lined up wide the majority of the time with no real change in production from the previous season.
Washington’s offense is built around the idea of maximum positional flexibility. Gage’s ability to line up at different spots on the field and produce makes him look like a natural fit for the Scott Turner/Ron Rivera philosophy.
Per PFF, Gage has generated separation against single coverage at an 88th percentile rate since 2020. They suggest that any team that needs a receiver that can consistently get open at the short and intermediate levels of the field (and what team doesn’t need that?) should target Gage in free agency.
TE: MO ALIE-COX, COLTS
Mo Alie-Cox is one of those basketball-players-turned-NFL-tight-end stories that seems to be working out pretty well. I have to admit that I am a huge Alie-Cox fan because he is the only NFL player ever produced by my alma mater, VCU. But the fact that Alie-Cox is a Virginian born & bred is part of what makes him a good fit for the Commanders.
At 6’5”, 267 pounds, he fits the mold of a big and capable tight end that the coaches in Washington seem to love.
As a run blocker, Mo Alie-Cox seems to be improving year by year, if PFF is to be believed. His run blocking grades from 2018 to 2021 are: 60.1, 65.4, 69.8, 71.4. For pass blocking, PFF gave him grades between 70.3 and 81.8 in three of his 4 seasons with the Colts.
His receiving production has been limited, but that’s due in part to the fact that Indy has a three-headed receiving group at TE, with Alie-Cox, Jack Doyle and Trey Burton each getting around 45 targets and 32 receptions in 2021. Alie-Cox had the fewest targets (40) and the most receptions (35) of the group, and his 12.2 yards per reception outpaced Doyle and Burton (10.7 and 9.2), though his TD production lagged (2 for MA-C vs. 3 for Burton & 4 for Doyle).
Across the NFL, the 2022 free agency tight end group is top-heavy with higher profile players like Zach Ertz, C.J. Uzomah, Eric Ebron, Gerald Everett, Jared Cook, Robert Tonyan, O.J. Howard, Hayden Hurst, Even Engram, and maybe even Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski.
There seems to be a very real chance that Mo Alie-Cox could find it an appealing idea to come home to Virginia to play for the Commanders in Scott Turner’s tight end friendly offense. With Logan Thomas’ recovery from a late-season knee injury making him questionable, and the depth comprising a pair of 2nd year players in 4th round draft pick John Bates and Chilean basketball player turned NFL TE Sammis Reyes, the opportunity to play early and contribute to the team might feel just right to the 28-year-old Alexandria native.
A tight end group that comprised the 6’6”, 250 pound Thomas, 6’6”, 259 pound Bates, 6’5”, 260 pound Reyes, and 6’5”, 267 pound Alie-Cox would be a formidable group of all-round tight ends with proven blocking and (with the exception of Reyes) pass-catching skills.
LB: ALEXANDER JOHNSON, BRONCOS
C’mon, admit it. You’ve never heard of Alexander Johnson, right?
He came out of Tennessee as an undrafted free agent in 2015, but didn’t really start his NFL career until the Broncos gave him a chance at inside linebacker in 2018. He played special teams in just one game that season. In 2019 he played 731 snaps, almost exclusively as an inside linebacker in Denver’s 3-4 defensive scheme. By 2020, he was the entrenched starter next to Josey Jewel, and played 1,063 defensive snaps.
Last season, it was a no-brainer decision for the Broncos to tender him as a restricted free agent (RFA). He played between 50 and 72 defensive snaps per game for the first 5 weeks before a torn pectoral muscle in Week 6 ended his 4th NFL season.
Now, Denver has a new coaching staff, with Nathaniel Hackett taking over as the head coach; former Rams Assistant Ejiro Evero is taking over as Defensive Coordinator. It seems like a genuine possibility that the coaching staff may be ready to let Johnson continue his NFL career in another city as they retool for the future. Josey Jewell, the team’s 4th round pick in 2018, is also poised for free agency in March, and the Broncos may not prioritize Johnson on the roster going forward.
Why wouldn’t they?
Well, Johnson’s career got off to a slow start — he was out of the NFL for 3 years after he finished his college career, so he is 30 years old now, and will be 31 by the time the season starts. A new coaching staff in Denver might prefer to retain Jewell and pair him with a younger linebacker.
The Commanders have youth at the position, with 25-year-old Cole Holcomb and 23-year-old Jamin Davis. Even the hybrid safety-linebacker Landon Collins, who is entering his 8th NFL season is just 28 years old. The team is likely to draft a linebacker as well. What Jack Del Rio needs is veteran stability, so a player like Johnson on, say, a 3-year contract, with an out after the 2023 season, could be just the bridge to the future that the Commanders need.
Here’s what PFF had to say about the linebacker:
Johnson was having an incredible 2021 campaign before suffering a torn pec in Week 6, as he owned an 81.0 PFF grade and hadn’t missed a tackle on 34 attempts. In 2019 and 2020, he was one of the five highest-graded off-ball linebackers in the league. The 30-year-old’s pro career got off to a late start, but he has more than proven that he belongs as a starting linebacker. Regardless of the scheme, any team with a hole at linebacker should look to bring in Johnson.
Looking at the reports and comments from SB Nation blog, Mile High Report, it seemed that Broncos fans see Johnson as a player they’d like to have back ‘at the right price’.
I see Johnson as the type of player that Washington has made good use of over the past couple of years. He doesn’t have draft pedigree; he has played as a starter. Coming off of a serious injury, he isn’t likely to command a high-dollar contract. His age also mitigates against him being a high-demand free agent in 2022, but he has the skills needed to contribute as a potential starter for the Commanders.
There is one issue with Johnson besides his age and injury history, and it has to do with why he wasn’t drafted in 2015 coming out of college.
Basically, while he was at Tennessee, he had a serious legal issue that led to his Combine invitation being withdrawn, and teams taking his name off their draft boards. Here is the story as told on Wikipedia:
Johnson was suspended from the University of Tennessee after he was accused of rape. Two days prior, Johnson [had thrown] a party at his apartment. A woman, who was visiting out of state, [and who] stated [that] she had previously had two sexual encounters with Johnson [alleged] that she was shocked when Johnson immediately began having sex with her after [she entered] his bedroom. She then alleges that Johnson’s fellow teammate, Michael Williams, joined and began raping her alongside Johnson. On February 12, 2015, Johnson and Williams were both officially indicted on two counts of aggravated rape by a grand jury. On July 27, 2018, Johnson and Williams were acquitted of all charges.
This serious incident took place in 2015. The player was acquitted of charges in 2018. He has played in the NFL for 4 seasons following the acquittal.
Does this disqualify him as the type of ‘high character’ player that Ron Rivera says he is always looking for, or would Ron see him as a young man who got a second chance and made the best of it?
Personally, I don’t know how he’d view Johnson’s character, but as an on-field player, he seems to be just the type of free agent that Mayhew, Hurney and Rivera have targeted in the past. If they feel okay about his character, I could see him as a guy they could try to sign next month.
FS: MARCUS MAYE, JETS
Here’s the blurb from PFF that caught my eye:
Maye is going to sign a one-year, prove-it deal in free agency after rupturing his Achilles in the midst of his 2021 campaign. The Jets safety’ role changed this past year (specifically, he played far more in the box), which played a part in a dip in PFF grade when on the field, but his multiple seasons of high grades at deep safety should spark draw interest from several teams. Since 2018, Maye owns the second-highest PFF grade at free safety — behind only Kevin Byard.
Last season, Washington jumped at the chance to grab a veteran free safety on a cheap one-year contract after Bobby McCain was unexpectedly cut by the Dolphins late in the offseason, leaving McCain with limited options (as most other teams had already spent their available cap space).
So far, there have been no reports of Washington negotiating to bring McCain back in 2022 (though it’s early yet) and the 28-year-old McCain is gonna be looking for a big contract in what is likely to be his best shot at a payday in free agency.
I could see the front office looking for a veteran free safety that would again be available on a budget, and that guy could be Marcus Maye.
franchise-tagged a year ago
Maye is entering his 6th season in the NFL, having spent his entire 5-year career with the Jets after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2017. The team liked him well enough to use the franchise tag on him a year ago to keep him in New York for his 5th NFL season at a cost of $10.6m.
Maye has played the full 16 games three times in his career, but he managed just 6 games in 2018 and again in 2021 as he suffered two injuries (broken thumb and shoulder) in ‘18, and a both and early season ankle injury and a Week 9 Achilles injury that ended his ‘21 season.
For those wondering if Maye could even make it back on the field in time for the 2022 season, remember that Landon Collins started Week 1 of the ‘21 season after an Achilles rupture in Week 7 of 2020.
The timeline might be tight, but if the doctors are satisfied, the 28-year-old Maye could prove to be a good addition to the Commanders roster on a cheap one-year deal, especially if the team can draft a good young safety. If needed, Jeremy Reaves could start at the position for a few weeks to open the season.
Maye’s need to “prove it” stems not only from his injury, but from off-the-field troubles that arose last year. In February 2021, Maye was involved in a car crash and was charged with, among other things, DUI. Apparently, the Jets were not aware of the incident until October, when he was scheduled for a court appearance.
Maye, traveling by himself in a 2018 Mercedes, allegedly crashed into the left rear of a Volvo while driving north on the Florida Turnpike at 7:33 p.m. There were no injuries....
Maye was found in his car just north of where the alleged accident occurred, according to the police report, which also stated that he was unresponsive and unaware that he hit another vehicle. His eyes were bloodshot, his speech was slurred and officers smelled alcohol, per the report. Officers saw vomit on the driver’s door and the floorboard.
It was Maye’s first DUI offense, according to court documents.
The arrest occurred two weeks before Maye, voted by teammates as the Jets’ MVP in 2020, was given the franchise tag by the Jets.
Once again, I’m not sure how much this car accident from a year ago that involved speeding and alcohol will affect the assessment by the Commanders front office, but it seems that, in the light of Deshazor Everett’s fatal car crash late in the ‘21 season that resulted in a charge of involuntary manslaughter, the team’s decision-makers might have heightened sensitivity to Maye’s issue from a year ago. Of course, the player could also potentially face disciplinary action under the league’s personal conduct policy; that’s a consideration that the team would need to investigate.
Once again, it’s hard to predict how the front office would weigh up the dual issues of injury and a seriously bad off-the-field decision against the opportunity to get a proven 28-year-old centerfielder with 5 good years of production. If Ron Rivera feels that Maye is healthy, free from NFL scrutiny under the personal conduct policy, and mature enough to meet the coach’s personal standards, then perhaps the two sides could find common ground. But that’s a lot of “ifs”.
Which player would you most like to see the Commanders target in free agency?
This poll is closed
WR Russell Gage from the Lions
TE Mo Alie-Cox from the Colts
LB Alexander Johnson from the Broncos
FS Marcus Maye from the Jets
None of them - these are four bad choices