There were plenty of Washington fans who expected 2023 to be a season of struggle and a season with fewer wins than losses, but none of them are saying ‘I told you so’ because no one was really expecting this.
The overall expectation was that Washington would be led by its defense while young Sam Howell worked his way through the process of becoming an NFL quarterback under the tutelage of his creative new offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy. The team would, as it had in 2022, field a defensive squad that would make it tough for opposing offenses to regularly score over 20 points in a game, and that would allow EB and Sam Howell to take advantage of an easy early-season lineup of opponents. After all, the team had been .500 in 2022 with Carson Wentz, Taylor Heinicke and Scott Turner putting up 18.9 points per game. With a beefed up defense and the long-time Chiefs OC, the 2023 team would have to be competitive nearly every week, right?
It hasn’t worked out that way.
There’s been a slight uptick in the team’s offensive scoring, from 18.9 ppg to 20.1 ppg, but defensively, the Commanders are giving up a league-worst 30.4 points per game (last year it was 20.2). The next-worst defense in the NLF is currently giving up 26.1 ppg, so it’s really really bad.
And it’s getting worse. Over the final three games before this week’s merciful bye week, opposing offenses averaged 40.3 ppg, and last Sunday, the Dolphins put up 45 points as a team, even though they actually put their collective foot on the brake late in the 4th quarter, sitting starters and running the ball between the tackles in an effort to simply end the game and go home.
At this point, Commanders fans have seen enough — or too much.
There’s no question about the fate of Ron Rivera at this point. There are strong indications that many of the other people that comprise both the football side and the business side of the organization will join Ron Rivera as former-Washington employees early in 2024.
The disorganized mess we saw on the field week after week was easy to pin on the coaches, but as the losses, butt whippings, and blowouts have piled up, players have sounded increasingly frustrated with the situation, and fans have sounded increasingly frustrated with the players. Perhaps the fan base wants to see more ‘blood on the floor’ than just front office staff and coaches. Despite lots of talk prior to the season about a generally good roster with some obvious holes at OL and LB, many fans sppear now to have lost faith not only in the coaches and front office, but in the players themselves.
In this week’s Reacts survey, we asked about the approach fans wanted to see with the roster this offseason.
Do Hogs Haven readers want to see the new regime build around the core group that includes young players like Sam Howell, Sam Cosmi, Jahan Dotson, and Brian Robinson along with veterans like Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Logan Thomas and Terry McLaurin?
Or, do HH members prefer to see the roster edifice ‘ripped down to the studs’, with older, high-dollar vets released or traded to maximize cap space and draft picks in a total re-build?
The results were close, but a clear preference emerged.
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The majority of respondents in our survey answered that they prefer a total re-build of the roster. We haven’t asked the question before in the Reacts surveys, but my feeling from reading the site daily is that this is a fairly recent sentiment. My guess is that a similar question asked in the first few weeks of the season would have seen strong support for the idea of a new front office and coaching staff keeping the core of the roster intact.
So, what would a roster re-build look like?
What is it that 54% of our members are calling for?
High priced/underperforming veterans are traded when possible, released if necessary
Allen tops the list of 2024 cap hits at $21.5m. He could probably be traded for good compensation — maybe a late-2nd or 3rd round pick. He would cost the acquiring team $17.5 m, but they would get a locker room leader and an on-field force in the interior. He would bolster already-strong defenses like the 49ers or the Eagles, or could feature in a turnaround of a struggling defense. Washington would see a $9.5m increase in 2024 cap space and another $17m in 2025 if they moved Jonathan Allen off the roster.
Allen has been publicly airing his frustrations all season long, and clearly wants to play for a winning team. Asked recently if he had considered playing for another team, Allen said that “1000%” it had crossed his mind. While his focus was on winning games, his comment rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way. Given the team captain’s lack of statistical impact this season, I’m not sure how many fans would be sorry to see him go, even though he’s been a hugely popular player and leader throughout his career in DC.
I think there’s a very different perception of Logan Thomas among fans than among coaches and teammates. Thomas is professional, smart, and a steady presence on the team. He also counts $8.3m against the 2024 cap. Given that he will be 33 years old next season, I don’t think anyone would trade for the tight end in the final year of his contract. He would simply be released, saving the Commanders about $6.5m against the cap.
Thomas is currently on pace for the 2nd-best season of his career as a tight end, and will likely finish 2023 with numbers very close to those of his career-best 2020 season (Ron Rivera’s first season in DC). Anyone who remembers the promise that UDFA TE Armani Rodgers showed prior to tearing his ACL during OTAs might feel that the team already has enough talent in the youngster returning from injury to replace the on-field production that would be lost with a Logan Thomas release.
The veteran left tackle had big shoes to fill when he was signed by Washington in 2021. The fans had enjoyed a lot of stability at left tackle, going from Chris Samuels, who played from 2000 to 2009, to Trent Williams, drafted 4th overall by the Redskins in 2010.
Leno brought a level of veteran professionalism to Washington after being released by the Bears, but he has struggled along with the rest of the offensive line in 2023.
Many fans and HH members see Leno as a guy to release outright, saving $7.5m in 2024, the final year of Leno’s contract. Talking heads have more often talked about drafting his replacement, but holding onto Leno as a swing tackle, or perhaps playing him on the right side. Leno has played his entire pro career on the left side, so expecting him to play on the right, as a starter or as a swing tackle seems optimistic at his age, and $15.75m seems like a lot of money for a backup.
In a total rebuild, Leno is released, and I doubt he would find much of a market for his services among other NFL teams at anything other than a very team-friendly contract.
The starting right tackle in the most recent super bowl, which his team won, has been a disaster for the Commanders in 2023. His release will add $1.5m to the team’s 2024 cap space, and at least another $6.5m to the 2025 available cap.
The team’s longest-tenured player is also one of the most popular among fans. The 33-year-old punter signed with the Redskins at the start of the 2014 season and has survived a lot, but his punting performance in 2023 fell off to about league average. Letting him go in the final year of his contract would add $3.15m to the team’s available cap space, and he can be replaced by a fresh young leg coming out of college for about $1m.
Trading Jonathan Allen and releasing these other 4 veterans would add one or more draft picks and increase available cap space by an estimated $28.15m. Of course, it would also create 5 more roster spots that need to be filled, but the GM would have enough resources to upgrade 3 or 4 of the positions while developing a younger roster.
Familiar players would not be re-signed
Washington has 25 players — about 47% of its roster — in the final year of their contracts and headed for free agency. In a typical year, about a dozen of those players would be re-signed. Loyalty from the coaching staff and familiarity with offensive, defensive and special teams schemes would be factors in the value of re-signing them.
But many of these guys can also be replaced by other players with similar skill sets, and a new staff will do exactly that.
While Samuel has been fairly popular with fans since recovering from the mystery groin ailment that ruined his inaugural (2021) season in DC, Curtis was brought to Washington by the coach who’d drafted him, and the receiver was eager to re-join his college roommate, Terry McLaurin. Samuel’s 2023 campaign looks like it will be the best of his short career here in Washington. He’s on pace for over 700 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns (he’s also got a rushing TD this season), but I don’t think he has ever quite lived up to the dual-threat offensive weapon expectations that came with him to Washington.
It’s hard to see a new regime holding onto the 27-year-old receiver; however, Samuel’s contract contains 2 void years with a $4.8m ‘surprise’ that will get added to the team’s salary cap at the end of the season. It’s just possible that an incoming GM might want to absorb that cap hit into a reasonably constructed contract extension, and Samuel might be motivated enough by the prospect of staying on the team with his best friend McLaurin that he agrees to a team-friendly deal to stick around. More likely, he leaves in free agency and creates the opportunity to pick up a late-round comp pick in 2025.
Originally drafted by the Redskins in 2016, Fuller was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs as part of the Alex Smith deal when he was still on his rookie contract and the Chiefs were trying to solve some cap issues. Fuller returned to Washington in 2020.
Fuller is the one pending veteran free agent I can see a new regime holding on to, but chances are that he is allowed to leave, with the new defensive coordinator bringing in a player of similar skill that he is more familiar with. Once again, letting Fuller walk would open up the possibility of a 2025 mid- to late-round comp pick.
Selected in the 3rd round of the 2020 draft, Gibson has been a high-value player for Washington for 4 years. That said, there’s probably no reason for a new coaching staff to re-sign the 25-year-old, especially in light of the rapid depreciation of value among NFL running backs. Gibson’s productivity peaked in 2021. If he is allowed to walk in free agency, he has the potential to generate a late-round comp pick in 2025.
Like Kendall Fuller, Crowder was originally drafted by the Redskins, left, and then returned. As a punt returner and receiving depth signed as a mid-season replacement, Crowder has been an upgrade from Dax Milne, but the 30-year-old — despite being a fan favorite from his days in DC under Jay Gruden — doesn’t seem likely to be on the priority list of any incoming GM or head coach.
Curl has been popular with Washington fans in part because of his draft status — he was selected in the 7th round of the 2020 draft. He came to Washington in the COVID-affected season and played in 16 games as a rookie, starting 11 of them. He secured 3 interceptions that year (the only ones of his career), and was a good tackler. He has been a steady player during his 4 years in Washington, and a key piece of the Del Rio defense who is able to move seamlessly between strong and free safety as well as playing the big nickel position. He has often been credited with being the key communicator in the secondary, though that hasn’t seemed to have paid off this season.
Curl is likely to be looking for a big contract in free agency. If Rivera and Del Rio were still here, he might get it from Washington, but I can’t see a new regime wanting to reward a player who was a key part of the league’s 32nd ranked scoring defense when it’s time to negotiate next year. Curl is likely gone, and his departure will create another opportunity for a mid-round comp pick in the ‘25 draft.
A note on comp picks: I’ve mentioned that there may be 4 departing free agents who could generate the potential for comp picks. The first criterion for a team to be awarded any comp picks is that the team loses more qualifying free agents than it signs. If Washington, for example, loses 4 qualifying free agents but signs 4 from other teams, then no matter what other factors are at play, the Commanders will NOT get any comp picks. Given the roster needs and available cap space, it seems almost certain that Washington will not qualify for any 2025 comp picks, so this should not really be a consideration in roster decisions in the coming offseason.
Backups, rotational player and JAGS
There is a long list of players scheduled to become free agents at the end of the league year who fill backup roles or who play on a rotational basis. Often, these players get referred to as JAGs (Just A Guy) — players who are interchangeable with other NFL quality players based on contract and on-field production.
While some of these players will be familiar to Washington fans, and therefore seem like essential elements of the team’s roster, they are, in fact, elements of the roster that can be swapped out pretty freely. A quick look back at the 2019 roster shows players like Kelvin Harmon, Steven Sims, Tony Bergstrom, Wendell Smallwood, and Deshazor Everett who fit this category. Each played a role on the team that season, but were replaced on the roster soon after.
The Commanders have a lot of players in this category whose contacts will expire at the end of the league year:
- Jacoby Brissett
- Cody Barton
- Cornelius Lucas
- Jeremy Reaves
- Joey Slye
- Efe Obada
- Khaleke Hudson
- David Mayo
- Tyler Larsen
- Byron Pringle
- Alex Armah
- Saahdiq Charles
- Terrell Burgess
- Scoota Harris
- Jabril Cox
- Brandon Dillon
- James Smith-Williams
- Casey Toohill
- David Bada
- Cutris Brooks
A few of these players may be retained by the incoming front office and coaching staff, but the likelihood is that most of these players will be replaced by different names attached to similar skill sets and similar contracts while these players try to extend their careers by signing with other teams — some of them following fired position coaches to new teams.
Turnover based on performance
With so much roster turnover already in the works, there shouldn’t be a lot of need to create more roster spots, but we still need to consider players who will still be under contract in 2024, who won’t be salary cap casualties, but whose 2023 performance hasn’t been good enough to keep them around in ‘24.
Nick Gates stands out as a player who hasn’t earned his keep in 2023. He has a cap hit of $5.4m in 2024. The team doesn’t really gain cap space by cutting him ($133K), and he doesn’t appear to have any trade value. I’d be disappointed to see him retained in 2024.
Cameron Cheeseman is the team’s long snapper, drafted in 2021 to replace Nick Sundberg. After two seasons of acceptable play, Cheeseman apparently forgot how to snap the ball this season. The coaching staff inexplicably stuck with him, but I can’t imagine anyone else who will want to trust this critical element of special teams play to Cheeseman again. Expect Cheese to be given his walking papers before the end of the league year, and an udrafted free agent (or perhaps a veteran) long snapper brought to training camp with the new regime.
What does that leave?
From the roster of 42 players that are currently under contract for the 2024 season, I have recommended trading or cutting 5 players based primarily on salary cap impact, and releasing another 2 for poor performance.
This would strip the roster down to just 35 players, comprising mainly low cost players, many on their rookie contracts, along with Daron Payne and Terry McLaurin.
Of the 20 or so players signed to fill open roster spots, a handful could come from the 25 guys on expiring contracts, but they are likely to be the JAGs who fill out the backup roles and special teams players.
An early GM Christmas
Based on what I’ve written above, the new GM tasked with the job of re-builidng the roster would have a lot of resources at his or her disposal, with 10 draft picks (7 in the top 110, counting the one received in trade for Jon Allen) and over $100m in cap space for 2024.
Cap space disappears quickly when a team is trying to sign veteran starters, but Washington currently ranks 4th in projected 2024 cap space and sits 4th in the draft order, so there’s probably no more appealing GM position in the league than the Commanders. Josh Harris should have his pick of the cream of NFL front office types who are ready to take on the challenge of building a championship team.
As we do every week, we asked Hogs Haven readers this week if they feel confident in the direction of the franchise. Normally, the type of beatdown that the Commanders received at home at the hands of the Dolphins would have been followed by a complete collapse in confidence, but fans are all aware of what’s looming on January 8th, and for many of them, the coming changes trump the short-term embarrassment suffered in Ron Rivera’s 4th year at the helm.
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Fan confidence fell slightly from last week’s 49%, but fans seem to have settled into two groups — those who feel good about what’s coming in January and beyond, and those who want to wait and see what happens.
While Washington is mired in last place in its division and Commanders fans are spending a lot of time considering college prospects for the 2024 draft, fans of the Eagles and Cowboys are preparing for a showdown that is certainly the game of the week, and is likely to be one of the games of the 2023 season.
On Sunday night, the 10-2 Eagles travel to Dallas to play the 9-3 Cowboys in a game that will is integral to determining the eventual division champion, and which may have significant impact on the final NFC playoff seedings.
Philly comes into the road game after a humiliating home loss to the 49ers by a score of 42-19. The Cowboys, on the other hand, are on a 4-game winning streak (including a Week 12 45-10 stomping of the Commanders) and have not lost at home since the opening game of the 2022 season.
Asking Commanders fans to say which team they prefer to see win this week can only be answered by “Hoping an asteroid destroys the Earth before Sunday Night Football kicks off”, so we instead asked which team Hogs Haven readers hate more.
The results were, to me, surprisingly one-sided, with the long-standing hatred of all things Dallas that dates back to the days of head coach George Allen (Bruce’s father) in the 1970s still flowing strongly through our members. Perhaps it’s in our DNA.
Personally, I voted for the Eagles, which surprised me. My anti-Cowboy bona fides are as good as anyone’s having spend my teen years rooting for Sonny, Billy and the the over-the-hill gang and being virulently anti-Dallas for decades.
Somewhere along the way, Philly fans have become more annoying to me than those in Arlington Texas, and Nick Sirianni, unbelievably, bothers me more than Jerry Jones and Mike McCarthy combined. Sorry Dallas, you’re gonna have to work harder to get back to the top of my most-hated list. Unlike 78% of the respondents in our survey, my disgust with the Philly team, its coach, and its fans now exceeds my disdain for the Cowboys team, owner, head coach, and followers.
That said, Washington’s inability to match the success of those two teams in recent years is a sore spot. The emotions that rule me right now are embarrassment for what the team has devolved to in 2023, and hope for a new beginning starting on January 8th, 2024, which is just (not that I’ve been counting) 30 days away.
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