The Commanders sign two-time super bowl champion Marcus Kemp
The Washington Commanders have signed their first 2023 veteran free agent from another team, and, unsurprisingly given Eric Bieniemy’s recent addition to the coaching staff, that player is a former Kansas City Chiefs receiver.
What is surprising is the timing, coming as it does nearly two weeks before the start of the new league year and the start of veteran free agency.
It turns out that the signing of Marcus Kemp on Friday was possible because Kemp — who played in Super Bowl LVII a few weeks ago — was a practice squad player who was elevated for the game. Following the game, he reverted to the Chiefs practice squad. Because Kansas City did not then sign him to a futures contract, he was available to sign with Washington as the first small step in the Bieniemification of the Commanders offense.
The ring that Marcus Kemp earned with last month’s championship is actually his 2nd, and Super Bowl LVII was the third time he’s been on the Chiefs roster for the big game. Kemp was on the sideline for Super Bowl 54, though he was on IR and not available to play. He played 28 snaps in Super Bowl 55 on offense and special teams.
Last month, in Super Bowl 57, Kemp played 17 snaps. He became something of a cult hero to Chiefs fans when he made a series of key blocks on the Kadarius Toney punt return that was a key play in the team’s victory in the league championship game.
Kemp entered the league as an undrafted college free agent in 2017, and has spent nearly his entire career in Kansas CIty. He has been active for 47 NFL games but has primarily played special teams. Kemp has 866 career special teams snaps, but only 163 offensive snaps. As a wide receiver, he has 8 career targets and 4 receptions for 42 yards and 3 first downs. At 6’4” and 210 pounds, the 27-year-old is the same age and of similar size as Cam Sims, another college free agent who has had a similar career trajectory with Washington, and who will become a free agent on March 15th if he is not extended by the Commanders before then.
Washington has already extended 4 impending free agents who were on the 2022 Commanders roster
Five players have already been extended by the Commanders. The two most recent — LB Milo Eifler and CB Rachad Wildgoose — were both Exclusive Rights Free Agents, meaning that, to extend them, Washington only needed to offer them a league minimum 1-year contract. There has been no announcement yet on the status of the team’s other ERFA, TE Eli Wolf.
The other three announced extensions include one running back and two linebackers, all of whom are primarily backups on the team’s depth chart.
Running back Jonathan Williams spent most of the 2021 season on the team’s practice squad, and was active for only 5 games, in which he got only 17 carries. Last season (2022) injuries to Brian Robinson and JD McKissic led to Williams having a bigger role; he was active for 13 games, including 2 starts, and compiled 99 offensive snaps. He has 54 carries and a touchdown in his 18 games in Washington, averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
Similarly, backup linebacker David Mayo has seen significant playing time on defense during his two seasons in Washington. Although he was expected to be primarily a special teams player when he joined the team in 2021, Mayo has 368 defensive snaps and 7 defensive starts to go with his 542 special teams snaps in Washington. One of the goals of the Commanders coaching staff should be to restore enough depth to the linebacker group that Mayo can be almost exclusively a special teams player.
In his only season with the Commanders, LB Nathan Gerry did not see the field on defense; he was active for 4 games and played 82 special teams snaps. Frankly, I was surprised when his extension was announced, and I would not be surprised to hear, either at the end of training camp or sometime prior, about his release from the team.
Two players from the 2022 Commanders roster have been released
QB Carson Wentz
There was no surprise whatsoever when the Commanders announced the release of Carson Wentz on Friday, just ahead of the Combine. By releasing him, the Commanders brought a quick end to an ill-conceived effort to resolve the positional woes the franchise has experienced since the departure of Kirk Cousins in free agency in 2017, and the timing allowed Wentz’s agent to openly negotiate with teams at the Combine on behalf of his client. More importantly for the Commanders was the fact that Wentz’s release created the cap space needed to place the nearly $19m franchise tag on DT Daron Payne, which they did this week.
Every NFL fan knew before the start of the Week 18 game against the Cowboys that Carson Wentz would not be a Commander in 2023. There was a bit less certainty regarding DB Bobby McCain, who was added to the Washington roster late in the 2021 free agency period following his release from Miami. By cutting the 29-year-old veteran, the Commanders opened up $2.3m in available cap space, and created a clear need for a slot defender for Washington’s nickel defense.
Washington will almost certainly release more players ahead of the March 15th start of free agency, and the most likely candidates for release are players with large cap hits who have underperformed or have injury questions.
Likewise, we can probably expect the announcement of a few more extensions in the days and weeks following the end of the Combine, where teams and agents often meet to hammer out new deals for players.
Updated depth chart
Washington’s 2023 depth chart is clearly a work in progress, but here’s where it stands today. This is a highly fluid time of year with respect to the roster, but right now, all the players who were on the roster at the end of the 2022 season (except for Wentz and McCain, who have already been released) are listed here. Those in dotted-line boxes will become free agents on March 15th if they don’t re-sign with the team before then.
As you can see from the chart above, the team currently has 63 players under contract; they will go into training camp with 90 players. Let me stress that this depth chart is unofficial and represents my personal evaluation of players and situations. Also, there is little attempt to use the visual display to carefully reflect exactly where each player lines up or exactly where a backup fits into the scheme of things. This is primarily an attempt to visualize the depth chart for easy reference by a casual fan.
Potential cap casualties
The chart below is from Over the Cap. It shows the 13 highest salary cap hits on the Commanders roster right now.
The bold number is the 2023 cap hit, while the column at the far right shows the salary cap impact of cutting that player this week.
Samuel arguably has not, so far, provided an outstanding return for the money spent to bring him to Washington, and the opportunity to save $5.8m must be enough to at least generate some discussion among the Commanders’ decision-makers, but I suspect that Ron Rivera and Eric Bieniemy will both want to see what the new offensive coordinator can do with the potentially dynamic playmaker. If the team wants to reduce Samuel’s cap hit, it seems more likely that they would extend him for another year or two and restructure his contract, though his two void years (2024-25) mean that his contract situation is not straightforward.
Ron Rivera has spent the offseason talking about upgrading the offensive line. The $8m cap savings that the Commanders could realize by cutting the serviceable-but-not-great left tackle has to make him a serious consideration as a candidate for release ahead of March 15th.
Washington’s starting center is a success story. Selected in the 6th round of the 2017 draft, Roullier has been a starter since midway through his rookie season, but a fractured fibula in November 2021 and a torn MCL in Week 2 of the 2022 season have resulted in the 29-year-old missing 24 games over the past two seasons. Roullier has been one of Washington’s best offensive linemen during his tenure with the team, but his future may hinge on the team’s confidence in his ability to return to health.
There have been some who see Fuller as a potential cap casualty, but I don’t see it. The team needs to be building its cornerback depth, and Fuller is currently the best CB on the team. As with Curtis Samuel, I think the team would be more likely to try to create cap space by extending the 28-year-old’s contract by a year or two than by cutting him.
The most likely cap casualty seems to be Logan Thomas. The tight end had a breakout year in 2020 and seemed destined for even greater things, but a hamstring injury slowed his start in 2021, and then a low hit by Yannick Ngakoue in the Raiders game in December ended Thomas’s season. He simply hasn’t looked like the same player since that injury, and it’s easy to imagine the Commanders brass deciding to part ways with him in order to free up $5m in cap space this season as well as a further $6.5m for 2024.
Andrew Norwell and Cornelius Lucas
You don’t upgrade the offensive line by holding on to 31-year-old linemen who have not excelled recently. Look for both of these players to be released, freeing up more than $5.6m in cap space.
Cap Space overview
Over the Cap estimates that the Commanders currently have $16.2m in available cap space.
Releasing Logan Thomas, Charles Leno, Andrew Norwell and Cornelius Lucas would add another $18.9m for a total of $35.1m. The team could add to this available cap space with some re-structures (including inking Daron Payne to a long-term contract), but I think that goes beyond the scope of this article.
Over the Cap estimates that the team will need $3.5m in cap space to sign its draft picks, and the team will need roughly $5m in contingency cap space to sign players during the season as injury replacements.
The net result is that the team could have around $26.5m in hand (maybe more) when free agency begins on 15 March.
Possible extensions for key players
- DB Jeremy Reaves (All Pro special teams player in 2022)
- LB Cole Holcomb
- DE Efe Obada
- CB Danny Johnson
- LB/ST Khaleke Hudson
- OL Wes Schweitzer
- C Tyler Larsen
- WR Cam Sims
- QB Taylor Heinicke
- TE Eli Wolf (ERFA)