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The 5 O’Clock Club: Using veteran free agency to improve the Commanders offensive line depth chart

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

DENVER BRONCOS VS BALTIMORE RAVENS, NFL Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

Free agency never really ends

The Commanders hadn’t announced any new player signings since the 12 undrafted college free agents that agreed to terms immediately after the draft — until today. The Commanders announced the signing of former XFL and NFL offensive tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith, with the corresponding release of OT Drew Himmelman, basically shuffling around the deck chairs at the bottom of the OT depth chart.

One reason why the team hasn’t signed any higher profile veterans with a better chance of making the final roster could be the limited salary cap space that the team has at the moment. It appears as if the team has just about enough to sign its 7 draft picks, but no more. Trading Himmelman for Jones-Smith wouldn’t have changed the cap calculation.

When the release of Chase Roullier is processed on June 2nd, however, it will add about $8.3m to the available cap, meaning that it will be possible to spend a limited amount to sign one or two free agents.

Remember that any free agent signed will displace one guy on the roster due to the 51-man limit for salary cap calculation, meaning that the NET salary cap change will be the cap hit of the free agent minus approximately $960,000 for the player displaced from the roster.

Example A - standard 1-yr contract

By way of example, a player signed to a one-year, $3m contract, would add only about $2m to the 2023 cap hit ($3m - $960K = $2.04m)

Example B - aggressive use of void years

If the team really wanted to sign that player, but wanted to limit the ‘23 cap hit, they could, for example, sign him to a $1m base salary, with $2m in signing bonus and 3 void years. This would change the 2023 cap calculation to:

2023 - $1m salary + $500k bonus - $960k (displaced player) = $540,000

2024 - When the contract voids, the 2024 cap will be reduced by the $1.5m dead cap hit

This structure — using void years on what would otherwise be a one-year contract — has, essentially, the same effect as a Post-June 1 release; that is, it pushes part of the cap hit that would normally be charged to this season into next season. The overall cap hit is the same, but the timing is different.

Based on the example above, Washington could add a $3m per year player for a net change in the team’s 2023 cap space of less than $600,000, meaning that it would be possible to add two or three free agents in June if Ron Rivera wants to do so.

Positions of need

I think that most fans would agree that the Commanders defense is deep along the defensive line and in the secondary (CBs & Safeties). Most fans, I think, would be happy to see some quality linebacker depth.

On offense, WR looks strong; running back looks solid. Two position groups with question marks are tight end and quarterback, but both have a lot of potential and neither is likely to be much impacted by the addition of a low-cost free agent at this point. The obvious position group to focus on is the Offensive Line group, which is in flux in 2023 after a dismal ‘22 season.

I’ll circle back round to linebackers later in the week, but for today, let’s look at what can be done to bolster the Commanders offensive line in June by dipping into the veteran free agent market.

Offensive line

At this point in the offseason, the universe of potential veteran (non-XFL) free agent signings is pretty small. In fact, I think this list gets close to the practical pool of candidates:

The final 3 columns are:

  • percent of offensive snaps played in 2023
  • age
  • Average annual value of last contract

This isn’t an exhaustive list of available veteran NFL linemen; in fact, this is only about 13 of the total number available. But the remaining players that I have chosen not to list are guys who — at this point in their careers, at least — are primarily third-string and practice squad players. Thinking we have enough of those, I have tried to focus on players who could be quality backups or reasonable starters. Of course, at this point in the offseason, if any of these guys was an unconditional high-quality free agent, he’d already be on an NFL roster.

George Fant

Fant opened the season as the starting right or left tackle in each of the past three seasons with the Jets. Fant missed 8 games with a knee injury in the middle of the season, but returned to start in Weeks 14-17, and ended up playing 518 offensive snaps in ‘22. He got miserable grades from PFF in ‘22, but got an offensive grade of 71.1 in 2021, with pass blocking grade of 75.1 and run blocking grade of 59.9.

Roger Saffold

Saffold went to the Pro Bowl in 2023 — a season in which he played on a one-year contract with the Bills. He seems to have gotten there on name recognition. PFF gave him an offensive grade of 44.0, and this was the offseason review of Saffold’s play from Buffalo Rumblings:

Left guard Rodger Saffold played out his one-year contract with the Bills, and most observers believe that the left guard position he occupied is one that could be upgraded in 2023. Saffold surrendered 30 pressures in 2022, the most on the team, while allowing four quarterback hits, tied for second-most on the team. Coming up on his age-35 season, Saffold doesn’t figure to be a player that the Bills will rely on as their only option at left guard going into 2023.

Justin Pugh

Pugh tore his ACL in Week 6 of the ‘22 season. The former 1st round pick of the Giants and 10-year NFL veteran had been pretty healthy in the 3 seasons before that, playing 1,022, 958, and 858 offensive snaps in the ‘19, ‘20 and ‘21 seasons, respectively, per PFF.

If he’s healthy enough to play — even if he’s not ready until mid-season — Pugh could be a solid, low-cost veteran addition to the Commanders OL unit.

Dalton Risner

Risner has been a starter for the Broncos since entering the league as a second round pick in 2019, but, overall, he’s been a disappointment to the Broncos faithful who look back at the draft pick with some regret. The SB Nation website, Mile High Report, says that there are 25 players who have made the Pro Bowl from that 2019 draft, and that ten of the 25 were taken after Risner. They further point out that nine draftees from that class have made the Pro Bowl multiple times, and that, of those nine, three were taken after Risner.

Despite average play, Risner has been highly reliable over his four years in the league, starting 62 of 66 possible games, making him one of the most consistently healthy guards on the market this offseason.

As a former 2nd round pick, Risner was expected to get a bag in free agency this offseason. That didn’t happen, and he is still available. At the price he is likely to command in June, Risner could be a solid pre-training camp signing.

Greg Van Roten

UPDATE: Van Roten signed with the Raiders on Friday

Van Roten’s career probably peaked from 2018-2020 when he started 40 games for the Panther and Jets. He was a guy that I wanted the Commanders to sign in 2020, when I wrote this profile:

Van Roten was an undrafted free agent who has played 5 years in the league — two with the Packers and three with the Panthers. He started 27 straight games at left guard for the Panthers in ‘18 and ‘19 before going on IR late in the season with a dislocated toe. He was playing in Carolina for $835,000 per season, and could provide an inexpensive veteran option at guard, especially if the Redskins fail to re-sign Flowers, Scherff or both. This guy would be similar to, say, Tom Compton following Kyle Shanahan to Atlanta.

Last year with Buffalo, Van Roten was active for 16 games, but started only 4 of them and played just 33% of the offensive snaps. He looks like he may be hitting the decline-phase of his career.

Dennis Kelly

The 33-year-old former 5th round pick has had a pretty successful career, but after signing a three-year, $21 million contract extension with the Titans before the 2020 season, not much has gone right for Kelly. Per PFF, Kelly played 1,099 offensive snaps at right tackle for the Titans in 2020, but he was cut prior to the start of the 2021 league year. He signed successive low-dollar one-year contracts with the Packers and Colts in ‘21 and ‘22, but played just 601 snaps in the two seasons combined, per PFF.

While he has primarily been a right tackle recently, Kelly has played just as many games at left tackle earlier in his career, and has played both guard positions as well. Kelly might be able to compete for the swing tackle position and provide a deep option for both guard positions.

Brandon Shell

Just 31 years old, Shell has averaged 723 offensive snaps per season for the past 6 years, and hasn’t played less than 551 snaps or 84% of the offensive snaps since his rookie season. He also averages about 50 special teams snaps per year. Shell has 72 starts in 82 career games, and started 32 of his 34 active games between 2020 and 2022. As far as I can tell, in his career, he has played Right Tackle in all but two games (when he played left tackle). Shell made nearly $9m in two seasons (2020-21) with the Seahawks, but managed only a vet minimum salary last season with the Dolphins in 2022 after his ‘21 season ended with him on IR with a shoulder injury.

Oday Aboushi

This is a guy I profiled last offseason, thinking that he could be a good signing for the Commanders. Here is some of what I said about him a year ago:

Aboushi has been around the NFL for a while, and has played for 7 teams. Last season, he signed with the Chargers for a contract worth $1.6m, but ended up tearing his ACL in Week 5. That gives the 31-year-old guard enough time to rehab and be ready for the 2022 regular season — especially if the expectation is that he would provide depth (ie. sit on the bench until one or more starters is injured).

Prior to last season, Aboushi had never made more than $1.25m in any season, and in 2022, he’s likely to sign for a vet minimum deal or something close to it.

While he’s likely to be cheap, Aboushi isn’t some practice squadder who has rarely if ever been in an NFL game. Across 8 seasons, Aboushi has been active 70 times, with 47 starts. He has played 3,414 offensive snaps in his career (per Pro Football Reference), and has never had a season where he played less than 31% of the offensive snaps in the games for which he was active. He played 97% of the offensive snaps of his active games at right guard for Seattle in 2017, and 81% for the Chargers prior to his injury last season. He also played 722 snaps at left guard for the Jets in his rookie season.

Aboushi strikes me as the Ty Nsekhe of guards. He’s someone you can rely on to be ready and play well when your starter goes down.

He is almost good enough to be a starter, but somehow never seem to have gotten paid or established himself with a team for the long-term.

Aboushi got just 4 starts for the Rams last year, but he strikes me as a capable and reliable backup with the ability to start when needed, which seems to be borne out by his PFF grades.

Michael Schofield

The 33-year-old Schofield has 86 career starts and has nearly 6,000 career snaps. His career has not been unlike that of Oday Aboushi, though Schofield may have had a bit more success and he has made a lot more money. Both linemen played for the Chargers in 2021; Aboushi started the ‘21 season at Right Guard, but when he was injured in Week 5, Schofield took over for him.


Which player would you be willing to sign before training camp in an effort to add depth to the Commanders offensive line unit?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    George Fant
    (37 votes)
  • 4%
    Roger Saffold
    (44 votes)
  • 5%
    Justin Pugh
    (50 votes)
  • 32%
    Dalton Risner
    (282 votes)
  • 1%
    Greg Van Roten
    (14 votes)
  • 0%
    Dennis Kelly
    (7 votes)
  • 3%
    Brandon Shell
    (34 votes)
  • 15%
    Oday Aboushi
    (136 votes)
  • 3%
    MIchael Schofield
    (29 votes)
  • 28%
    I don’t like non of ‘em!
    (248 votes)
881 votes total Vote Now