Washington Football Team 2021 Free Agency Outlook: Defense
Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera is entering his second off season in control of the team’s personnel decisions. Rivera clearly used the 2020 season as an evaluation period for the players he already had on the roster. He did grab a few bargains in JD McKissic, Logan Thomas, Cornelius Lucas, and Wes Schweitzer to name a few on the offensive side of the football. Defensively, they brought back cornerback Kendall Fuller from Kansas City fresh off his Super Bowl win, they signed Ronald Darby from the Eagles to a one year deal which was clearly a "play well and we will pay well" situation after he was signed to just a one year deal, and they brought in Thomas Davis to add some veteran leadership to the linebacker core. The defense showed signs of having the potential to be dominant, but then played mediocre to poorly in other spots. There will need to be some upgrades in order for Washington to take that next step towards dominance, and there are available options in free agency that can help them do that.
Let's take a look...
The interior defensive line looks to be in good shape personnel wise heading into the 2021 season. With Daron Payne playing at an exceptional level while still playing under his rookie contract, Matt Ioannidis returning from his bicep tear, and Jonathan Allen coming back on his fifth year option that the team picked up, Washington shouldn't have to dip deep into their pockets in free agency to upgrade, or even find considerable depth. With the likes of veteran Tim Settles returning and second year defensive lineman James Smith-Williams, the interior defensive line is poised to build off their 2020 production. At defensive end, Washington has two studs to build around for the next 8 to 10 ten years if they so choose. NFL Rookie of the Year Chase Young and Washington's most improved player voted by the team, Montez Sweat, both showed the ability to make plays and were even dominant at times. The team is not likely to bring back long time veteran Ryan Kerrigan, although it would most likely be in his, and the team's best interest if he returned on a reduced salary as a rotational player. The team may look to add a veteran utility defensive lineman that can play multiple positions. They could also look to add a defensive end that provides substantial depth in a circumstance Young or Sweat go down with an injury. A veteran like Justin Houston could come right in and provide Chase Young and Montez Sweat with a veteran presence they can continue to grow with. Another name to keep an eye on is Romeo Okwara from the Detroit Lions. Okwara accumulated 10 sacks playing in all 16 games last season, and is only 25 years old. He could provide a legit presence up front, and would do nothing but add to the talent Washington already has.
Other possibilities: Curtis Dunlap (Cincy), Trent Murphy (Buffalo), Henry Anderson (Jets), Alex Okafor (Kansas City)
Defensively, Linebacker was the most disappointing position group last year performance wise. Outside of 3rd year linebacker Cole Holcomb who fought through injuries all year, the entire unit struggled to find consistent play from anyone throughout the course of the season. Kevin Pierre-Louis started the season off fairly solid, but his play tailed off towards the middle of the season while he battled injuries. Middle linebacker Jon Bostic was expected to come back and be better in 2020 with the defensive scheme switch from a 3'4 front to a 4'3, but his play regressed instead. The team also signed Thomas Davis last offseason, who after a long and productive career, showed that it's probably time for him to transition into thinking about life after football. The team could swing for the fences in free agency and go after a talent like Bud Dupree who Pittsburgh decided to part ways with, or/and they could throw a few dollars at Lavonte David (Tampa), Shaq Barrett (Tampa), or maybe Kwon Alexander (Saints). A sleeper selection would be Kyle Van Noy from the Miami Dolphins who could be a solid option with a winning pedigree having previously played for Bill Belichick in New England before spending last season in Miami. I don't think anybody would deny an upgrade at linebacker and they will most likely use free agency in addition to the draft to do so.
Other possibilities: Haason Reddick (Cardinals), Olivier Vernon (Cleveland) Avery Williamson (Pittsburgh)
Free safety was the tale of two and maybe even three seasons all within one for the Washington Football Team. They went from starting Troy Apke to begin the season which was a disaster, to starting Deshazor Everett who seemed to bring a sense of stability to the position before he was injured. In comes Jeremy Reaves, who was a raw talent that showed some promise and ability to get better in the position despite some mistakes. Washington started the season off with Landon Collins at strong safety, and he struggled early on to be effective within Jack Del Rio's defense. Unfortunately, right when it looked like he was about to turn the corner, he suffered a season ending achilles injury; in comes rookie Kameron Curl. Curl had an excellent rookie season and was all over the field showing the ability to tackle in the open field, and cover in space. He had some mental lapses, but what rookie doesn't, and overall he performed well. Washington should be excited to see Curl’s continued growth as a player. There are a couple of free safeties Washington may have some conversations with during free agency to gauge their interest, but don't be surprised if they hold off until the draft with Jeremy Reaves and Deshazor Everett both under contract for the 2021 season. At strong safety, they may sign a veteran to come in and compete, but the way Curl played last season, and Landon Collin's large contract number, it will be tough for Washington to invest any more money into that position. Collins could play some linebacker as well pending how he returns from his achilles rupture, so they may bring in another body to compete at strong. At free safety, there are a few names Washington could target in free agency. They could possibly make a call to Justin Simmons (Denver). They may reach out to Tre Boston (Carolina) who is slightly familiar with Ron Rivera after playing for him his first season in Carolina. Tashaun Gipson (Chicago) could also receive some interest from the team to come in and be a veteran leader on the defense and provide some stability in the secondary.
Other Possibilities: Jordan Dangerfield (Pittsburgh), Michael Thomas (Houston), Damarious Randall (Seattle)
The cornerbacks for Washington played erratically as a unit in 2020. One thing that stood out is if the defensive line is unable to provide consistent pressure, the defensive backs can not cover for extended periods of time. In today's NFL, it's more normal than it once was, but your cornerbacks can't be liabilities. Washington brought Kendall Fuller back from the 2020 free agency pool. They also signed Ronald Darby from the Eagles, but only on a one year deal. Darby got the chance to come back home and figure out if Washington is where he wants to be. He was clearly the most consistent corner out of the bunch, and Washington could see fit to bring him back. Fabian Moreau on the other hand, saw minimal time and I wouldn't look to see him re-signed this offseason. There are a slew of cornerbacks Washington could look at in free agency. Seattle's Shaquill Griffin has never missed a game in his 4-year career, and could provide an instant boost to the Washington cornerback unit. Xavier Rhodes could be a solid addition to the defensive unit as well. He has seen a lot of football, and has matched up against some of the game's best receivers. Washington could benefit from his toughness and knowledge in the secondary. Richard Sherman intrigues me on a one or two year deal because it seems like wherever he goes, the attitude on the defensive side of the football changes instantly. Sherman is a long shot, but I do see some benefits in signing him. As bad as the Chargers’ defense was last season, cornerback Michael Davis was one of the promising bright spots that looked to be ready to blossom out on the field. Davis could be an instant upgrade for a reasonable price.
Other possibilities: K'Waun Williams (San Francisco), Mackensie Alexander (Cincy), Malcolm Butler (Titans), Desmond Trufant (Detroit)
Washington looks to be building primarily through the draft so I'm not sure exactly how much or who they are willing to invest in that is in this free agency pool. Don't expect Rivera to just see talent and throw money at it. He is selecting players based on their fit into the defensive schematics and their fit personality wise in the locker room. Stay tuned ladies and gentlemen. As you were…
Photo Credit: Elijah Walter Griffin Sr/ The Washington Football Team