Honestly, it can get hard to know who is on the team and who isn’t when we get to the end of February.
First of all, there are futures contracts, where a half-dozen to a dozen future practice squad players and Walmart shelf-stockers sign contracts after the previous season comes to an end. These guys are a cut below Undrafted Free Agents — they are the players who still didn’t have a team after all the injured players were replaced during the regular season. These are the last-chancers-but-not-quite-no-hopers.
The 5 O’Clock Club: a primer on Reserve/Futures Contracts
Who are the players WFT has signed to 2021 reserve/future contracts? Defensive/ST Edition
Who was that guy? You know the one…
There are also players that fall through the cracks. You remember having heard something about them a while back, but it’s hard now to remember what it was. This would include guys like Caleb Brantley and Josh Harvey-Clemons, who both opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns about COVID-19. They haven’t made a headline since before training camp last year and it’s hard to be sure if they’re on the team (both Brantley and JHC are still on the team).
Then there are some assumptions that may get you a bit ahead of things. For example, Nick Sundberg is the team’s longest-tenured player; he was the team’s NFL Man of the Year nominee in 2019, and he’s still playing at a high level. It’s easy to assume that he’ll be back, but the reality is that he is an impending free agent, and in a season where cap space is shrinking, the brain trust of Martin Mayhew, Marty Hurney, Eric Stokes, Chris Polian and Ron Rivera — who will be working together for the first time in a roster-building effort — could decide to trim a million dollars or so of cap hit by signing a long snapper fresh out of college who would be on a rookie minimum wage deal.
Another “assumption” player might be QB Kyle Allen. He’s an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, so the team can sign him to a cheap one-year contract without having to compete with the other 31 teams. They probably will, but they haven’t yet, so Kyle Allen is currently on track to become a free agent (which he probably won’t).
The opposite is probably true for Alex Smith. The team showed with its pursuit of Matt Stafford that they aren’t tied to Smith as the 2021 starter. He has no guaranteed money, so there’s nothing to stand in the way of cutting him immediately. I am one of the people that has been assuming since he watched from the sideline during the playoff game against Tampa Bay that Alex’s time as the DC QB was surely at an end. The fact is, there’s been no action from Alex or the team yet, and he remains at or near the top of the QB depth chart, such as it is.
The question marks are the guys who are headed towards free agency that the team probably wants to retain, but who haven’t yet signed a contract to stay. The top two guys on this list right now would almost certainly be Brandon Scherff (who played 2020 on the franchise tag) and Ronald Darby (who played 2020 on a cheap 1-year deal to prove he could still play and stay healthy…the answer was ‘yes’ to both). In both cases, the player’s future will likely come down to whether Washington can meet the player’s expectations with regard to a contract extension.
Another type of question mark is a guy that is headed to free agency who probably hasn’t made himself irreplaceable. You wouldn’t punch a wall if the guy were re-signed by Washington, but neither would you lose any sleep if he were allowed to walk in free agency. My poster boy for this category is Ryan Anderson. The linebacker/defensive end hasn’t been a bad player for Washington, but never really lived up to his 2nd round draft status. If he’s retained on a backup’s contract, I’d be fine with that, but if he can land with a team where he offers a better fit and can earn starter money, then I wish him well (especially if we can manage to secure a comp pick in conjunction with his good fortune).
The final type of question mark is where you are puzzled how the player made the roster in 2020 in the first place, and you wonder if the team will actually bring him back in 2021. Jeremy Sprinkle, who is an impending free agent, is the primary guy here, though Troy Apke, who has a year left on his rookie deal, is close to qualifying.
Some situations lack definitive clarity — perhaps not for the team, but for part time sports bloggers who know only enough about the rules of free agency to be dangerous.
The player that I’m looking at this off-season is Reuben Foster. He is generally listed as a pending free agent because, following the 2017 draft in which he was selected, Foster has been under contract for 4 full seasons.
What gives me pause is that he entered the 2020 season on the PUP list and was never activated. My reading of the CBA makes me believe that his contract would have “tolled” in 2020, effectively hitting the ‘pause’ button on his deal, giving Washington control over him in 2021 which would substitute as the 4th year of his rookie contract. The problem is, I don’t see anyone else saying this, and I may be wrong. Even if I’m right, I have no idea if anyone in the building is interested in continuing the Reuben Foster experiment, even if they can.
The current depth chart
I’ve consulted three or four sources, and done my best to reconcile them. What you see below is my best effort at constructing a meaningful current depth chart for the Washington Football Team, as it is formulated on 27 February, 2021. I expect it to undergo dramatic change in just over two weeks, when free agency opens, but there could be some moves (I’m thinking Alex Smith, Kyle Allen, Brandon Scherff, Ronald Darby here) even before the start of free agency.
There is a limit to its usefulness beyond the starter and primary backup. In some cases, even that might be unreliable (I stuck Tony Brown in as the backup slot receiver because I had an open space; I have no idea whether or not Brown lines up in the slot).
Last year, for example, I initially listed Kam Curl as a strong safety. At someone else’s suggestion, I moved him to free safety. On this chart, I have returned him to the SS position on the depth chart, despite a lack of clarity about what the return of Landon Collins will mean for the defensive alignment in 2021.
Treat the depth chart as a suggestion of Washington’s current depth, not as gospel.
Impending free agents in yellow
My depth chart below highlights impending free agents in yellow. Let me point out that I did not list every guy from the 2020 roster who is a soon-to-be free agent. For example, I ignored two linebackers from the 2020 roster — Mychal Kendricks (who will likely begin a prison sentence soon) and Thomas Davis (whom I believe has already announced his retirement). OL David Sharp is another guy I didn’t list. There are others.
Unclear injury situation in pink
Guys like Bryce Love, who are on the roster but may not be healthy enough to play, are highlighted in pink. Other guys in this category include QB Kyle Allen (who is highlighted in yellow due to his free agency status), TE Thaddeus Moss, and OL Sahdiq Charles.
Enigma in Blue
I’ve listed Reuben Foster on the depth chart, but not counted him as being on the roster. I’ll be interested to see how his situation plays out this off-season.
I’ve listed Smith as Heinicke’s backup because I believe he’ll retire or be released shortly, but I could be wrong.
That’s 67 players under contract
I have 67 players on the depth chart — 31 on defense, 35 on offense and Tress Way — who are not highlighted in yellow or blue. That reconciles with the 67 players that Over the Cap lists on their WFT cap summary.
Some thoughts on the depth chart
The Special Teams specialists could see some change for the first time in years
I mentioned Nick Sundberg’s situation already. The other guy to pay attention to here is placekicker Dustin Hopkins, who is an impending free agent, and who struggled for a stretch early in the ‘20 season. My best guess is that both guys are extended, but it wouldn’t shock me to see either or both replaced.
Thaddeus Moss could be an interesting wildcard here. He’s had basically an entire year to rehab from surgery, train in an NFL strength and fitness program, and learn the Scott Turner playbook. The coaches will have a very good idea about where he is at, and he may have made enough progress in the past year to make the TE position a bit less of a priority in free agency and the draft than it appears to be otherwise.
There’s no mystery here. After answering the quarterback question, wide receiver is the biggest area of need on the Washington Football Team. The team needs a legitimate receiver to line up opposite Terry McLaurin, and they probably need to get that player in free agency. The team also needs to upgrade at slot receiver and punt returner after Steven Sims’ disappointing sophomore season. Sims looked a lot more like the backup we thought he was than the starter he had seemed to be turning into at the end of the 2019 season.
A lot also depends on the recovery of Kelvin Harmon from injury, the continued development of Cam Sims, who came close to having a breakout campaign in 2020, and the ability of Antonio Gandy-Golden to develop into a reliable NFL receiver.
Washington’s situation here is actually fairly enviable in some ways. Not many NFL teams can look at their depth chart and feel good about 4 out of 5 positions.
Of course, the $64,000,000 question here is whether the team will sign Brandon Scherff to a long term contract extension. The All-Pro guard would lock down the right side of the line (along with Morgan Moses) for at least the next two seasons, but he is likely to demand a huge contract that may not make good salary cap sense for the Washington Football Team. The issue of Scherff’s contract has been perhaps the most-discussed issue on Hogs Haven since the team lost the playoff game to Tampa Bay in January, so I’ll just note here that it’s an important issue (and one that should finally be resolved one way or another in the next few weeks).
The other big issue is the development of Sahdiq Charles as either a tackle or a guard. If he can successfully blossom into a reliable NFL player, that will be very good for the WFT. On the other hand, his failure to develop, in conjunction with the apparent issues with Wes Martin and Ross Piearshbacher (who is no longer with the team) would create a lack of depth that could threaten the 2021-22 roster strength.
Here, if Bryce Love is healthy enough to be an NFL running back, then the team probably just needs to add a developmental back. Otherwise, the front office will likely need to acquire a running back that can fit the offensive scheme that Scott Turner is trying to develop.
We seem to have too many strong safeties and a need to upgrade the free safety position.
Beyond this the team needs to either re-sign or replace Ronald Darby, and draft more cornerback depth.
The real concern, however, is at linebacker. The team has some capable linebackers, but no great linebackers. The team probably needs to add two very highly productive starting linebackers this off-season, with at least one guy that can provide speed from sideline to sideline, with pass coverage skills and reliable tackling.
If Washington can significantly upgrade the linebacking group by adding at least one potential star, and sort out the safety position while not losing any production at CB, then this group could be one of the very best in the NFL in 2021.
Where will I be focused over the next four weeks?
I confess that I have absolutely no idea what the brains trust is likely to do at the most important position on the team. They could trade for a veteran, sign an unrestricted free agent QB in March, trade up and draft a guy, go into camp with Alex Smith still on the roster, or head to camp with Allen, Heinicke and a developmental draft pick — all of the options seem equally likely to me; that’s how confused I am.
This is the single most important decision the WFT brains trust will make this off-season.
Allen Robinson will get paid. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Washington chase him and pay him this March, but I think the more likely outcome here is for the team to let the top couple of guys get paid big money, and, in this year’s challenging free agency period (the salary cap is likely to shrink by about 9% vs. 2020), exercise a bit of patience and sign a guy who isn’t necessarily a marquee name, but who can complement Terry’s skillset and make the offense more dangerous.
Whether in free agency or the draft, I also expect them to upgrade the slot.
This is the one spot on the defense where Washington needs a star. I don’t love the options in free agency. Depending on what happens with QB and WR in March, I could see the team being aggressive and trying to land one of the top-4 linebackers in the April draft.
What do they do with Brandon Scherff?
Do they acquire a long-term answer at LT or LG? Is Sahdiq Charles already the answer to one of those questions? Do they ‘get by’ with Lucas & Schweitzer for a season and figure it out next year?
I think that Logan Thomas’s breakout season in 2020 takes a lot of pressure off here. A healthy Thad Moss could make a difference as well. I’m looking for the team to acquire another budget free agent and/or a developmental prospect in the April draft.
Kam Curl seems to be a talented NFL starter on a rookie contract.
What does the team do with Landon Collins?
Do they pursue an upgrade at free safety or stand pat with the returning roster?