ASHBURN, Va. -- When Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder bought the team in 1999, he swung big on free agents. His first free agent class 23 years ago included future hall of famers Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith. Later, Snyder gave out the first $100-million contract, to Albert Haynesworth, in 2009.
Snyder will not exit the NFL in the same fashion, assuming the team indeed is sold this offseason, as multiple sources still believe will happen.
After Sanders signed with Washington in 2000, he proclaimed that Snyder shopped at Versace while other owners went to Wal-Mart. This offseason, though, they’re looking to find a good bargain on quality players -- no Versace, but perhaps a step above Wal-Mart prices.
With free agency starting next week, Washington has approximately $15 million in cap space. It has multiple needs plus a desire to retain some key free agents. The Commanders could free up more money by releasing more players or even restructuring contracts. But some of those moves will depend on who they might be able to get in free agency.
Here’s their financial objectives over the next several months:
Find another quarterback
Washington will start offseason workouts in April with second-year quarterback Sam Howell as "QB 1," as Commanders coach Ron Rivera has called him. Howell still will have to earn the job after that point, though he’ll do so as the favorite. He’s the only quarterback under contract right now, so Washington must add more to the position and find someone who could push him for the job.
There’s a good chance Washington will end up with a familiar face for that role: Taylor Heinicke. The Commanders have always considered him a quality backup; Heinicke likes Howell and would like to return -- even if he’s a backup.
But if they can’t work out a deal with him, Washington could opt for veterans at the level of Andy Dalton or Jacoby Brissett. In an ideal world, the Commanders would sign a backup in the $5-million range.
Retain their own
Washington has several key players it wants to retain, though none should be too expensive. The Commanders would like to keep linebacker Cole Holcomb, but the sides do not appear close to a deal -- yet, according to team sources. Holcomb missed the last nine games of 2022 because of a right foot injury that eventually required surgery.
They’ll likely re-sign Pro Bowl special teams player Jeremy Reaves and other key reserves, such as center Tyler Larsen and defensive lineman Efe Obada, among others.
But the big money will go to defensive tackle Daron Payne. Washington used the franchise tag on him. So, as of now, he counts $18.9 million against the salary cap. The Commanders continue to negotiate with Payne’s representatives about a long-term deal.
Part of the reason Washington wants to start Howell -- in addition to liking him -- is that having a quarterback on a rookie deal allows the Commanders to make other moves. Had Carson Wentz worked out at quarterback and the team was on the hook for his $26 million cap hit, it would be hard to keep Payne -- and others.
“The sooner you can get those things done, the more positions you can feel in free agency,” Rivera said at the combine. “It takes a lot of pressure off of the draft in terms of what you need to do, what you have to do, what you must do, as much as to the point where you get to what you want to do. That's probably the most important thing, so if we can fill some of those spots coming up once we get into March and get into free agency, we'll see what happens.”
Washington has to find more help along the offensive line, linebacker and cornerback in particular. The Commanders could opt to sign a high-priced offensive tackle. However, one source said, if they did that, they’d be unable to address other holes elsewhere. In that scenario, filling one hole would still leave two or three others.
It’s most likely they’ll look for some players at these spots in the range of $5 million to $8 million per year.
Andrew Wylie played both guard and tackle with the Kansas City Chiefs the past five years while starting 59 games. Washington’s new offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, knows him well. A player such as Wylie, who signed a one-year deal for $2.5 million last offseason, would provide flexibility. Guard Will Hernandez is coming off a solid season for Arizona and also would not be expensive.
The Commanders also will look hard at the draft to fill other spots along the offensive line. They still must decide if they want Sam Cosmi to play guard or tackle; some of that will depend on what happens in free agency and the draft.
It helps, too, that the draft is strong with linemen and corners in particular.
Some of their cap space -- and money -- will eventually go to extending their own. Among the free agents after next season: end Montez Sweat, safety Kamren Curl and running back Antonio Gibson. If Sweat has another strong season he’ll command more than $20 million a season; Curl’s value could be impacted by how the market develops for Jessie Bates III, considered the best safety in free agency.
The Commanders also must decide on defensive end Chase Young's fifth-year option -- it would cost them $17.5 million in 2024 if they pick it up.
As of now, the Commanders have only 30 players under contract for 2024 -- and more than $130 million in cap space. But a decent chunk of space could be taken with just a few extensions.
Snyder won’t send his franchise off with any splashy signings, but if the Commanders execute the next couple months well, then he could exit with a franchise ready to build on an 8-8-1 season.