- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2014


Free agency in the NFL starts Tuesday. That means Twitter, the news feeds and all that will be moving fast and furious with reports. So and so signed here. They paid what for that guy? Such and such a team has really upgraded. Such and such a team has really been damaged (not saying Ravens after the 2012 season but you get the drift).

It’s a relatively new dynamic in sports that has changed the methodology of building and maintaining a championship team. It’s like a big toy store — you can buy as much as you can afford. But will the purchases be useful or end up gathering dust in the corner?

The Redskins, with the salary cap penalty finally paid in full, can finally do some serious shopping in that toy store. How they spend their money will go a long way toward determing whether they are closer to their NFC East championship level of 2012 or their 3-13 get-the-coach-fired level of 2013.

Free agency shouldn’t be the primary means of building a team. “From within” is the term teams across all sports use. You draft and develop your own players and that should be the priority. But the right free agent or two added to that core group, along with a trade or two, can make the difference.

Let’s use the Nationals as an example. They’ve become one of the strongest teams in baseball by using a mix of homegrown, free agents and trades that is about perfect.

The lineup they should trot out on Opening Day will feature homegrowns Stephen Strasburg on the mound, Danny Espinosa or Anthony Rendon at second, Ian Desmond at short, Ryan Zimmerman at third and Bryce Harper in left field. Pretty solid core. Most Nationals fans would list at least four of those players as the most indispensible Nats.

Adam LaRoche at first and Jayson Werth in right field were free agents. LaRoche, despite a “down” year last year in which he still hit 20 home runs, is one of the more respected Nats in the clubhouse in addition to being a first-rate defender. Werth’s first year with the Nats was a bust. After returning from a wrist injury in his second year, he’s been exceptional.

Center fielder Denard Span and catcher Wilson Ramos were acquired in trades. Span had a slow start last year and then improved markedly. Not coincidentally, so did the Nats. Ramos is one of the better young catchers in the sport. Can anyone even remember what the Nats gave up to get him in 2010? (Reliever Matt Capps to the Twins.)

The rest of the team follows roughly the same pattern. The top four in the rotation are two homegrowns and two trades. The top three relievers are a free agent, a homegrown and a trade.

You need all the elements and you can’t really make many mistakes. The Nats’ method has worked thus far.

Which brings us to the Redskins. They have a pretty solid core of homegrown players. Quarterback Robert Griffin III may not be as good as he showed in 2012 but he’s also not as bad as he looked in 2013. Running back Alfred Morris, outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Bryan Orakpo and receiver Leonard Hankerson (maybe) were also drafted and developed by the team.

Free-agent receiver Pierre Garcon and free-agent cornerback DeAngelo Hall have proven to be nice additions, Hall probably moreso last season than any other since he joined the team. It earned him a lucrative new deal.

But the team needs more. Another receiver, another corner? A linebacker? A pass rusher? Some offensive linemen? OK, so the team needs a lot more. Adding the right pieces over the next few weeks could speed up the recovery process.

The Broncos and the Colts have been recent examples of teams that improved themselves with a few good free-agent signings (and in the Colts’ case, the drafting of a very good quarterback in Andrew Luck). Peyton Manning was a big catch for Denver, but adding Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Wes Welker and Terrance Knighton was a huge help, too.

The Eagles of 2011 went the other way, adding Vince Young, Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin and Ronnie Brown among others and going from a 10-6 team in 2010 to 8-8 in 2011 and 4-12 in 2012. None of the four was an Eagle for their 2013 NFC East championship season.

The Skins likely won’t be the Broncos of 2014. Given the 3-13 mark of last season, they can’t damage themselves too much. They can get significantly better. That’s the beauty of free agency. Let the news feeds begin.

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