PHOENIX — After recognizing a need to improve the level of talent on their defense, the Washington Redskins spent approximately $20 million in the past month signing four players who they believe could start for them during the upcoming season.
Three of those players — cornerback Chris Culliver, nose tackle Terrance Knighton and defensive end Stephen Paea — have had significant experience as starters in the league. A fourth, defensive end Ricky Jean Francois, has started in the past but is expected to fill a reserve role with the Redskins. A fifth, strong safety Jeron Johnson, was a backup for the Seattle Seahawks the last four seasons and will be given his first opportunity to start in the league.
None of the signings were particularly flashy, with the Redskins recognizing that spending plenty of money to bring in a marquee free agent is a strategy that, for them, has frequently failed.
They also decided, after finishing 4-12 last season, that a good number of the players whose contracts expired on March 10 were not worthy of returning to the team.
“That’s a decision you make as an organization, as far as building your football team,” coach Jay Gruden said Wednesday during an hour-long breakfast at the owners’ meetings. “If a player wants to move on, or an organization wants to move on, it’s the nature of the business. You’re going to have change every year in pro football, and unfortunately, we’ve had a little bit more change this year than we’d like. But, sometimes change is for the better. We’re hoping that’s the case. We’re hoping to replace the people we lost with some young people and move on.”
Culliver, long-term, may be the biggest of the Redskins’ free agent additions. The 6-foot, 199-pound cornerback signed a four-year contract worth up to $32 million on March 13 — a deal that includes a $5 million signing bonus and $16 million guaranteed.
He started 14 games for the San Francisco 49ers last season and had 45 tackles and four interceptions. Though he is still awaiting a hearing on charges stemming from a hit-and-run incident last year, when he was arrested for hitting a bicyclist with a car, the team felt confident enough that he would be cleared of all charges. And, to protect itself, the web site ProFootballTalk reported earlier this month that Culliver would have to pay back part of his signing bonus and the remainder of the guaranteed money in the contract would be voided if he did face any discipline.
“I think watching all the corners that were free in free agency, obviously Darrelle Revis is in a class by himself, and then after that, I think Chris Culliver is one of the better corners we had graded and a major target for us,” Gruden said. “I like his toughness. I think he’s a great tackler. Great competitor, you can see that on tape. And I think he has the ability to travel with the good receivers we’re going to see, the Dez Bryants, the Odell Beckhams in our division, and [we’ll] give him the opportunity to do that.”
Culliver will join a crowded group that includes three players who started multiple games last year for the Redskins — David Amerson, Bashaud Breeland and DeAngelo Hall, who is recovering from a torn left Achilles’ tendon. Gruden said the team has not yet penciled in certain players for certain roles, but acknowledged that one will likely be the slot corner and that one could potentially move to free safety to fill another defensive void.
Neither of those are likely to be Culliver, who has served as the nickel corner during his tenure with the 49ers.
“We see a corner who wants to stick his head in there and make tackles and really fly to the football and challenge the ball when it’s in the air and challenge people in bump-and-run,” Gruden said. “You can just see him competing on every down, and in every phase, getting his hands on people at the line of scrimmage, running to the football and doing a great job in run support. There’s really not a lot of weaknesses that I’ve seen in his game, and we’re excited to have him.”
The player who could move to free safety would be Hall, who has said for years that he would make that adjustment if it would help prolong his career. Hall tore the Achilles’ tendon in the Redskins’ third game of the season and then tore it again in late October during an accident at his home.
Still, it remains uncertain if Hall, 30, will be able to return in time for the start of training camp, and if he can even make that transition. He recently posted photos on his social media accounts showing him completing a standing backflip.
“We’ll have to let [defensive backs coach Perry] Fewell and [defensive coordinator Joe] Barry make that determination, and see how the guys come in and compete and what we think,” Gruden said. “That’s to be determined, but there are definitely options available. Some of the best safeties are converted corners, so it could be a corner we get in the draft and convert to safety [or] it could be one that we already have on our roster, so we’ll wait and see.”
That player would fill in alongside Johnson, who said two weeks ago when he signed a two-year, $2.5 million contract with the Redskins that the team told him he would be its starting strong safety.
Under former defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, the Redskins preferred to have their two safeties play interchangeably and drew little distinction between a strong safety and a free safety. Gruden said Barry thinks the same way, but Johnson is viewed as more of an in-the-box, physical type of player.
“He was playing behind two pretty good players [in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas] and had an opportunity to play against the Giants last year, as a starter, and we watched that game very closely,” Gruden said. “He did a good job. He can play in the box. I think he can cover some ground, and I think he’s an interesting prospect, really. He’s young, played great on special teams. And he’s another one that really is excited about the opportunity to get a chance to play. He’s had limited opportunities because of Kam, and the safeties they have there, Earl. But you know, I think he’s got the ability to play in the box, and I think he can cover some ground.”
Up front, the Redskins haven’t yet decided how their defensive line rotation will take shape following the additions of Knighton, Paea and Jean Francois, though Gruden only envisions the 6-foot-3, 331-pound Knighton playing on the inside.
Otherwise, Paea, who joined the Redskins from the Chicago Bears, and Jean Francois, who was released by the Indianapolis Colts in a cost-cutting measure in February, will join nose tackle Chris Baker and defensive ends Jason Hatcher, Kedric Golston and Frank Kearse as part of a more aggressive defensive line.
“I think the type of guy you see, you see Paea and Ricky Jean Francois, they can get up the field and rush, Gruden said. “They’re active. We’re trying to get off the line of scrimmage more so a little bit than playing at the line of scrimmage. We want to get guys that can get up the field, active, and they’ll help us.
“Throw Jason Hatcher in the mix and obviously Terrance Knighton, who we picked up, and we still have Frank Kearse, who we really like, and we have some people in the building who are going to come in and compete, so we feel good about our interior defensive line.”
Knighton, a true run-stuffer, figures to be a two-down player, with some combination of Paea, Baker, Hatcher and Golston likely to see the field in nickel packages when the Redskins trot out two linemen in nickel packages.
That’s fine with Gruden, who knows Washington will face off against the other run-heavy NFC East offenses six times a season.
“You have to be able to stop them a little bit, and having a big body like Terrance — an active body like Terrance — is excellent to have in there,” Gruden said. “It frees up the linebackers obviously to make plays, Keenan [Robinson] and Perry [Riley], and makes people bounce things outside, right to [Ryan] Kerrigan, which we want. It helps us out a lot.”
Despite the additions, there are still openings Gruden thinks the Redskins can address — likely through the draft, which begins April 30. He wants an elite pass rusher to join Kerrigan, who is entering the final season of his rookie contract, and Trent Murphy, and the addition of a safety despite a weak draft class remains a possibility.
Otherwise, Gruden said the players who finished 2014 with the Redskins but have not yet returned on a new contract are unlikely to be brought back. Two — outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, now with the Tennessee Titans, and defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, who ended up with the Bears — accepted offers from other teams. A handful of others, including strong safety Brandon Meriweather, cornerback E.J. Biggers and nose tackle Chris Neild, are among those players still on the market.
“We’re evaluating all the free agents that are out there, and you know, if they’re not on our team right now, as of right now, we don’t have any plans for them to be with us,” Gruden said. “That’s not to say that tomorrow won’t change, or the next day. They’re on our list, but we want to wait and see what’s going on with this draft and who we get.”