- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2019

ASHBURN — Dan Snyder purchased the Washington Redskins in 1999 with a declaration. Then a brash 34-year-old fulfilling his dream of owning his childhood team, Snyder said the Redskins would deliver winning to their fans.

Twenty years later, that has hardly been the case.

As the Redskins begin another season Sunday — their 21st under Snyder — on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington faces a plethora of issues, from its holdout star left tackle to a discontented fan base to a coach whose job is likely on the line. Team president Bruce Allen said this offseason he believed the Redskins were “close” — leaving some fans asking: “To what?”

Revitalizing the Redskins has proven elusive and the problems facing Snyder, now 54, over the next 20 years won’t be getting any easier. Beyond restoring a winning product on the field, Washington must finalize plans for — and then build — a new stadium with FedEx Field’s lease set to expire in 2027.

In the meantime, Washington will try to turn around last season’s flagging attendance figures from the suburban stadium with a team led by a coach on a short leash, a journeyman quarterback on his fifth team and a $181 million roster — 19th highest in the league — that bookies rank as a 300-1 longshot to win the Super Bowl.

They’re paying how much?

Practically nothing about the Redskins‘ offense screams flashy. Running back Derrius Guice, with his swagger, or rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins, with his rocket of an arm, may give fans reasons to be excited, but as a whole, Washington doesn’t have the proven entities to be thought of as among the league’s elites.

So, it may be a surprise to learn, then, the Redskins have the second-most expensive offense in 2019.

Yep: At $109.1 million, the Redskins trail only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in that category. Washington, as a reminder, averaged just 17.6 points per game last season, ranking 29th.

How is that possible? For one, the Redskins are carrying a $20.4 million cap hit for quarterback Alex Smith, who is still on crutches after breaking his leg in November. Even if they wanted to move on, Smith’s release would have carried a staggering $52 million cap hit — making it a non-option.

As a result, Washington added two more quarterbacks — Haskins ($2.6 million) and starter Case Keenum ($3.5 million) — to bring its cost at the position to $30.2 million, including Colt McCoy’s $3.4 million. That’s also the second-most expensive quarterback room in the NFL, trailing the Detroit Lions.

Further, Smith’s release would carry a $21.4 million cap hit in 2020 if released after June 1.

“He’s not going anywhere next year,” said Jason Fitzgerald, a salary cap expert who founded the contract site Over The Cap.

Elsewhere on offense, the Redskins have committed the most money in the league to their tight ends: $17 million. Washington also uses 22% of its salary cap along the offensive line to pay for starters like Trent Williams, Brandon Scherff and Morgan Moses. (The Redskins, though, will not have to pay Williams if he does not report, potentially freeing up more cap room).

A change in approach

As a salary cap expert for the Redskins in 2007 and 2008, J.I. Halsell’s job was to take an idea from ownership and find a way to make it work within the team’s budget — no matter how big the ask. And in those days, Washington found ways to be … creative.

For the first decade of Snyder’s ownership, the Redskins developed a reputation of making over-the-top, if not reckless, signings to make a splash. Oftentimes, they flopped.

But that hasn’t been the case in a few years.

“When Bruce [Allen] came on board, they kind of got better at restraining themselves in free agency,” Halsell said.

Sure, Landon Collins’ six-year, $84 million contract this offseason prompted some to make a “same ol’ Redskins” joke, but he was Washington’s first notable free-agent signing since Josh Norman (five years, $75 million) in 2016. Both deals were justifiable, with Collins filling a major need and Norman coming off an All-Pro season at the time. The Redskins also paid Smith after trading for him, but the cost was in line with other quarterback salaries.

Even then, the Redskins have $4.7 million in salary-cap space, which ranks 21st in the league. Not great, but manageable.

On defense, the Redskins have only $68 million committed this season — with only five teams spending less. In coach Jay Gruden’s previous five years with the Redskins, Washington has invested significant draft capital on the defensive side of the ball with three first-round picks on the line alone.

The Redskins have put an emphasis on the draft — with 30 of their 53 players taken by them. Half of those 30 are on defense.

Gruden said this year, the Redskins are expecting five or six of their rookies to “contribute early and contribute a lot,” which he admits is rare.

“I think we’ve drafted well the last couple of years,” Gruden said. “These guys have been pretty productive. It’s a matter of growing your people in your system, which is good. These guys, you want to develop them and keep them here, so that they get better under your tutelage, you hope.”

Building around Haskins

In the NFL, teams are always looking for an edge when it comes to team building. As it turns out, taking advantage of a rookie quarterback’s relatively cheap salary is a pretty good way to do that.

The Seattle Seahawks greatly benefited from Russell Wilson’s rookie-scale contract when they went to the Super Bowl in 2014 and 2015 — taking the money that normally would be reserved for a quarterback and spending it to surround him with talent. The Eagles, with Carson Wentz, and Los Angeles Rams, with Jared Goff, did the same. The Kansas City Chiefs have Super Bowl expectations with Patrick Mahomes.

But in order to do that, teams have to be in good financial shape with the rest of their roster. That will be key for the Redskins if they plan on building around Haskins, whose rookie contract will pay him only $14.4 million over the next four seasons.

According to Over The Cap, the Redskins have a projected $38.4 million next season in cap space — a number that can easily change depending on how this year unfolds. For instance, Washington can free additional space if they release cornerback Josh Norman ($12.5 million in savings) and tight end Jordan Reed ($8.5 million in savings). If Williams doesn’t report for the entire season, Washington would get a credit toward his salary ($10.8 million) that they can apply to its cap.

Washington’s projected room could also decrease if it extends Scherff this season. The two sides have yet to reach an agreement, but any possible deal — which could lead to Scherff being the league’s highest-paid guard — would have to be factored in. At the same time, a Scherff extension would free up cap space this year by lowering Scherff’s 2019 cap hit.

Teams can roll over any unused salary cap toward next season.

Fitzgerald said the Redskins‘ salary cap situation ranks as “middle of the pack.”

“I don’t think they’re poorly set up, but they’re not really in a position either where you would probably look at them and say, ‘They just go wild in free agency. They can add a lot of talent’ relative to the rest of the league,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re probably just going to be kind of average.”

Over the last three years, the Redskins‘ precise problem has been not finding a way to be more than average. Washington hopes to change that this season, starting Sunday.

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