- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 2, 2020

ASHBURN — This past spring, Washington ended up taking a conservative approach to free agency. But that wasn’t the initial plan.

When the negotiating window opened, the team quickly offered Amari Cooper north of $100 million to try and pry him away from the Dallas Cowboys. They also pursued Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper, who signed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Cleveland Browns. Hooper said then that if not for Cleveland’s offer, he would have joined Washington.

Rather than panic, Washington coach Ron Rivera and his front office pivoted. The group lined up a series of “prove it” deals — two years, $6 million for tight end Logan Thomas, two years, $4 million for J.D. McKissic, one year, $2.6 million for cornerback Ronald Darby and so on. The lone exception was signing cornerback Kendall Fuller to a four-year, $40 million deal, but still, that contract hardly moved the needle for a team used to splurging on top names.

The bargain-bin approach seems to be working, though.

Washington and its collection of no-name signings are only 4-7, but the team is in the hunt for the NFC East, thanks in large part to a free-agent class performing well above expectations.

“The other guys that we looked at are guys that you sit there and say: ‘Man, these guys are ready to have these kinds of years,’” Rivera said. “Those guys may not be your starters, but they may be top-flight backups that are just as valuable to what you’re trying to do.”

Rivera likes to say that Washington looks for players who are “on the cusp” of becoming impactful contributors, guys who may not have had a lot of chances to shine at the NFL level. That strategy helped build a consistent contender in Carolina, and since Rivera was given control over personnel decisions in Washington, he’s tried to replicate the formula.

This year, Rivera and his staff identified Thomas and McKissic as prime examples of that type of player. Both were in backup roles with the Detroit Lions, and both were veterans who had switched to new positions. Thomas, 29, entered the league as a quarterback before switching to tight end. McKissic, 27, was a wide receiver-turned-running back. The versatility, Rivera said, was intriguing.

Both players are playing bigger roles in Washington and the production is starting to show. 

Thomas has a career-high 34 catches for 328 yards. McKissic also has career highs in rushing (223 yards on 50 carries) and receiving (46 catches for 338 yards). 

Left tackle Cornelius Lucas, a longtime backup who was also added this offseason, has played well after being thrust into a starting spot.

When free agency opened, Thomas said he heard from “two handfuls” of teams — including from this week’s opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers. But he quickly settled on Washington because he saw what he felt was his best shot at becoming a featured tight end. Being close to home — he’s a Virginia native who played at Virginia Tech — didn’t hurt either.

Thomas believes there’s something positive about having a group of players who have experienced similar career paths.

“In all honesty, it helps mold a team when you don’t have a whole bunch of people who have come from all over the place that were ‘The Guy’ in other places,” Thomas said. “They go ahead and carve their role and it shows who you are as a person.”

Beyond Thomas and McKissic, Washington also looked at adding veterans who had already produced at the NFL level — and were longing for another shot. The best example of this was Darby, a once-promising corner whose market value was diminished after a slew of injuries sidelined him in Philadelphia. Darby figured Washington was a way to restore his value, noting that cornerbacks who play under Rivera tend to get paid.

Darby, 26, has been a worthy reclamation project. Starting opposite Fuller, Darby has been targeted a team-high 66 times, but he’s only allowing a 57.6 completion percentage — significantly better than his last year in Philadelphia (64.2%). Primarily a man-to-man corner throughout his career, Darby has been asked to play more zone defense this season and the switch appears to have helped prolong his career.

To be clear, not every move for Washington worked. The team cut safety Sean Davis at the end of training camp. Veteran linebackers Kevin Pierre-Louis and Thomas Davis haven’t been enough of an upgrade to stop Washington from likely searching for help at the position next year.

Still, the signings have largely helped — even impacting other areas Washington might not have imagined. 

Who knows, for instance, if Terry McLaurin would still have had his breakout year if Cooper had actually signed with Washington? McLaurin, in his second year, has the league’s fifth-most receiving yards with 938, while Cooper has 838 (13th).

Thomas, by the way, has had more catches and receiving yards than Hooper, who has only 28 receptions for 282 yards in nine games. Hooper missed two outings with an abdomen injury.

Taking a restrained approach in 2020 could also lead to WAshington being one of the rare teams with cap space next season. The NFL’s salary cap is projected to decrease by 11% ($22 million) due to lost revenue because of pandemic, meaning teams will likely make a slew of cuts to get to that figure.

According to Over The Cap, Washington is projected to be $50 million under the cap, despite the drop. That’s the fifth-most in the league.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Rivera said. “It really is. The teams that don’t have cap space are going to have to find it or let some players go. Those that don’t have cap space are going to have to make some good decisions because there are going to be a lot of guys that are going to be available.”

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