ASHBURN — That Antonio Gandy-Golden was considered expendable offers some measure of how far the Washington Football Team has come in under Ron Rivera.
A few years ago, when players like Ryan Grant and Maurice Harris lined up outside for Washington, there was no doubt that a prospect like Gandy-Golden — tall with a big catch radius — would have made the roster, especially given the lack of talent at the position.
Back then, the franchise tried selling Steven Sims and Kelvin Harmon to fans as the beginning of a promising nucleus.
But on Tuesday, the day roster cuts were due, Gandy-Golden didn’t make it: There were simply better players for Rivera and his staff to choose from. It hardly mattered that Gandy-Golden was drafted in the fourth round a year ago.
The move was an indication that Rivera’s rebuild continues into the second year.
“I can tell you the guys that I’ve met with today, to a man, every single one of them worked their butt off to make this roster,” general manager Martin Mayhew said. “They did everything right, just had the kind of character, the right kind of football character that we need to win here. And I’ve been in situations — typically, you’re going to have two or three guys where you’re kind of glad to see those guys go.
“There was nobody like that (this year). Every single one of those guys (who were cut) I feel great about. I’d love to have them all still be there.”
In trimming down from 80 to 53 players, Washington let go of some appealing players — ones who could very well land elsewhere. Yes, they lacked the star power of, say, quarterback Cam Newton (a Patriots’ cut), but Washington‘s discards are all useful role players.
Jimmy Moreland, Washington’s biggest surprise in terms of cuts, played 57% of the team’s defensive snaps last year and is a viable slot cornerback. Safety Jeremy Reaves started three games last year, and did a solid job of filling in once Landon Collins and Deshazor Everett went down with injuries. Peyton Barber was a useful short-yardage running back entering his sixth year.
Washington, in general, retained young talent. Rivera likes to say he took the job because of the team’s core, and it’s true he didn’t start from scratch. He had a No. 1 receiver in Terry McLaurin. The team’s defensive line was composed of first-rounders, and Rivera would soon add another one in Chase Young. Guard Brandon Scherff had All-Pro potential, which he finally hit on last year.
But Washington is deep enough now, going into Rivera‘s second year, that there is no room for some prospects. Besides Gandy-Golden, the team waived center Keith Ismael — a fifth-rounder from that same draft class — and defensive end William Bradley-King, a seventh-rounder from this year.
Sure, one could argue that Washington missed on those picks initially and simply moved on. But if Washington wasn’t coming off winning the NFC East, perhaps the team would be more willing to take a chance and develop a couple of longshots.
“Our depth is a little bit better,” Rivera said. “Last year, we only kept five wide receivers on the first cut. … This year, we had nine guys down to the end that we were trying to decide from. So that was a sign (of growth). Same thing in the secondary.”
Washington ultimately kept seven receivers for the first time since 2012, including seventh-rounder Dax Milne and veteran DeAndre Carter. In the secondary, Washington could afford to keep someone like Troy Apke, a special teams stand out, because it felt comfortable with the coverage its other cornerbacks could provide.
To be clear, this is far from a perfect roster. Washington only retained four linebackers and will likely add to the position in coming days in part because the team wasn’t satisfied with what it saw in camp. And despite winning the division in 2020, the team finished only 7-9, an indication that Washington is a ways away from contention.
But change has happened. That’s obvious. And, according to players like Landon Collins, “It was much needed.”
Last week, after a sweltering practice in the heat, Collins remarked how teammates powered through. In past years, he said, people complained about the temperature.
“When I came in here, it was tough,” said Collins, who joined Washington in 2019 on a mega-deal. “It was a tough pill to swallow. To my guys, I didn’t know much about what was going on here; but when I walked in here, I was like, ‘we got to turn this around with some kind of way.’ What Ron … I just want to be a part of it as much as I, as long as I can.”