- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The New Orleans Saints cut veterans Kwon Alexander and Emmanuel Sanders. The Buffalo Bills released wideout John Brown. More names will be added to that list in coming days as NFL teams shed salaries to fit in under the league’s new salary cap of $182.5 million — down 8%, thanks to revenue lost to the pandemic.

But while other teams are belt-tightening, the Washington Football Team is in position to scoop up suddenly available talent that could bolster the roster of the reigning NFC East champs.   

“I see it as an opportunity,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said in a video call with reporters Wednesday.

Washington is one of the few teams with extra cap space this offseason — a projected $38 million, or sixth-most in the NFL — ahead of the opening of free agency next week.

Rivera said Washington has a “couple of guys” that the team plans to chase when clubs get the green light to begin negotiating Monday with free agents. But the coach stopped short of saying Washington plans to splurge.

He’s been emphasizing that the team is charting a methodical approach to building on the success of last season, when a 7-9 record was good enough to win the division and claim a berth in the postseason.

Making the playoffs in Rivera’s first year in Washington surprised many and appears to put the organization ahead of schedule on what was supposed to be a multi-year rebuild. But Rivera said Washington remains committed to building for the long term.

“We’re not desperate,” Rivera said. “There’s no immediate need to have to, got to, must. … I really don’t think you throw the plan away and you start reaching and doing things you don’t need to do right now. I think what you do is you continue to put the pieces of the puzzle in place, and hopefully build it the right way and put it together the way you need it to be.”

For Washington, the obvious question centers around who will be the starting quarterback in 2021. Rivera addressed last week’s decision to release veteran Alex Smith, telling reporters the two had a productive conversation prior to parting ways.

Rivera said he didn’t disagree with Smith’s comments to GQ Magazine. In an interview published earlier this month, the quarterback said he “threw a wrench” in the team’s plans by returning from a life-threatening leg injury and claimed Rivera didn’t want him. On Wednesday, Rivera said he was “scared to death” of playing Smith, fearing that he would get hurt again.

Rivera admitted he initially didn’t want to be the coach who risked Smith getting hurt again. He said he told Smith that owner Dan Snyder always strongly believed in the quarterback’s ability to return.

But as part of the conversation, Rivera and Smith agreed to split — with the quarterback asking for his release, Rivera said.

“Knowing Alex just this year, he’ll get an opportunity to play again,” Rivera said. “He really will, and he’ll do a great job at it because that’s who he is.”

The split leaves Washington searching for a new signal-caller, and Rivera seemed noncommittal whether that quarterback will come through free agency or the draft. The team made an offer for Matthew Stafford in January and also reportedly inquired about Las Vegas’ Marcus Mariota and the Jets’ Sam Darnold.

Other positions of need for Washington likely include wide receiver, left tackle, linebacker and cornerback. Even with Washington’s cap space, Rivera said he would like to use part of it to re-sign the team’s own players.  

Rivera declined to mention anyone specific he would like to bring back, but the team’s notable free agents include pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan, cornerback Ronald Darby and kicker Dustin Hopkins.

The team recently used a chunk of its cap space to give All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff the franchise tag for a second straight year. The tag keeps Scherff under contract for at least one more year at a hefty $18 million salary, though Rivera said he would like for Washington to reach a long-term deal with the four-time Pro Bowler.  (The team’s $38 million projected cap space includes Scherff’s deal, even though he has yet to sign the contract.)

Last year, Washington opened free agency by chasing big names in Amari Cooper and Austin Hooper. When neither player accepted the proposed offer, the team pivoted by signing lesser-heralded players like tight end Logan Thomas and running back J.D. McKissic.

Rivera said that Washington could take a similar approach this year.

“When we do things, we move cautiously, smart,” Rivera said. “We don’t want to put ourselves in a position where we have to start all over again in a year or two. We want to be able to say: ‘Hey, we put the right pieces in place that gives us the opportunity to go out and do what we want to do.’”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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