- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2021

In the early years under owner Dan Snyder, Washington developed a reputation for throwing millions at big-name free agents — offseason moves aimed at making a splash that often backfired when the real football began. It doesn’t happen as often anymore, but the perception is hard to shake.

The new team running Washington, though, is flipping the script.

When the franchise shelled out roughly $85 million worth of contracts last week in the first wave of free agency, the talk around the league was distinctly different. There were hardly any jokes. No “same-old Snyder” quips. No bashing the team for being reckless. 

Instead, Washington’s free-agent haul — headlined by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, cornerback William Jackson III and wide receiver Curtis Samuel — was widely praised.

Pro Football Focus has the team second in its “Improvement Index,” a metric that measures how many “wins” a team added on a per-player basis. Sports Illustrated listed Washington as a “winner” in its annual “Winners and Losers of Free Agency” piece, as did the New York Post. According to Oddschecker, Washington’s odds of repeating as division champions increased from +400 to +280 at some sportsbooks. 

Washington was aggressive in free agency — handing out roughly $59 million in guarantees to Fitzpatrick, Jackson and Samuel combined. But the additions each addressed a major need and Washington was tactful in how they handled negotiations.

On the surface, none of the moves appeared to be an overpay.

“Putting (Washington) on the long list of teams being smart so far,” former Eagles general manager Joe Banner tweeted. “Long time since we could say that.”

ESPN analyst Mina Kimes came to a similar conclusion: “Was picking free agency winners and I landed on the Browns, Jets, and Washington….” she tweeted. “2021 is wild.” 

Washington’s free-agent splurge is also different in the spending restraint the team has shown. Despite entering free agency with the seventh-most cap space, Washington hasn’t given a single contract over $50 million in total value and has an estimated $20.8 million in space remaining. Samuel and Jackson, too, signed just three-year deals — manageable for a team’s cap sheet in the long term. 

The question, of course, becomes how much Washington has improved because of these moves. Fitzpatrick, for instance, is a journeyman quarterback who has never made the playoffs — and some doubt whether he’s the right signal-caller to get the team back to the postseason for the second straight year. 

Fox Sports radio host Colin Cowherd said he had two general managers text him that they didn’t understand the Fitzpatrick signing (one-year, $10 million). 

Others, however, believe strongly in what Fitzpatrick can bring to the District. On ESPN’s “Get Up,” host Mike Greenberg argued he didn’t understand why Washington wasn’t the clear favorite to win the NFC East after the addition. 

“They are definitively the team to beat in that division,” Greenberg said, “particularly with the acquisitions they have made.” 

He’s not alone in that thought. Gamblers, too, are putting money on Washington. According to Oddschecker, an overseas sportsbook, 58% of those who wagered on a team to win the East last week chose Washington. 

No team, for what it’s worth, has repeated as NFC East champs since the Eagles in 2003 and 2004. 

But Washington still might be building the right way for the long haul, even if the team can’t get back to the postseason next year. ESPN analyst and former safety Matt Bowen wrote that Washington’s signing of Jackson was the single most underrated signing of free agency so far and could help the defense take another step. 

“Washington’s defense took a big leap in 2020, but it needed improvements on the back end to get to the next — and perhaps an elite — level,” Bowen wrote. “Teaming Jackson up with Kendall Fuller at corner gives Washington one of the league’s best CB duos and supplies it with a borderline top-10 overall roster.”

Jackson, who spent the last five seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, ranked as Pro Football Focus’ top cornerback on the market.  But when Washington added him on a three-year, $40.5 million contract, the 28-year-old signed for less in guarantees ($26 million) than what the Jacksonville Jaguars paid former Seahawks cornerback Shaquill Griffin ($29 million). Griffin (three years, $40 million) can earn up to $44 million, whereas Jackson can earn up to $42 million with incentives.

USA Today’s Doug Farrar gave Washington an A+ for signing Jackson.

“The WFT got a CB1 for CB2 money,” Farrar tweeted. “Can’t do much better than that.”

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

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