Have the Commanders adopted correct free-agent approach in 2023?

(Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports) Ron Rivera
(Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports) Ron Rivera /

Have the Washington Commanders taken the right approach to recruitment and retention during the 2023 free agency period so far?

The Washington Commanders made a deep dive into the shallow end of the free agent pool at the beginning of 2023 legal tampering, which in turn inspired this (with all apologies to the Purple One and 1999):

Wentz and Fitz and Jackson now are all forgotten men.

So this year let’s sign free agents like it’s 2020 again.

A couple of things became clear on Day 1. If you were holding your breath for Tremaine Edmunds, please breathe. He’s going to the Chicago Bears. Cam Sutton? He’ll be a Detroit Lion in 2023. Jawaan Taylor? Keep dreaming. He’s blocking for Patrick Mahomes next year.

And if you were hoping for Orlando Brown Jr., sorry. He hasn’t signed yet, but he’s not coming here. Neither is Lavonte David, Bobby Wagner, or Isaac Seumalo. How do I know? Because in its first few days, 2023 is looking an awful lot like 2020. And that’s a good thing.

Commanders continue to benefit from Ron Rivera’s experience

In 2020, Ron Rivera rode into two with a couple of goals – get younger, get faster, get more versatile. He had some salary-cap room, but not a lot.

So as much as we all wanted to see Amari Cooper join, it didn’t happen. No Jameis Winston. No Cory Littleton. I was sending Twitter love letters to Justin Simmons, but the Denver Broncos went and franchised tagged him, thus killing my dreams.

Rivera did the boring thing. He found a whole bunch of young veterans – all between 25 and 28 years old – none of them household names. Half of them flamed out. I thought Cody Latimer and Sean Davis were smart signings. I was wrong.

But enough of them – a lot of them, in fact – did pretty well. They helped build a much deeper roster than Washington had in previous years.

They came from all over. Kendall Fuller had been a Washington draftee. Ronald Darby was a very talented player who couldn’t kick the injury bug. They would form a very effective cornerback tandem.

Wes Schweitzer was a versatile spot offensive line starter who could bench-press a Buick. Cornelius Lucas was a swing tackle who appeared larger than a Buick. They both contributed valuable minutes to the protection.

J.D. McKissic and Peyton Barber were running backs – the kind of player whose name you recognize even if you don’t really know who they are. And Kevin Pierre-Louis? I have to admit I didn’t even recognize that name.

They all helped the Commanders make the playoffs for the first time in five years.

Logan Thomas turned into one of the best tight ends in the NFC. But it’s important to remember that when he was signed, nobody was all that excited.

Thomas was a former quarterback who thus far had not made any mark as an NFL tight end. He came cheap. They all came cheap.

Most of them were good athletes. Most of them were several years away from their 30th birthday. If Washington brought in older players such as Thomas Davis and Dontrelle Inman, they were here more for their presence in the locker room than on the field.

Commanders shouldn’t overpay if they aren’t going for Lamar Jackson

The experiences of 2021 and 2022 saw the Commanders spend on fewer, higher-priced free agents. These included Ryan Fitzpatrick, William Jackson III, Curtis Samuel, and Carson Wentz, which taught the team a lesson. It’s fairly simple, but one which bad organizations constantly fail to comprehend.

You should not overpay for players unless one of the following conditions is met:

  • You overpay for an impact position player when you feel you are one or two pieces away from Super Bowl contention.
  • You overpay for a top-tier veteran quarterback when you feel you are three or four players away from Super Bowl contention.
  • You overpay for a top-tier young quarterback on any day that ends in a “Y.”

The Commanders do not meet the first two conditions and they have announced they will not pursue Lamar Jackson. Therefore, they should not be overpaying for players during this free agency period.

Andrew Wylie and Nick Gates are young, tough, versatile linemen. The exact kinds of players the recently-fired John Matsko has had success with.

It will be interesting to see who Rivera and Eric Bienemy select to coach the offensive line. But regardless of who it is, Wylie and Sam Cosmi should make up the right side of the line in 2023 – though I don’t who will be at tackle and who will be at guard.

Gates could be starting at center or at left guard. Probably next to one of the very good interior linemen who flood this year’s draft class.

Cody Barton adds some athleticism to an undermanned linebacking corps. He hasn’t shown much coverage ability and I don’t think he’s imposing enough to man the middle in a 4-3, but his experience last season will help, and he can run and hit.

Jack Del Rio will find a way to deploy him. Analysts seem to be viewing Barton as a potential MIKE backer, but I don’t think that’s the plan. At this spot, he would not be all that different from Jon Bostic – a 3-4 inside presence asked to play the more difficult 4-3 structure.

I have a suspicion that Del Rio’s original plan to play Jamin Davis at the MIKE may be back on the table. It seemed silly at the time to ask a largely unseasoned rookie to play the middle, and it was a major fail. But now, with two full seasons under his belt, I think it could work.

Washington also added depth to their cornerback group by claiming the recently released Cameron Dantzler Sr. Like the other players, he is young and athletic.

He has never looked as steady as Fuller or as talented as Darby, but Dantzler has the long frame that Washington seems to favor in its corners. If the former third-round pick gets more consistent, he could be a solid addition. As with the offensive line, you can never have too many cornerbacks.

There could be some slightly bigger moves to come. The Commanders have said they are not actively pursuing tight ends, but I don’t know how they couldn’t at least have a bit of interest in Dalton Schultz. But any new free agents will probably fit the profile of the ones they grabbed on Day 1.

This is not a great year for NFL free agents, and that drives the price of lesser players higher than they should be. You don’t want to be in the position of overpaying for Brown Jr. or C.J. Gardner-Johnson this year.

With a weak free agent class, if you are going to pay big for anyone, you should make it someone about whom you have very few questions. Someone young and talented and who has already shown the ability to perform at a high level in the NFL.

Someone like Daron Payne.

If you were waiting for the Commanders’ big free-agent splash, it already happened when they escaped franchise tag purgatory and re-upped Payne. That’s the kind of move that good franchises make. They reward their own players.

Like the signings of mid-tier players like Wylie, Gates, Barton, and Danny Johnson, for that matter, it doesn’t feel as exciting. There’s a “grass is always greener” mentality that pervades NFL fan bases, and administrations alike. But it rarely leads to success on the field.

Playing as the Commanders did in 2020 is the right move for now. Sam Howell and Bienemy are going to matter more than any of these new – or re-signed – players in 2023. But the roster additions are going to help.

Making your roster younger and more athletic, without giving up salary cap flexibility and/or draft capital, always will help.

light. Must Read. Grading the latest six Commanders moves in 2023 free agency