The Washington Redskins have to play a football game on Monday night. A football game that technically matters quite a lot, as they all do until you've been mathematically eliminated. But with Washington trailing the Philadelphia Eagles by three games (at least when you consider the tiebreaker) with only six to play, there's a very good chance the 'Skins will be packing up their locker room on Dec. 30.
The team will have a lot of work to do between that point and the first week of the 2014 NFL season, so let's get off to a six-week head start by putting together a checklist for the franchise to follow.
How much will they have to spend?
It's very difficult to predict cap space this far in advance, but it's safe to say the Redskins will have significantly more to spend than they did each of the last two seasons. A $36 million league-imposed sanction handcuffed the franchise on the open market in 2012 and 2013, but that's over with now.
According to OvertheCap.com, the Redskins should expect to enter the 2014 offseason with just under $20 million worth of cap space.
Who should they let go?
Of course, before they dive into the free-agent pool, the 'Skins will have to make some important in-house decisions. Decisions that could have a tremendous impact on that final cap space number.
Key contributors Brian Orakpo, DeAngelo Hall, Santana Moss, London Fletcher, Josh Wilson, Perry Riley and Reed Doughty are slated to become unrestricted free agents this offseason. Meanwhile, role players Rex Grossman, Darryl Tapp, Fred Davis, Bryan Kehl, E.J. Biggers, Rob Jackson, Jerome Murphy, Dezmon Briscoe, Chris Baker, Doug Worthington, Aldrick Robinson, Nick Barnett, Jose Gumbs and Josh Hull will all have to either be re-signed or replaced.
Brandon Meriweather's deal is voidable, which would probably be something they strongly consider based on what he's accomplished the last two seasons. Remove Meriweather from the equation and cut Adam Carriker (who can't stay healthy) and Josh Morgan (who has underperformed), and you have closer to $35 million but plenty of spots to fill.
The point is that $20 million number will inevitably shrink before free agency arrives, because not all of those players will be chopped. Here's who the team should wave goodbye to:
|Key players the Redskins should cut ties with|
|LB London Fletcher||38||Might retire. Not the player he used to be.|
|WR Santana Moss||34||Over the hill and in steep decline.|
|CB Josh Wilson||28||Mediocre for two years running.|
|S Brandon Meriweather||29||Completely unreliable.|
|DE Adam Carriker||29||Can't stay healthy and they have better options.|
|WR Josh Morgan||28||Already being phased out.|
Fred Davis wasn't listed, but that's only because he's become irrelevant. The Jordan Reed era is underway and the Redskins have better blocking tight ends on the roster. They can live without every other impending free agent.
Who should they keep?
Orakpo has been a tad disappointing this year, but he's still the best pass-rusher on the team, and good pass-rushers are extremely valuable. His sack numbers have remained conservative and there are injury questions surrounding him, so he might not cost an arm and a leg. What Orakpo does between now and the end of the year will certainly impact the money he earns, but unless someone else pays stupid money to poach him, the 27-year-old should be back.
Don't be surprised if the 'Skins give Gumbs and Biggers fresh but short contracts, because that secondary is so weak that they can't afford to be picky.
And then there's the coaching staff, which is part of the problem.
Mike Shanahan was given five years to fix one of the worst franchises in the league, and although three of the first four have been rough, I think he deserves one last shot. Regardless of whether he's given a short symbolic extension to avoid being viewed as a lame duck, this should be considered his final shot. The team should have been prepared to give Shanahan and his staff three years with Robert Griffin III, and 2014 will be year three.
That, of course, means that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan should also return, because Mike won't be firing his son. Again, final shot. And if it doesn't work out, don't expect Kyle to simply move into his dad's former role.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett could be fired. It wouldn't be a travesty if the Redskins went in another direction considering how poorly the D has performed. That said, the personnel hasn't been helpful, especially in the defensive backfield.
|Key players/coaches the Redskins should keep|
|HC Mike Shanahan||N/A||No extension, just one last chance.|
|OC Kyle Shanahan||N/A||Mike's son...duh.|
|DC Jim Haslett||N/A||Let's see his D without a cap sanction.|
|LB Brian Orakpo||27||Would be very tough to replace him.|
Again, they can live without every other impending free agent, but Gumbs, Biggers and Rob Jackson probably have a little more value than the rest of the crop. All three defenders should be brought back on one-year deals.
Who has six weeks to audition?
This is where 2013 really comes into focus. Just over a year ago, when the 'Skins were down and seemingly out, Shanahan suggested that they'd spend some time evaluating players to see "who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come," per Gene Wang of the Washington Post (h/t Pro Football Talk). In hindsight, he jumped the gun there, but that's exactly what they have to start doing this week.
The three players with expiring contracts I'd be most interested in watching over the next six weeks are Hall, Riley and Robinson.
Hall has been a playmaker, but he isn't young or overly reliable. Riley has had a sudden down year and may only be worth keeping around as a backup. Of course, his situation is impacted by whatever happens with Fletcher. And Robinson, who is slated to become a restricted free agent, might have a big opportunity with Leonard Hankerson going down for the season and the rest of that receiving corps in disarray.
And I haven't written off special teams coach Keith Burns just yet, mainly because the sample size isn't quite large enough. But that's been one of the worst units in NFL history through 11 weeks. If the team can't start making some plays and start avoiding big plays on special teams over these final six weeks, Burns should be one-and-done in D.C.
|Key players/coaches auditioning to stay on board|
|CB DeAngelo Hall||30||Still young, but inconsistent.|
|LB Perry Riley||25||Has regressed in second season as starter.|
|G Chris Chester||30||Giving up too much pressure on RGIII.|
|WR Leonard Hankerson||25||Only 17 catches in three seasons.|
|ST coach Keith Burns||N/A||One unit in NFL, per Football Outsiders.|
You'll notice Chris Chester was added. The right guard is under contract through 2015, but he's been abysmal in pass protection this season. The Redskins simply can't afford to keep him in the starting lineup if this holds up, so he has to prove this has merely been a rough patch.
The thing is, the 'Skins spent two mid-round 2012 draft picks on guards (Josh LeRibeus and Adam Gettis), so there are other options. What happens between now and Dec. 29 should help determine where they go there.
Who should they sign?
Wide receiver: Pierre Garcon is a decent No. 1, but the Redskins need more depth, especially with Garcon prone to injury. Eric Decker, Jeremy Maclin and Hakeem Nicks would all be upgrades for sure, but they'd also be pricey. James Jones would help too, but he'll be 30.
Cornerback: The Redskins were thought to be interested in Aqib Talib last year, but he returned to the New England Patriots on a one-year deal. This year, he'd be a nice acquisition, especially if they lose Hall or Wilson (or both). Alterraun Verner would be the ultimate prize, but it's unlikely the Tennessee Titans let him go. Brent Grimes is also a possibility.
Safety: Chris Clemons and Jarius Byrd are both slated to hit the market. Signing one of those two young studs should be a priority for the 'Skins, because they need help at safety more than anywhere else.
Inside linebacker: They'll need one, maybe two new starters inside. The draft is an option, but at least one reliable veteran should be signed. The problem is that the options appear as though they'll be limited. Akeem Jordan has had a solid year with Kansas City Chiefs and could help, but they'll have to hope Keenan Robinson can come back and emerge.
If the Redskins can bring in either Maclin or Decker, Talib or Grimes, Clemons or Byrd and Jordan, it will have been a perfect run through free agency. They'll probably be able to afford three of those guys.
Who should they draft?
The problem here is that the 'Skins invested heavily in defensive backs last year. But Phillip Thomas missed his entire rookie season, and the jury is definitely still out on Bacarri Rambo and David Amerson. Plus, they lack a first-round pick.
In the draft, I'd be thinking about a potential long-term replacement for Tyler Polumbus at right tackle. Polumbus has redeemed himself with a solid 2013 campaign, but there are certainly better options waiting to be drafted.
The focus, though, should probably be on the linebacker position. Fletcher is almost done, and Riley can be upgraded on. You can find plenty of decent linebackers in those middle rounds, and Washington hasn't drafted a pure inside 'backer since 2009.
Finally, if the Redskins don't land a solid No. 1 or No. 2 receiver in free agency, that has to become a priority at Radio City Music Hall.