Redskins' patient approach in free agency must pay off with wins

The Washington Redskins opted for a new strategy a few years ago, bypassing their usual spending sprees to become more conservative in free agency. So what the Redskins did this offseason isn’t new. But it’s been even more quiet than usual.

Since free agency started on March 14, the Redskins have signed receiver Paul Richardson, linebacker Pernell McPhee and corner Orlando Scandrick. They also re-signed linebacker Zach Brown, kicker Dustin Hopkins and receiver Brian Quick and nose tackle Phil Taylor. And they traded for quarterback Alex Smith and traded safety Su’a Cravens. They haven’t been totally quiet; they’ve just signed fewer free agents from other teams.

In many ways, the Redskins have been damned if they spend and damned if they don’t. Part of that stems from one fact: They haven’t won consistently in a long time. Until they do, every approach will be scrutinized.

“I would say patient,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said of their approach last month at the NFL owners meetings. “It seems like whatever happens, if it’s a bunch of free agents, it’s typical we’re blowing money. If we don’t sign any, we’re not doing the right thing. Sometimes you don’t have to sign 35-40 guys, like certain teams have done.”

Owner Dan Snyder’s style for most of his tenure was to be aggressive pursuing free agents. When they visited, they signed -- especially if they were one of the big names on the market. Team president Bruce Allen has taken the franchise in a different direction.

Even under Allen, they’ve landed big names at times -- DeSean Jackson in 2014; Josh Norman in 2016. But they’re often not in on the biggest targets and more often than not, visits do not result in signings. For better or worse, they have a ceiling as to what they’ll pay a guy and they’ve stuck to it. With lead negotiator Eric Schaffer, the Redskins have been better at avoiding cap problems.

But if you’re traveling a different path, you’d better win. In the past three years, the Redskins are 24-23-1. Since 2010, Allen’s first full season with the organization, they’re 52-75-1 with two playoff appearances. Of course, in Snyder’s first 11 seasons they were 80-96 with three playoff appearances, so no strategies have worked consistently.

Still, after not making the postseason in each of the past two years, it’s safe to say there’s pressure to make it this season. That’s life in the NFL and especially in Washington.

But here’s the problem: Free agency has never provided the Redskins with the sort of help they need. They’ve gone high-profile over the years by signing players such as Albert Haynesworth, handing him a contract worth up to $100 million. To say the least, it didn’t work out. They pursued big names at the end of their careers (Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith in 2000), hoping they’d turn a playoff team into a Super Bowl team. Instead, they went 8-8 and coach Norv Turner was fired.

They made Adam Archuleta the NFL’s highest-paid safety in 2006 and he was benched midway through his first season and released at the end.

They’ve tried to go low-budget or find some hidden gems. Those have mostly failed, too. In 2003, they used a different strategy, pursuing restricted free agents. They went 5-11 and coach Steve Spurrier resigned. Over the years there have been hits -- London Fletcher and Pierre Garcon among them. They weren't considered the big prizes of free agency, however -- just good and productive.

Of their past 31 free agents (those signed during the first month of the new league year), covering four years, only eight remain on the team. Four of them likely will start this season: Brown, Norman, safety D.J. Swearinger and tight end Vernon Davis.

In the past three years, there have been 18 free agents signed during this period, seven of whom are still around. They signed six free agents in 2015; only one (Ricky Jean Francois) lasted beyond the first year. And he was cut after his second.

They signed 12 players in 2014 after hiring Gruden. Only Jackson made a big impact and the Redskins went 4-12.

The point: Signing free agents hasn’t provided enough bang in a long time for the Redskins. But this has been an unusually small group (so far). It will still be far better than their 2008 class, in which none of the signees even made the final roster.

This means, though, that Washington must rely on other factors to improve after a 7-9 season, such as better health and the development of young players, several of whom had to play last season because of injuries. The Redskins also are confident Smith will be better than the departed Kirk Cousins. Time will tell.

Free agency hasn’t ended, of course. In the past, the Redskins added players such as Brown, Jackson and Norman later in the offseason. Ultimately, they just need to win. If they do, their approach will be singled out -- as it will be if they don't.

“We were able to play a lot of guys last year. We have a lot of guys on our roster that I feel good about, a core group of guys on our team that I feel like can compete,” Gruden said. “Get those guys ready to go, continue in their developmental process, add some key components in the draft and college free agents. Sprinkle in a few free agents here, from now until training camp, and I think we’re ready to compete.”