Taking a look at the Washington Redskins and positions they might target in free agency.

Position: Outside linebacker.

Why it’s a need: If the Redskins don’t re-sign Brian Orakpo, they’ll need to add another pass-rushing outside linebacker. The draft is full of them, so it’s not as strong a need to fill in free agency. Trent Murphy can certainly help at this position; he proved stronger against the run than the pass a year ago. Murphy is fine as a third pass-rusher, which is what the Redskins drafted him to be. So if Orakpo leaves, they’ll still need – and want – another player in this spot.

Top tier: Carolina’s Greg Hardy is the top defensive end, though he’s coming off some big off-field issues and would require a switch from end to outside linebacker in Washington’s defense. Buffalo’s Jerry Hughes, Baltimore’s Pernell McPhee, Pittsburgh’s Jason Worilds are available. Kansas City’s Justin Houston received the franchise tag.

Others to watch: New England’s Akeem Ayers.

Buyer beware: McPhee. He actually might be a good fit with Washington because the Redskins wouldn’t need him to necessarily be a full-time player (unless that’s what he’s seeking). With Murphy, the Redskins could save McPhee mostly for pass-rush and nickel situations. McPhee has mostly been a backup in Baltimore, having started six games in four years (all came in 2012, when he missed four games with an injury). How would he handle a full-time role? But McPhee does offer speed and power off the edge, and he’s coming off a 7.5 sack season. As for Worilds, it’s odd to me that the Steelers don’t seem to have any interest in re-signing him. Says a lot.

Buyer beware, Part 2: Hughes. The good part is that he’ll only be 27 when the season begins and he’s recorded a combined 20 sacks the past two seasons in Buffalo – after only five in three seasons with Indianapolis. But Hughes played with three Pro Bowl players on Buffalo’s defensive line and you can never dismiss that as a factor in his performance. He’s probably best suited to play as a 4-3 end. If the Redskins somehow signed him, they’d be wise to use him as much as just a rusher in their sub-packages, which is how he was used in 2013.

Bargain: Cleveland’s Jabaal Sheard. He will not cost a ton, largely because he hasn’t done enough to warrant a big contract. And his best season did come as a 4-3 end, when he recorded 8.5 sacks. Last year, as a third outside linebacker, he had only two (though he played hurt half the year). He’s a tough guy. But while he’d be a bargain, he would not solve the Redskins’ problems. Heck, if they don’t sign a top guy at this spot, they should just re-sign Orakpo. (I don’t think that will happen, but the point is: There’s a lot of guesswork with those who are free agents from other teams..

Other options: The draft. If Washington wants to spend elsewhere in free agency, it can, knowing that the draft will provide excellent depth with edge rushers. In the top 15 picks alone, Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr., Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Missouri’s Shane Ray and Clemson’s Vic Beasley are likely to be selected. There’s more after those names, too. So while this spot needs to be filled it does not have to come via free agency. But one note: It’s tough for rookie pass rushers, no matter how highly they’re selected, to make a huge impact. It can take a year or two. To me, this has always been the best option.

Ties to the Redskins: Dallas’ Anthony Spencer is a free agent; Redskins line coach Bill Callahan came from Dallas. But Spencer never developed into the pass-rusher many anticipated years ago. Dwight Freeney played in San Diego when new defensive coordinator Joe Barry coached the Chargers’ linebackers. Freeney built his career as a 4-3 end and would only be good as a situational rusher. He also just turned 35.

Redskins mailbag: Part 1

March, 6, 2015
Mar 6
With free agency starting next week, we have a few questions for Part 1 of the Washington Redskins mailbag about ... the draft. I like that; it's the lifeblood, you know? So we have questions about Robert Griffin III and a possible trade and general manager Scot McCloughan and Vic Beasley. Yes, there's also a little free agency, but mostly as it relates to the draft. Enjoy.

John Keim: Tough to see that. Griffin's value is rather low right now, based on his play and also on all the other stuff that has emerged. Clearly, though, if he were playing better there'd be a big market despite the other issues (and if he was playing well, zero desire to trade him). I was told by one executive a while back he thought Griffin would only fetch a fourth-rounder at best (could always make it a conditional pick in case he plays a lot or does well). But I don't see that happening. It does seem as if the organization wants to give it one more year with Griffin. The only way I could see them doing anything with Griffin is if they somehow drafted Marcus Mariota. That would be your draft-day stunner.

John Keim: He tried to do that by creating a position for Alonzo Highsmith, but that fell through so they're going to wait. Like you, I'm a little surprised McCloughan didn't bring anyone else in, but he also might know which scouts would be available and which ones won't be free until after the draft. The teams he knows well -- San Francisco and Seattle -- would have no reason to let anyone leave before the draft if they're any good. I'm curious to see how many changes are made after the draft.

John Keim: Too early to say. I know what we've been told, but I also know what I'd been told in previous years only to find out differently later. Heck, Mike Shanahan had supposed control and turns out that was true only to an extent. I think we have to get through a full year to see what sort of autonomy McCloughan has in the organization. Teams that win have people who know their roles. If you're not a football guy or a personnel guy, don't meddle in football stuff. Not that difficult. If they leave him alone, this has a chance to work.

John Keim: They'll enter free agency with at least $25 million in salary-cap room, which is plenty of space to get started. So there's no urgency to release anyone else at this point. They've done this in the past, where certain players are kept only to get a pay cut later in the spring (Josh Wilson, 2013). I would not be surprised at all if they cut more players later. Let's say they want Mike Iupati and then sign him; at that point they could cut Chris Chester. But if they still feel Chester is better than others on their roster, then why release until you have a replacement? In other words, more moves could be made later depending on what they do.

John Keim: A few factors will determine whether they trade down. Yes, what happens in free agency will be a factor -- if they sign a pass-rusher, whether it's Brian Orakpo or someone else then they could trade back and address other spots. If they re-sign Orakpo then why draft another pass-rusher at No. 5 (could do it later; good draft for this area). But other factors include if Marcus Mariota is still available at 5 or if there's another player some team loves and wants to move up to get him. In other words, it takes two.

John Keim: Good question. I really don't know why, but my guess is he'll be a name you start to hear more and more as a top-10 pick as the draft draws closer. I always liked Vic Beasley and was surprised he did not rate higher initially. His 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash of 1.59 seconds was second behind only Eli Harold -- and it's under the magic 1.60 mark teams love to see in a pass-rusher (Trent Murphy, for example, was at 1.65). I have not talked to anyone directly about Beasley yet, but my guess is that this is such a good year for that position -- or at least filled with intriguing talent -- that he got lost in the shuffle initially. What I like about him is that his combine numbers match his on-field performance. He produced at Clemson. I have not studied his film yet -- I'm going off having watched him in the past -- but will do so soon. One thing I did hear is that there are questions if he's best suited as a 4-3 end or 3-4 outside linebacker.

[+] EnlargeBarry Cofield
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherFree agent DT Barry Cofield hopes surgery to repair a torn hip labrum can revive his career.

Nine-year NFL defensive lineman Barry Cofield underwent surgery this week to repair a torn labrum in his hip, and he expects to return to disruptive form.

Cofield, 30, released by the Washington Redskins last week, told ESPN.com he recently discovered that he played more than a full NFL season with the torn labrum. He underwent double sports hernia surgery last year, and then his groin flared up in training camp, but Cofield was informed those injuries were byproducts of overcompensation for the hip.

Before a high ankle sprain contributed to eight missed games last year, Cofield had played all but one game since 2006. The Cleveland native will likely be considered a viable nose tackle or versatile defensive line option for several teams during free agency. 

"It's been a never-ending saga," Cofield said. "I'm ready to get back to having fun playing. (The doctor) thinks July is a possibility to be up and running. That would put me back on track for training camp."

The Redskins left open the possibility of Cofield returning to the team on a new deal, Cofield said. After originally signing Cofield to a six-year, $36-million deal in 2011, the Redskins saved around $4 million of salary cap by cutting him with the waived/injured designation. The Redskins knew about Cofield's surgical plans.

(Read full post)

Redskins re-sign TE Niles Paul

March, 6, 2015
Mar 6
[+] EnlargeNiles Paul
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsThe Redskins rewarded Niles Paul's 2014 emergence with a multiyear contract.

Tight end Niles Paul emerged as a pass-catching threat this past season for the Washington Redskins, filling in for oft-injured tight end Jordan Reed. Friday, that performance resulted in a new multiyear contract.

The Redskins re-signed Paul, who would have been a free agent next week, to a three-year deal. The contract is worth up to $10 million, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

The signing also accomplishes one goal of new general manager Scot McCloughan when it comes to taking care of the team's own free agents.

Paul is one of 11 Redskins who are unrestricted free agents, and most likely won't return. But Paul proved his worth with 39 receptions for 507 yards and one touchdown this past season. With Reed injured and missing five games, Paul emerged as a viable threat in his absence.

He was moved from wide receiver to tight end in 2012 after his rookie year and had previously never caught more than eight passes in a season. Paul is considered a much better blocker in space than along the line.

Paul also is a key special-teams performer and considered a good leader. He was a fifth-round pick in 2011 out of Nebraska. As a rookie, he was primarily used in a blocking role while playing receiver.

(Read full post)

We're taking a look at the Washington Redskins' free agents as we approach the start of the open signing period on March 10.

Player: Roy Helu

Position: Running back

History with Redskins: A fourth-round pick in 2011, Helu has rushed 255 times for 1,132 yards and seven touchdowns. He caught 129 passes for 1,152 yards and three scores.

2014 cap hit/salary: $1,548,563 cap hit; $1,431,000 salary.

Projected market: Should be an OK one. Helu has skills that teams should desire if they want a third-down back and a guy who can help in a pinch. He’s not the best of this bunch, but he’ll be an alternative for a team that either can’t get their top guy here or can’t afford someone else.

Reason he might re-sign:The Redskins have expressed interest in his return, which is what they told Helu after the season -- and it’s what ESPN 980's Chris Russell tweeted the other day. And Helu has not ruled out a return. If they lose him, the Redskins do not have a strong alternative in place to take over -- they liked Chris Thompson, but his durability is an issue; he’s also still learning to run in the NFL -- so they’d have to find one either in free agency or the draft. Helu definitely has value; he’s a good receiver in the screen game. He was second in the NFL with 196 yards off screens (averaging 14 yards on those passes), according to ESPN Stats & Information. He’s an inconsistent blocker in protection. But Helu can fill in for Alfred Morris for more than just a pinch; when he runs with a little patience in the zone game Helu can be effective. (They likely will run with more power next year; they used both styles last year, too.)

Reason he might not: Helu has been excited for free agency and if he receives a good offer elsewhere, he’ll be gone. It’s not like there’s a ton of competition with third-down backs -- New England’s Shane Vereen will be pursued hard, no doubt (though could re-sign with the Patriots). Reggie Bush will be an option for some teams. Helu’s third-down numbers are better than C.J. Spiller’s. At best he’s 50-50 to return to the Redskins -- those are the odds he gave at the end of the season, too. There are good options in the draft. The Redskins could look for a rookie to fill that third-down role and perhaps develop into a starter if Alfred Morris leaves after the 2015 season.
Washington Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo said he'd love to return to Washington -- but clearly is prepared to leave in free agency next week. He also said talks between the two sides have been minimal.

[+] EnlargeBrian Orakpo
Mark E. Tennally/AP PhotoWill the Redskins bring back their Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo for the 2015 season?
Orakpo will be a free agent Tuesday if the Redskins don't re-sign him by that time. Last week, a source said the Redskins had expressed interest in his return and there had been talks at the scouting combine. But the Redskins' level of interest remains uncertain and multiple sources in the NFL expect him to play elsewhere next season. Orakpo, during an appearance on NFL Network's "NFL AM," left open the possibility of a return -- but it did not sound optimistic.

"It's always numbers," Orakpo said on "NFL AM" on Friday. "The numbers have to make sense for both sides. I understand me coming off an injury they have to look out for themselves and I have to look out for myself. If we can come up with something that works for both sides, who knows."

Orakpo hesitated when asked what team he'd like to play for if the money was equal.

"I don't know, it either would have to be one of the Texas teams since I'm from Texas," he said. "And I love playing for the Redskins. That media, the fans, it's a great thing. Even if I'm done playing with the Redskins, I hope those guys can turn it around and really win for those fans and that whole market because it's great for football."

The Redskins used the franchise tag on Orakpo last season, costing them $11.46 million. But he missed the final nine games last season after tearing his pectoral muscle. He tore a pectoral muscle on the final game of 2011 and again early in 2012, costing him the final 14 games. In 2013, he led the Redskins with 10 sacks. The question is: What will he command on the open market? It's wrong to think his injuries won't diminish his value; a year ago had he reached the open market he would have been in the $10-million range, but this year there's a good chance he'll have to accept perhaps half that amount and for fewer years. He'll be 29 next season.

The injuries will be an issue for teams. Orakpo said he changed his training habits, returning to a former trainer and focusing less on weightlifting and more on stretching and resistance work. Whether that makes a difference remains to be seen, but Orakpo is hopeful this helps eliminate that injury.

"I was so tight upper-body wise, I haven't been doing a lot of stretching and working all of the muscles that are necessary," Orakpo said.

Orakpo also was asked the obligatory question about quarterback Robert Griffin III.

"Every time I drive into the facility I see his car in the same position," Orakpo said. "He's just working on his craft, working on his body. It sucks because I see how hard he works and how hard he tries and sometimes it doesn't reflect on the field."

"He's a different cat. He's not how everyone perceives the quarterback to be. He's outspoken ... he's just a different cat that you have to know as a person. Him being from Texas, I know how to relate so I never had a problem with RG3. We're actually good friends. He just had a bad rap."
Vince Wilfork let the world know Thursday that New England would not be picking up his option for 2015, making him a free agent next week. There is a chance he could return on a smaller deal, but there is probably just as good a chance that he’ll be free. Which leads to the question: Should the Washington Redskins pursue him?

Why they would: They could use more help along the defensive line, and a more stout nose tackle. Wilfork has been a terrific NFL player, making five Pro Bowls and earning one All-Pro award. Plus, he’s comfortable in a defense that asks him to move around. He does not just play over the nose; he’ll align as a tackle in a four-man look as well -- and the Redskins will not just be a standard 3-4 defense. He can still be a run plugger inside.

Can he still play: He’s still a capable starter. In the playoffs, Wilfork was a little inconsistent. He can still play with power and drive blockers back in pass sets, though he wasn’t exactly threatening the passer. And he can still be effective on straight-ahead runs and occupy blockers and take on double teams, holding his ground. Against Seattle in the Super Bowl, one good play would be followed by him getting driven off the ball -- not necessarily by the man in front of him, however, so it wasn’t just a power issue. And it’s not like it was every other play; but there were times when he would make a nice play and then have a problem the next one. He would occasionally stand up and get moved, but that typically was not an issue. Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda did a nice job against him in the playoffs, moving him out on several blocks. But, overall, Wilfork remains hard to move. He does not have the same lateral quickness he once did, but it sometimes shows up. He probably has another solid year left. The Patriots tend to get rid of players a year or so early.

Pros: Wilfork is a terrific leader and strong locker room presence, at least that was his reputation in New England. The Redskins need more players like that, at least ones who can still play. They can’t fill every hole in the draft -- it’s not a deep position, either. Signing Wilfork would provide the Redskins time to find a more permanent solution at this position while seeking longer term ones at other spots. If the Redskins have a good rotation and don’t ask him to play a lot then they could keep him fresh for the season. He's also a smart player, and that always helps.

Cons: He’s 33 years old (turning 34 in November) and one thing Scot McCloughan mentioned when he arrived in Washington was, "We’re not going to have to go out to other organizations and bring in 32- and 33-year-olds who have different plans." The Redskins (should have) learned from the past that when players of his caliber are allowed to walk by their long-time team, it’s a sign they’re pretty much done. The Redskins’ line was an aging group last season, and when that happens, bodies start to break down and the effectiveness of their play lessens as the season unfolds. End Jason Hatcher followed that script. The Redskins need to focus on finding younger players who can contribute for multiple years, not players at the end of their career. Wilfork has more left than safety Ryan Clark did a year ago, but I’d still be wary. If the Redskins had a young group who needed a mentor -- and they were a playoff contender -- Wilfork would make a lot of sense. That's not what they have. Sure, he can help in a rebuild, too, with his leadership in the locker room. But that leads to this question: Why would he want to be in such a situation? If he has one or two years left, wouldn’t he rather be with a team he feels has a chance to win? Unless there are few options, that is.
Taking a weekly look at various players who could tempt the Washington Redskins with the fifth overall pick in the draft, watching at least three or four of their games. As the draft gets closer, I’ll post these reports more frequently and take a look at other rounds as well.

Player: Danny Shelton

Position: Nose tackle

School: Washington

Height: 6-foot-2

Weight: 343 pounds

Projected round: First, likely top 10

What I liked: His power and his effort. He also has good quickness for a guy his size. Shelton has a thick lower body that comes in handy when playing in the middle. Time and again I saw him chase downfield after ball carriers when many would have stopped. He also pursued well laterally, never stopping until the whistle. In fact, against Oregon he probably ran 40 yards downfield to stay after the runner and eventually helped on the tackle. He routinely fights to get back into plays and pursues hard -- sometimes at the end of a play you’re surprised to see him in on the tackle given how it looked for him off the snap. Players with that mindset are always good to have around. If you don’t execute a strong double-team, he will split through and create issues; I saw that a few times. When he’s not tired, Shelton does an excellent job of rolling his hips into a blocker, getting under his pads and driving him back with a bull rush. He sometimes looked like a man among boys. Shelton was double-teamed quite often in the four games I watched. I saw a few times where he looked blocked only to use his strength to shed the blocker, shoving him to the side after a strong anchor. When he stays low he’s real tough to block one-on-one for an offensive lineman. He typically did a good job reading screens. I thought he did a solid job in 2013 against Stanford, a team that ran more up the middle and was less side-to-side than other teams in the Pac-12. His stamina was pretty good.

What I didn’t like: He had quickness but was limited as a pass-rusher. He relied almost exclusively on bull rushes to pressure the passer. I did see one swim move, but it worked in part because the right tackle was late off the ball. He could be driven back a few yards by a solid double-team or be controlled by a combo block. And against Hawaii this past season there were times he appeared tired. When that happened, he played too upright and allowed blockers to get into his pads. Though he recorded nine sacks last season, seven of them came in games against Hawaii, Eastern Washington and Georgia State. Shelton had an excellent Senior Bowl, but his reputation during the season was that he dominated lesser competition and was more inconsistent vs. better teams. He was inconsistent, but I wonder how much of that was due to facing teams playing a faster, up-tempo game and tiring him out. I also wonder if some of that would be negated by more coaching as to how to play double-teams or read blocks. It can take a little time for nose tackles in that regard.

Why the Redskins could use him: Chris Baker was fine at nose tackle last season, but the Redskins could use stronger play inside, allowing Baker to shift back outside (though he liked playing nose). It would give the Redskins more flexibility inside. Their play against the run on first downs was not good in 2014: They ranked 28th in yards per carry up the middle on first down runs -- when they were more apt to be in their base 3-4 defense -- by allowing 4.89 yards per carry. It’s not all on the nose tackle, but a great one can impact that stat.

How he fits: Shelton would give the Redskins a powerful body in the middle. Baker is strong, but Shelton is an even thicker player. There’s talk he could develop into a Haloti Ngata type. Not sure I see that just yet. But he should be a solid nose and a strong two-down player if nothing else, with the ability to perhaps develop into a solid pass-rusher (not sold that he will) and help on nickel. For the immediate future, I’d expect him to be more of a run-stopper only. That, of course, is always welcomed.

Previous draft prospects
One signing already pointed the direction ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick thinks the Redskins will go in free agency. When they added defensive end Ricky Jean Francois, it told Riddick that they would target specific players who fit needs -- and not just jump in for a big splash signing.

 Jean Francois fits what new coordinator Joe Barry wants from his ends in a 3-4: the ability to get upfield. The Redskins' 3-4 scheme during the past five years focused on playing more laterally, allowing linebackers to make the plays. But Barry coached in San Diego where the Chargers used more of a one-gap 3-4 scheme.

Riddick likes Francois in that sort of system. But it also signaled something else to him as free agency approaches. The Redskins will have some money -- approximately $25 million. But will they be big spenders under new general manager Scot McCloughan?

“If you look at Scot’s history overall and where he’s been, he doesn’t make big giant splashes,” said Riddick, a former NFL player and executive on a conference call Thursday. “But if there’s someone he wants and someone they want, I think he’ll try to keep the big picture in mind and not try to be one of those GMs that goes hog wild in the first 24 to 48 hours. They have a very smart guy who does their contract negotiations in Eric Schafer who understands that principal as well. They’ll be selective there.”

Riddick favors sitting out the early part of free agency and then targeting players who fit what you need.

“They’ll be selective there,” he said. “They’ll see what they can do about maybe finding another pass rusher -- Brian Orakpo is not the answer. There are some edge rushers they might get at good value.”

Like Tennessee's Derrick Morgan or even Buffalo's Jerry Hughes. The latter wouldn’t be cheap, but he is a good player. Riddick said he did not like Dallas right tackle Doug Free, a name that has been mentioned because of his connection to line coach Bill Callahan. However, given Free’s age (31) and the fact he’s coming off a season in which injuries cost him five regular-season games (had not missed a game previous four years), he’s not the sort of guy McCloughan would want. Also, it’s not a lock that he and Callahan want to work together again -- and, in fact, Callahan might prefer Jermey Parnell, whom he groomed, is three years younger and who played well in Free’s absence last year.

A big question will be whether or not McCloughan has absolute authority and is left alone. Ownership must let the football people make football decisions. Otherwise, well, you get a lot of big signings and little success. Riddick saw that during his time in Washington from 2001-07, first as a scout and then as director of pro personnel. He also was with the Eagles when they tried to assemble their dream team in 2011 only to flop (more on this later).

“There’s always value found in free agency,” Riddick said, “as long as you really understand and lay out what your expectations are and what price you’re willing to pay and don’t let emotions get involved. Scot’s been around some really good people. I think you’ll see Washington take much more of a methodical, targeted approach to free agency. But if there’s someone they have their eyes on and really like, I think they’ll make a splash if they have to. But it won’t be the norm, it will be the exception.”
We're taking a look at the Washington Redskins' free agents as we approach the start of the open signing period on March 10.

Player: Colt McCoy

Position: Quarterback

History with Redskins: McCoy played one season with Washington, starting four games and appearing in a fifth. He completed 71.1 percent of his passes for 1,057 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions.

2014 cap hit/salary: $640,250 cap hit; base salary of $800,250

Projected market: Slim. McCoy is coming off a better season than in 2013 when he was with San Francisco and did not sign with Washington until the spring. Still, he’s viewed as a backup and not a potential challenger for a starting job.

Reason he might re-sign: McCoy felt he was in sync with the coaches when it came to what they wanted on the field. He played with a bit of moxie and also poise, which helped in two wins (against Tennessee and Dallas). McCoy lacks a strong arm, nor is he a big quarterback. But he is a smart one and he was a good presence in the meeting room, much like Rex Grossman in previous years. He’s a future coach who can still help a team in a pinch. McCoy averaged 8.26 yards per pass attempt, a career best, as was his 96.4 passer rating (in both cases, for any season in which he threw more than one pass). Perhaps he’s best as a backup, but the system suited him well.

Reason he might not: McCoy has not heard a whole lot from the Redskins about a possible return. Often by now players have a decent feel as to what might happen in free agency. Though, with McCoy, there is no rush to re-sign. Still, with Kirk Cousins not expecting to be traded, as of now at least, and with Robert Griffin III named the starter, it means McCoy could be back in a situation where he is the No. 3 quarterback. If he has the opportunity to go elsewhere for a better role, McCoy would have to consider going. The Redskins also should consider drafting a quarterback in the middle rounds and developing him. Unless the Redskins pick up the option year for Griffin, then they have two quarterbacks entering the last year of their contracts.
The Washington Redskins know they must bolster their safety position. One possible solution will be in town Friday.

The Redskins will host strong safety Tyvon Branch for a visit Friday; he arrives in town Thursday night, a source said. (That is, if his flight isn’t canceled or delayed given the heavy snow in the region Thursday). Branch's visit was first reported by Fox Sports' Mike Garafolo.

Branch was once an up-and-coming safety, but the past two years have been tough ones for the former Oakland Raider. The Raiders released him this week after six seasons. The former fourth-round pick in 2008 started 62 of his first 64 games, from 2009-12. But he played only five games the past two seasons combined because of a broken leg and broken foot. He also played eight games as a rookie after separating his shoulder.

Still, at 28, Branch represents potential value in free agency. That is, if he stays healthy and plays at the level he was at in 2012 when the Raiders used the franchise tag on him. Despite his rookie injury, durability was not an issue before the past two years and he’s young enough to recover -- and still in his prime. But the Redskins, or whoever signs him, would have to cross their fingers as to which player they will be getting.

The Redskins, in need of starters at both safety spots, have not done a good job developing or finding any talent at safety in a while. Their free agent solutions over the past five years have been: O.J. Atogwe, Tanard Jackson, Madieu Williams, Brandon Meriweather, and Ryan Clark. And their draft picks have not panned out: Jordan Bernstine, Bacarri Rambo, DeJon Gomes, and Phillip Thomas. None were selected above the fifth round. At least Thomas remains on the roster, so there is still hope for him, but it’s debatable if he’ll develop into a starter (the previous defensive staff did not think he would).

The Redskins re-signed exclusive rights free agent Duke Ihenacho on Wednesday. But he should be viewed as depth, not a solution to the starting lineup. They also have Akeem Davis, who is much better on special teams at this stage in his career.

Branch already has visited with Indianapolis.

Suh is best FA since Reggie White

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4

When I was a guest on "Mike & Mike" this week, I made the comment that Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was the best free agent to hit the open market since Reggie White signed with the Green Bay Packers in 1993. Now, I don't mean to say he's quite the same caliber of player or that he has the same presence off the field, but to me, he is this generation's Reggie White: a defensive player who is hitting the open market with the potential to change a franchise with his impact.

I've heard from a few people asking how I can place Suh above guys like quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees of the past few years, but remember, both of those guys carried significant injury risks at the time they hit the open market. Suh hasn't missed a game due to injury in his five-year career, one of the many reasons he's a player any NFL team would love to have on its roster. White, along with quarterback Brett Favre, helped change the Packers' franchise, and Suh has the potential to do the same for his next team.

What makes him a 32-team free agent, and which teams should (and could) make a big run at him? Let's take a look.

Taking a look at areas of need for the Washington Redskins entering free agency, having picked the brain of people in the NFL as well as my NFL Nation colleagues.

Why it’s a need: Because the Redskins are in transition up front and could use more bodies. They have one starting end in Jason Hatcher and could always move Chris Baker back to end, creating a hole at nose tackle. They cut end Stephen Bowen and nose tackle Barry Cofield last week, but could re-sign Cofield at a later date if he’s healthy. They need younger bodies up front; Hatcher is 32. Newly signed Ricky Jean Francois is best as a reserve. Frank Kearse played well as a backup last season and Kedric Golston remains a capable reserve (and special teamer). Still, they could use more up front. To make a 3-4 dominant, you’d better have a good nose tackle.

Top tier: Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh. I won’t even put anyone else here with him because no one is in his class. Suh will receive the biggest contract in free agency. He’s the most dominant defensive player.

Others to watch: Tackle Terrance Knighton, tackle Jared Odrick, tackle Nick Fairley, end Jabaal Sheard, nose tackle Dan Williams.

Big question: How hard will the Redskins chase Suh? Any team with a need up front should be interested in him so just saying there’s interest is far different from being, say, a front runner to land him. There’s probably a 50-percent chance he sticks with Detroit, but the Lions certainly have a firm deadline with him. It’s tough to imagine him returning if he does get on the open market. As for the Redskins, they have approximately $25 million in cap space, but others have more. If Oakland wants him, the Raiders and their cap space will be tough to beat. Miami and Jacksonville certainly are teams to watch as well. Maybe even Indianapolis.

Is Suh worth the money?: He is not Albert Haynesworth, Part 2 – nor is he Dana Stubblefield or Dan Wilkinson, for that matter. People I’ve talked to who have worked with Suh love him – his work ethic (relentless, one source said), his ability, his penchant for playing hard all the time. One source called him meticulous in his preparation and said he is an excellent practice player, too. There is the matter of those stomping penalties, but he’s not a guy whose effort will fall off after signing a big contract. Both Haynesworth and Stubblefield produced in a contract year after some up-and-down seasons. Suh has only been up -- and he makes others better.

Who makes sense: Williams. But it does not make sense if you want to spend more than $4 million for him. He’s not a three-down player and those are the guys who should get big money. However, with more teams playing the 3-4 now than the 4-3, there will be competition for him. While Williams has a good reputation – he’s considered a true nose tackle; no-nonsense guy and not vocal – he’s not a Pro Bowler. He’ll turn 28 in July, so he’s still in his prime. Signing him would give the Redskins someone to plug the middle and allow Baker to rotate between nose and end. You can’t run an effective 3-4 without solid nose tackle play.

Statistic worth noting: Another reason why stronger nose play matters – the Redskins ranked 28th in rushing yards per carry up the middle (4.89 yards per carry) on first down, when teams are more likely to be in their base formation. The Cardinals ranked fourth at 3.18 yards per run. There are other factors involved and it’s not as if Baker was bad, but that stat must change in 2015.

Buyer beware: Fairley. Too inconsistent. There’s a reason the Lions declined last year to pick up his fifth year option a year ago. Not a bad guy, just inconsistent and will get paid more than he should. Another guy is Green Bay’s B.J. Raji. He was good – a while ago. But he did not play well in 2013 and missed last year with a torn biceps. You have to know what you’re getting in a player so unless they’re at a certain level, or unless you have ties to them, it’s best to pass on guys with questions like this. Arizona’s Darnell Dockett is coming off a torn ACL; it’ll be tough for him to play to his reputation next season.

Ties to the Redskins: Defensive coordinator Joe Barry coached Cory Redding for two seasons when he held the same job in Detroit. Redding was OK last season in Indianapolis. But he’s also 34 years old. If the Redskins somehow pursued him, he should only receive a one-year deal. General manager Scot McCloughan made it clear when he came here that giving multi-year deals to players over 30 is not wise. Redding considered retirement last year.

Redskins re-sign Duke Ihenacho

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
The Redskins claimed Duke Ihenacho off waivers last summer, hoping he would provide depth in the secondary. Then he got hurt. Now they want to bring him back and try it again.

The Redskins re-signed Ihenacho, who was an exclusive rights free agent, on Wednesday -- giving them one more experienced person at safety. He'll likely make $510,000 next season. The Redskins had only two experienced players at safety before this signing: Akeem Davis and Phillip Thomas. Neither one has played a full season. Ihenacho, a strong safety, was cut by Denver after it upgraded its safety position in the offseason. Ihenacho said at the time that he was surprised by the move, anticipating a roster spot as a reserve if nothing else.

The Redskins had a dire need at safety last season with Brandon Meriweather suspended for the first two games, Thomas hurt and lackluster play from others. But Ihenacho made no impact. He had to first learn the defense and then was placed on injured reserve after Week 3 after breaking a bone in his left foot.

If nothing else, he'll provide competition in training camp. The Redskins can't, and won't, view this as a need that was filled. They will bring in safety Tyvon Branch for a visit, according to Fox Sports Mike Garafolo. Branch has played only five games combined the past two seasons because of injuries, but he once was considered a rising standout at safety.
Some quick quarterback thoughts:

  • Minnesota traded quarterback Matt Cassel to Buffalo on Wednesday, taking another team out of the hunt for another quarterback. There are still a few who need help, but Cleveland (Josh McCown) and Buffalo (Cassel) have found veterans. Tampa Bay will pick one in the draft. And St. Louis still has Sam Bradford -- for now. If the Rams do get rid of him, they could be players for Marcus Mariota in the draft. The New York Jets and Houston remain in the market for quarterbacks, though the Jets, picking sixth, could land Mariota if no one trades into the top five for him.
  • [+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
    Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesShould Kirk Cousins stay with the Redskins, the QB will need to work on cutting down on INTs.
    So, the question then becomes: What does this mean for Kirk Cousins? As of now, he'll be with the Washington Redskins, according to a source. I don't think his side expects that to change, either. The Redskins do like having him around for competition with Robert Griffin III.
  • Yes, Griffin was named the starter entering 2015, but how long that lasts remains uncertain. He'll have to look good to keep that job. And if he hangs onto the job entering the season, I would not be surprised to see a quick hook. As I've written a few times, the coaches do like Cousins and there was a sense he got a raw deal last season (which suggests to me that not all the moves were of the coaches' doing). But if Griffin plays well, then the coaches would be thrilled. His talent is high; he just needs to play better. Keep in mind, others benefit if Griffin plays well. You can put up with anything if a player produces and your team wins.
  • What the coaches need to see from Cousins as much as anything? Fewer interceptions; better reaction to adversity. It will be tough to know how he handles both situations until he plays in a game. He also can improve in the pocket, knowing where to go with the ball, etc.
  • It's not as if every decision he made was the right one last season. On one interception vs. the New York Giants, he went to his No. 2 receiver for some reason (I believe it was Ryan Grant). His first read, on the other side, was open. An easy pick and a bad decision. So it's not just about responding to adversity. People I talk to around the league, from agents to executives to coaches or scouts, are split on what Cousins can do. Some like; some don't like at all.
  • The point is: Both quarterbacks have their issues. Griffin will just get the first crack at the starting job; how long he holds onto it is up to him. I also think if you're going to keep him as the starter, then they should do what they can to bolster the run game. Yes, the run game. Do better on first down, put him in less obvious pass situations. It matters.
  • Of course, if Cousins returns along with Griffin, I can't imagine Colt McCoy, a pending free agent, would want to be back in Washington. McCoy genuinely loved playing in this offense and felt he was in sync with what the coaches wanted. That's why he seemed crushed he could not finish the season because of injury; it was an opportunity lost and he knew it.