Featured photo courtesy of realredskins.com
As of now, the NFL doesn’t sell jerseys with the names of team general managers on them. However, they could make a pretty penny on the idea if they started to, because in the nation’s capital, new Redskins GM Scot McCloughan has already captured the hearts of burgundy and gold fans everywhere with his work thus far in free agency.
After years under previous regimes in which the Redskins picked up free agents who were way past their prime (hello, Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith), not worth anything near the massive contracts they were given (I’m looking at you, Adam Archuleta and Antwaan Randle El) or just had a general distaste for even pretending to care about football (Redskins fans will never forgive you, Albert Haynesworth), McCloughan has taken over the front office and made many shrewd decisions that have been received well by NFL analysts and borderline worshipped by the team’s fans.
An inside look at Scot McCloughan, live at Redskins Park working on Free Agency and the Draft. pic.twitter.com/hEL4hiNY1p
— Mark (@GospelOfMark) March 16, 2015
And now that the free agency period is winding down and the majority of teams are turning their eyes to the draft, it is the perfect time to look back and rank the five signings made by McCloughan in his first offseason in D.C. All five players play on the defensive side of the football, making it clear what the GM’s first order of business was: rebuild a unit that was as effective at preventing opposing teams from scoring as the “Fast & Furious” producers are at preventing themselves from making another sequel in the series.
So here you are: The Left Bench’s official power rankings of the first five Redskins free agent signings of the Scot McCloughan era, listed in order from “Good” to “My word, this man is a football genius”:
5) Ricky Jean-Francois, defensive lineman, 28 years old, signed 3 yr/$9 million deal on March 3
Ricky Jean-Francois is number five on this list not because he’s an unimportant player, but more so because of the incredible work McCloughan has done since being named GM in January. If it were any other Redskins offseason this acquisition would’ve been praised more, but thanks to the flurry of intelligent moves orchestrated by the team’s new boss, Jean-Francois’ name has gotten lost in the shuffle.
The seventh-year defensive lineman had played the first four years of his career with the 49ers before spending the last two in Indianapolis with the Colts. He’s not a sack machine by any means (his career high in that department is three), but he’ll be a very reliable rotational guy in the Redskins reloaded defensive line (more on that later). In addition, he has played on postseason teams the last four seasons, and that playoff experience will be welcome in a locker room where the word “playoffs” means the portion of the NFL schedule where tee times need to be booked. So while Jean-Francois isn’t a primetime pickup, he is a solid role player who can be counted on to contribute immediately.
@ProFootballTalk great get by Scot! Ricky-Jean is a culture change type of player! Great attitude and he can play.
— Michael Robinson (@RealMikeRob) February 27, 2015
4) Jeron Johnson, safety, 26 years old, signed 2 yr/$4 million deal on March 16
Upon first glance, McCloughan signing Johnson, a fourth-year safety who has only started one game in his career, would hardly qualify as a strong free agent pickup. But when the decision is looked at a little closer it really starts to make sense, and the chances of Johnson ending up as a steal are brought to light.
McCloughan was a part of the Seahawks front office when the team signed Johnson as an undrafted free agent in 2010. That familiarity between the two should signal to Redskins fans that this acquisition could turn into something much bigger than it is right now. If the GM, who is revered league-wide as an ace talent evaluator, has made bringing Johnson onto his team a priority twice now in five years that must mean he really likes what he sees.
As far as Johnson’s lack of experience goes, it wasn’t by any fault of his own: he was a backup safety in the Seahawks secondary, one of the best collection of defensive backs in NFL history. Therefore, Johnson was relegated mostly to special teams duty, but even in his limited playing time, he has shown he is a fierce tackler who plays with a lot of aggression. Having the chance to learn how to play defense from guys like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas for the last four years isn’t exactly a bad thing, either.
As of now, it looks like Johnson will be the Redskins starting strong safety in 2015, and probably continue his special teams duties as well, which is good news for fans who have watched that unit’s putrid coverage teams the last few years. While there are certainly question marks about whether Johnson is capable of being a consistent and quality safety for 16 games, he is young, cheap and full of potential. The Redskins secondary has been looking for a longterm solution at that position for what seems like a decade now, and in Johnson, McCloughan may have just found his man. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if we take a look back at this list in a few years and he ends up being the most productive signee.
One thing to note about Jeron Johnson (@Jus_Showoff). Whenever he's had the opportunity to perform, he plays lights out. Starter talent.
— Rand Getlin (@Rand_Getlin) March 13, 2015
3) Stephen Paea, defensive lineman, 26 years old, signed 4 yr/$21 million deal on March 10
The early years of Stephen Paea’s career were somewhat disappointing. The second round pick out of Oregon couldn’t make it through 16 games in any of his first three seasons with the Bears as he battled a few minor injuries, and the defensive lineman was unable to tally more than 2.5 sacks from 2011-2013.
Luckily for Paea, it all came together in the 2014 campaign. The 300-pound pass rusher piled up six sacks and an impressive amount of quarterback pressures, finally becoming the dominant force the Bears hoped he would develop into when they picked him 53rd overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. Clearly taking note of Paea’s breakout performance, Scot McCloughan moved quickly once he saw Chicago was going to let the 26-year-old go, and he inked the lineman to a four-year deal just minutes after the free agency period began.
Paea boasts a ton of strength (he broke the NFL Combine bench press record in 2011, lifting the 225-pound bar a mind-boggling 49 times) and should fit in seamlessly along the ‘Skins defensive line that features Jason Hatcher, Chris Baker, Ricky Jean-Francois and another massive human being who we will get to soon. Overall, Redskins fans have to be thrilled that McCloughan was able to snag a player coming off of a career year and just about to enter his physical prime; meanwhile, it’s safe to say the non-Redskins quarterbacks in the NFC East are slightly less thrilled about his arrival.
Just met Stephen Paea at #Redskins Park. Nice soft spoken guy. Rock solid 300 pounder. Said signed $21 million deal, will give $21 mm effort
— Rich Tandler (@Rich_TandlerCSN) March 11, 2015
2) Chris Culliver, cornerback, 26 years old, signed 4 yr/$32 million deal on March 13
Culliver’s past is a lot like Paea’s: he was drafted in 2011, has had some injury concerns (including a torn ACL that cost him the entire 2012 campaign) and is coming to D.C. after recording his best season as a pro. The reason he is listed one spot higher, however, is because of where he plays.
If you have been unfortunate enough to watch the Redskins cornerbacks play the past few seasons, you’ve probably come away laughing, disgusted or simply confused. In fact, at times it has looked like ‘Skins corners thought the purpose of their position was to let receivers get as wide open as far down the field as possible. That’s why Culliver, with his long arms and rapidly growing ability to blanket receivers, is such a crucial pick up. He and second year player Bashuad Breeland, a 4th round pick who really opened eyes with his play as a rookie, should be able to form a stout cornerback duo for years to come.
As exciting as it is to think the team has at last found the solution to their lack of depth at cornerback, it should be noted that Culliver is probably the riskiest of these five names. His injury history has already been mentioned, and he has also been involved in his fair share of off the field predicaments (to put it lightly). But one would think McCloughan wouldn’t hand out a contract that lucrative to a player he didn’t investigate deeply, which means that, barring injury, the defense may have finally paired together two defensive backs who opposing receivers fear.
The way Gruden talked about Chris Culliver, it sounds like he'd be the guy who shadows #1 WRs. #Redskins could end up having two #1 CBs.
— Emmanual Benton (@Manny_PPI) March 25, 2015
1) Terrance Knighton, nose tackle, 28 years old, signed 1 yr/$4 million deal on March 12
The four players listed above would make for a terrific free agency haul on their own, but for the Redskins, convincing Terrance Knighton to leave Denver and come to Washington was the icing on the cake. Or should I say it was the gravy on top of the Pot Roast?
When the terms of this contract were first released, analysts and fans around the league thought the numbers were a misprint. Were the Redskins really able to nab Knighton, who is one of the NFL’s top one or two nose tackles, on a one year deal? It was the exact opposite of the Albert Haynesworth fiasco: the team waited a few days, then pounced on Knighton once he saw that the market for his services wasn’t as active as he had hoped. It’s not very often a player of this caliber just falls into your lap, but in this case, McCloughan’s patience certainly paid off.
It’s already been hinted at a few times earlier in the post, but now it’s time to just come out and say it: the Redskins defensive line is stacked. Stephen Paea looks primed to join Jason Hatcher in making opposing quarterbacks dread dropping back on Sundays, while Ricky Jean-Francois and Terrance Knighton will team up with Chris Baker to make running against the Redskins a very difficult task.
Knighton, though, should be the biggest difference maker of the bunch (I didn’t mean that literally, although that is true as well). He uses his enormous frame to clog running lanes on every play and his formidable presence commands a constant double team, which will free up linebackers to make plays. Throw in the fact that Pot Roast is likely unhappy that no one wanted to give him a long term deal, and you have a recipe for success.
Terrance Knighton to ESPN 980: "It actually is a fact: I’m the best nose tackle in the league." http://t.co/h61Ggj8iWz
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) March 13, 2015
When you look back on the five new players, a common theme is revealed: McCloughan made it a point to find guys on the right side of 30 who are in or before their prime, and in some cases guys who while be given more responsibility and more of a chance to display their talents. There’s a lot of youth and potential in this free agency class, and it could be a group that ignites a drastic defensive turnaround in D.C.
The running joke amongst the burgundy and gold faithful is that their team always “wins” the offseason by signing the flashiest names, only to see the acquisitions fail miserably when the regular season rolls around. However, this year things seem very different. Scot McCloughan has been able to land a quality group of players who won’t garner many headlines but will go a long way in helping the team win actual games. If that does indeed happen, I’m sure Redskins fans won’t mind giving up their “Offseason Champs” belt to someone else. Not one bit.
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