As humans we’re wired to be motivated by deadlines, a concrete time that can cause irrational decisions and a deviation from a plan, or it can make normally intelligent folks forget how to use a fax machine. Technology is a helluva thing.
Over the next week before the fun of the NFL’s free agency and silliest season begins, there will be a series of important dates. The most important is clearly the official opening of the market on March 11, which is preceded by a legal negotiating window in which teams can speak with but not officially sign the free agents of their choosing. That starts March 8, making it the kind of, sort of beginning of free agency.
But before that dance can start and before we can truly assess the football commodities available on the open market, another deadline looms this afternoon, one which will shape the bidding and forthcoming money tossing: today’s franchising tagging deadline at 4 p.m. ET.
As the final hours tick down now the Bills are choosing their fate with Jarius Byrd, and they’re likely waving goodbye, while Baltimore is grappling with the expensive at $11.65 million but possibly necessary decision to tag Eugene Monroe after extending Dennis Pitta.
Then there’s Washington, and the Brian Orakpo conundrum. As Mark Maske of the Washington Post reported, a tagging decision on Orakpo is a “really close call“, and it’s easy to see why.
Under a new head coach and with a (hopefully, dear god hopefully) healthy quarterback, the Redskins are a team looking for a quick turnaround. That’s always a very realistic aim in the NFL, a league where almost yearly the heavenly bodies align for one laughingstock team to rise quickly and, at minimum, advance to the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs are the most recent example after they won only two games in 2012, but then were on the right end of the scoreboard 11 times this past season, and likely would have won a playoff game had seemingly their entire roster not broken against the Colts (slight exaggeration, though losing Jamaal Charles and Brandon Flowers was clearly massive).
The problem with both that comparison and any rapid rise aspirations for the Redskins is that draft picks are required. Since they held the first overall pick last spring the Chiefs rightfully felt more comfortable dealing away a second rounder to get Alex Smith. Then that top pick was used on Eric Fisher, knowing that left tackle Branden Albert would likely be departing a year later.
The absence of a first-round pick because of the Robert Griffin III trade has stripped the Redskins of a major rebuilding tool to addressing glaring needs. The Rams own their No. 2 pick, meaning Washington isn’t on the board until the 34th overall slot on Day 2. Which brings us back to Orakpo, and the vacuum sucking effect of his potential new contract.
The pass rusher is a pending free agent, and after missing most of the 2012 season he returned to form easily this past season with 10 sacks, four passes defensed, and an interception. He’ll turn 28 later this offseason, putting him very much still in his prime years after 39.5 sacks over 64 career games. Alongside Ryan Kerrigan he’s one half of a tandem that accounted for 18.5 of the Redskins’ 36 sacks in 2013.
It’s easy to see why losing Orakpo would be a pretty sizable gut shot, but it’s also not difficult to see why keeping him would bring great pain too. If they decide to apply the franchise tag to Orakpo, it will come at a cost of roughly $11.5 million, a number which also sets the baseline for any long-term contract negotiations, and it’s one the Redskins can easily account for with their current estimated cap space of about $30 million. A slightly more affordable transition tag is also reportedly being considered, which would still give Washington the opportunity to match other offers Orakpo receives, but it doesn’t provide first-round pick compensation. However, there’s also the possibility that if he’s tagged Orakpo can argue that he’s eligible for a more costly defensive end designation ($13.1 million) given how many snaps he spent there.
The problem doesn’t lie in cap space, but rather the wise use of that space, and if it’s really the right direction to dedicate over a third of the available funds (at the very minimum) to one player who does only one thing, even if he does said thing very well. Defensively the true gushing hole for the Redskins lies further back beyond Orakpo, and in the secondary where an average of 243.5 passing yards per game were surrendered in 2013 (20th), along with 8.0 per attempt (tied for 29th). A vast improvement needs to be found there either in the draft or free agency, and finding an immediate plug and play solution through the former avenue is unlikely without a first-round pick.
The current options in the Redskins secondary are inadequate, but they’re also gone. Nickelback Josh Wilson and safety Branden Meriweather are leaving as free agents, and reserve safety (and periodic starter) E.J. Biggers is soon-to-be unemployed too along with Reed Doughty. That’s three starters and one reserve player that have to be replaced, ideally with steep upgrades.
You know, the sort of upgrades which become difficult to bankroll with one player potentially occupying close to half of the available funds.
UPDATE: They went with the franchise tag, and a healthy one-year commitment to Orakpo until a longer extension is worked out. Now it’ll be interesting to see if he’s tagged as a linebacker, or as a defensive end.