Head coach Ron Rivera made a statement last March on how he was going to structure the Washington Football Team's roster, and he has the chance to put together an encore in 2021.
Sure, the team did not land some of the top players, but it still got plenty of quality players in Logan Thomas, Ronald Darby, J.D. McKissic, and Cornelius Lucas. Those were not the big moves some fans may have wanted, but they blossomed into key pieces that helped Washington come out on top in the NFC East.
Flash forward a year to this offseason, and Rivera would like to stick closely to his original plan of finding players with similar upside to help the team. There are some free agents he admits he would like to get "immediately" -- although, naturally, he does not intend to share those names publicly -- but he also isn't "desperate" to make a move. Even if Washington misses out on any or all of those free agents, the team will do what it did last year: remain calm, reset and find quality players Rivera and the front office believe will help improve the roster.
"What we want to do is get to the point where we don't have to start all over," Rivera said. "We want to make sure we look at every option we have and when we do things, we move cautiously, smart. We don't want to put ourselves in a position where we have to start all over again in a year or two. We want to be able to say: 'Hey, we put the right pieces in place that gives us the opportunity to go out and do what we want to do.' But we want to be truly smart about it."
If anyone was hoping for a specific roadmap on Rivera's free agency plans when he spoke to the media March 10, they were disappointed. But take a longer look at who he brought in last year, and the makeup for the players he values is obvious. Outside of Kendall Fuller, it was not the star-studded class many expected from a team that had some of the most available cap space; players like Thomas and McKissic had talent, but they were still relatively unproven in their careers.
But those under-the-radar players shined, thanks to a little polishing from Rivera's coaching staff and more opportunities. Thomas, McKissic and linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis had career-high seasons, while others like Lucas and Wes Schweitzer became valued starters. But the common theme among all of last year's acquisitions was that they valued the team first, and that's what Rivera is still searching for.
"It's about having the right type of character, things that are important to you," Rivera said. "Little details are important to you. For us, as an example, last year we only had two guys that tested positive for COVID once the season started. ...They kept their guard up, and again, I really, truly appreciated the way they handled this year. To me, that's what we talk about with a cultural fit. That's important."
Ideally, Rivera would sign some of the top players available to fill their positions of need, but with Washington competing with multiple teams to acquire their services, it is inevitable the team will have to move on to other options. In that case, Rivera would love to find players like Thomas or McKissic who could have a bigger impact on smaller deals. That will require Washington to be more calculated with their moves. For example, Thomas and McKissic were signed because tight ends coach Pete Hoener and offensive coordinator Scott Turner saw their respective potential.
"I think what has to happen is we've got to make sure we filter through all this and we find those guys that are going to perform like that," Rivera said. "That really means that we've got to do our homework. We've got to study people, and once we get them, we've got to coach them up and put them in position to have success. ...Our guys worked and fought and put themselves in position to win. That's what we're looking for right now."
No matter who Washington wants to go after in free agency -- Spotrac currently has the team ranked seventh in available cap space -- retaining the players who helped it claim an NFC East division title is one of the top priorities. Washington would like to keep as many of its own players as possible, Rivera said, and Washington has already taken steps to achieve that by tagging Brandon Scherff and tendering Kyle Allen.
Keeping everyone is not always possible, though, which is why Rivera said Washington will have to "figure out who's the best for you going forward in terms of starting here and working our way down the list and seeing what we can do."
"How do they impact the team? What do they mean to the team? What do they mean to their specific position? I think that's important. I think guys like that really do help. Sometimes when you decide on a player, you have to have specific reasons. I think that's the thing that I want to look at it is, 'What is their impact on the team and the organization?'"
It is a new year with another round of talented players up for grabs, but Rivera's focus remains the same: build a sustainable, winning culture in Washington. Of course he wants to fill the roster with the most talented players, but that does not mean he is going to take one big shot after another.
Rivera is content with taking the slow and steady approach. It has worked so far, so why stop now?
"A lot of good things happened last year," Rivera said. "We did something that was a little unexpected, which I acknowledged. But at the same time, just because of that, I really don't think you throw the plan away and you start reaching and doing things you don't need to do right now. I think what you do is you continue to put the pieces of the puzzle in place, and hopefully build it the right way and put it together the way you need it to be."