By: Joe Pohoryles
Two of the Redskins’ top free agent targets of the 2020 offseason have signed with other teams.
The Cleveland Browns made former Falcons TE Austin Hooper the highest-paid tight end in the league with a four-year, $44 million contract. Hooper posted 787 yards and six touchdowns on 75 receptions — all career-highs — across 13 games last season.
The Redskins are in deep need for tight ends. After former Pro Bowler Jordan Reed was released last month after years of injury-related issues, plus the retirement of Vernon Davis, an already-thin tight end group is now essentially non-existent.
Hooper and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Hunter Henry were two talented options in their prime entering the 2020 free agency period, but the Chargers placed their franchise tag on Henry three days ago, and now Hooper has a new team in Cleveland.
Nothing the Redskins could do about Henry, but it certainly appears they missed out on Hooper. That said, it appeared leading up to the signing that Cleveland was the front-runner. It was reported that Hooper labeled the Browns as “the leader,” so maybe he had no interest in going to Washington at all. Or it was purely based on who would offer the most money.
Hooper had a solid year as Matt Ryan’s third receiving option in Atlanta behind Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, but I don’t know how comfortable I would be with the Skins throwing that much money his way. Of course, the scarcity of quality tight ends in today’s league, plus the lack of better options on the market certainly drove up the price for Hooper’s services, but $10-11 million per year is steep for a guy who isn’t the same type of play-maker as Travis Kelce or George Kittle.
Perhaps new head coach Kevin Stefanski will give Hooper an even bigger role in the Browns’ offense, as incumbent tight end David Njoku has struggled, but with Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry still in town (for now, anyway), it would be hard to imagine Hooper becoming the No. 1 option, unless he just totally clicks with quarterback Baker Mayfield.
The Redskins gave Reed a five-year/$50 million deal just four years ago, and we saw how that played out. Hooper is definitely less injury-prone than Reed, but maybe management wasn’t too eager to throw another massive deal at a tight end after just getting out of a bad one. Hooper was the best on the market, but is by no means the best in the league, and it may be best that the Redskins did not pay him that much.
Perhaps it was always Cleveland for Hooper, and the Skins never got a chance to talk to him anyway, but regardless it’s a missed opportunity, for better or worse. With Hooper no longer an option, tight end remains a massive hole, and as I mentioned, the remaining free agent options are not as enticing. There are not too many high-caliber tight ends still in their prime.
The best option is probably Eric Ebron, who is coming off a down-2019 after a 2018 Pro Bowl season with the Indianapolis Colts, where he posted career-highs in yards (750), receptions (66) and touchdowns (13). His 13 touchdowns led all tight ends, and was tied for second across the entire league with Green Bay’s Davante Adams, behind only Antonio Brown’s 15 in Pittsburgh.
This year, he fell back down to Earth, with 375 yards and three touchdowns on 31 receptions. Except for his 13 touchdowns in 2018, Ebron has never scored more than five touchdowns in a season. It’s worth mentioning that Ebron’s big 2018 season came with Andrew Luck under center, where Indy was a playoff team and arguably a Super Bowl dark horse. In 2019, Luck suddenly retired, and Jacoby Brissett was thrust into the starting quarterback role.
Brissett was not terrible, but he was downgrade from Luck, so that could partially account for Ebron’s drop in production. Dwayne Haskins Jr. is no Andrew Luck, but if the second-year QB can take a step forward in 2020, perhaps Ebron’s numbers would trend back up. Ebron is 27 years old, and has proven he can be a quality tight end when in the right situation. Does Washington give that to him?
The price tag will not be as high as Hooper’s, but certainly won’t be cheap. If the Redskins can’t strike up a deal with Ebron, then the remaining top free agents are Delanie Walker, who was just released by Tennessee and is coming off a season-ending ankle injury entering his age 36 season, and 33-year-old Jimmy Graham, who is coming off a couple underwhelming seasons in Green Bay. Vance McDonald and Tyler Eifert are slightly younger, yet lower quality options, and the Redskins will likely want to draft a tight end in 2020 to help carry the load, regardless of who they sign in free agency.
The other target they lost out on was offensive guard Ereck Flowers, who inked a three-year, $30 million deal with the Miami Dolphins. Flowers was drafted by the New York Giants ninth overall in the 2015 NFL draft, and struggled immensely as the team’s starting left tackle. He was soon passed off to Jacksonville, where he continued to struggle and was labeled a bust.
The Redskins gave him a chance with a one-year/$4 million, and shifted him inside to left guard, where he found his footing and turned his career around. With the uncertainty surrounding longtime starting left tackle Trent Williams, and the pending free agency of right guard Brandon Scherff, Flowers would have been great to re-sign to help keep the offensive line intact.
Instead, the Miami native gets a nice deal to return home and continue his upward trajectory, while Scherff received the Skins’ franchise tag, and Williams looks for trade destinations. There are other options on the open market, but reports say the Skins believe Wes Martin, a 2019 fourth-rounder out of Indiana, looks ready to take over as a starting guard. Martin played in nine games as a rookie, and started five.
Spotrac estimates the Redskins have $44-45 million in cap space, so signing both Hooper and Flowers would have committed nearly half of that to just two players. If Martin can step in, his minimal $837,702 cap hit will be a huge help in allowing the team to spend elsewhere.
The Redskins missed out on two major targets, but with other holes to fill and other potential trade targets out there, hopefully the team can make an effective splash.
This one would certainly be a start…
Bring Stefon Diggs home, and give Kirk Cousins his old starting left tackle back? Additional picks would need to be sorted out, but who says no?
(Cover Photo Credit: Chris Keane / AP)