ASHBURN, Va. — Alex Smith‘s release doesn’t change the Washington Football Team‘s offseason plans, because it was already in the market for a starting quarterback. The move just made clear which direction it didn’t want to go to find one.
Why release Smith now?
Washington had long considered making this move before Smith’s comments to GQ were published, saying how he felt the team didn’t want him in training camp and had no plans for him. In some ways, Smith was right. The coaching staff entered camp thinking it would be a rebuild year with the NFC East title out of reach.
Smith, then 35 and coming off his 17 surgeries following a 2018 leg injury, didn’t fit in the plans with two other young quarterbacks on the roster (Dwayne Haskins Jr. and Allen). There was also concern about Smith’s leg and how it would withstand punishing hits.
Eventually Washington found it needed Smith, after benching Haskins and following Allen’s season-ending broken ankle suffered in November. It led to a feel-good story for Washington as Smith went 5-1 as a starter. In fact, during his time in Washington, the team was 11-5 with him starting and 6-27 with everyone else.
However, because of the severity of his past leg injury, Smith’s durability will always be a concern and there were doubts in Washington about whether he could handle a 16- or 17-game season. He missed three of Washington’s final four games because of a bone bruise and obviously isn’t a long-term answer at the position that the team can build around.
His comments in GQ didn’t help, but the truth is Washington had already decided it needed to move on from Smith.
How much do they save by cutting Smith?
Washington had a $12 million insurance policy on Smith, but that only would have been fully realized had he never played again. However, it did result in a $1.1 million bonus proration reduction for each of the final three years of Smith’s contract.
Therefore, releasing Smith saves Washington $14.9 million against the salary cap this year, and he will count $8.6 million in dead money. The final cap number remains uncertain, though the floor will be $180 million. Washington will invest some of that savings into another quarterback, whether that comes via free agency or a trade.
Which quarterbacks will Washington target?
The team has looked into multiple quarterbacks, including Marcus Mariota (Las Vegas Raiders) and Sam Darnold (New York Jets), but there would be obstacles to getting either of those trades done. Mariota, 27, has escalator clauses in his contract that could almost double his 2021 deal to about $20 million — even if he starts 12 games and the team wins six of them. In other words, he could get a big bump in a mediocre season.
Darnold, a 2018 first-round pick by the Jets, has two years left on his contract, but the final year would be about $25 million — a hefty sum for a player who has struggled often in his first three seasons.
If the Carolina Panthers acquire a quarterback (they have the No. 8 pick) and move on from Teddy Bridgewater, he could make sense for Washington, too. Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner worked with Bridgewater in Minnesota and Washington’s executive vice president of player personnel, Marty Hurney, was with Carolina when it signed Bridgewater last offseason.
Most, if not all, of these solutions would likely be short-term. Drafting a quarterback is always a possibility, but there is no guarantee a quarterback Washington likes will be available when it picks at No. 19 in the first round, and the price of trading up could be exorbitant.
If Washington finds a solution this offseason, the plan would be to add as much as it can to the offense — be it bringing in more wide receivers or strengthening the line. That way it can build a strong base and, perhaps in 2022, could aggressively pursue a quarterback with a stronger roster — making the team less fearful of mortgaging its future.