It might take a Hollywood studio bookkeeper to maneuver the Washington Redskins through free agency.
The Redskins are $3 million over the $123 million salary cap entering NFL free agency Tuesday. But they're really $13 million over when you factor in the $5 million needed for practice squad players and another $5 million for draft picks and in-season replacements for injuries.
Even a movie studio bean counter who says blockbusters don't make money couldn't cut $13 million without losing some good veterans, much less clear room to sign marquee free agents. While standing pat might not seem terrible for the defending NFC East champions, Washington has too many holes to remain complacent. It must retain several players while finding several more starters.
Next season will go as far as quarterback Robert Griffin III takes the Redskins. Without him last season, they were probably a five-win team. But when he will return from offseason surgery is unknown. It could be opening day, or it could be 2014. While Kirk Cousins flashed talent in relief last season, there's no telling how he would fare as a regular starter.
Washington just hopes Griffin returns early and the team contends again. That means beefing up the offensive line while rebuilding the secondary so the Redskins don't need to score 27 points to win regularly.
First, the Redskins need to determine their budget for free agent tight end Fred Davis. After missing nine games last season with an Achilles injury and the final four games of 2011 because of suspension, Davis won't find a windfall leaguewide. He's one positive drug test away from a one-year suspension and one play away from another major injury.
Translation: Davis is risky goods. Maybe he will return to Pro Bowl status. At 27, Davis is in his prime and capable of 70 catches. But those ifs are enough to lighten any offers. Maybe the risks are worth it to Washington, but it can't be at more than $6 million annually or the Redskins must move on. And if Davis returns, he's the team's major signing.
The Redskins likely will rework cornerback DeAngelo Hall's deal, worth $7.5?million in 2013, to clear cap space. Linebacker London Fletcher ($5.5 million), receiver Santana Moss ($4.15 million) and cornerback Josh Wilson ($3.9 million) appear ripe for having their current deals turned into two-year contracts, too.
But here's a hard call. Linebacker Brian Orakpo will make $2.81 million and will be a free agent in 2014. When healthy, Orakpo is a dominant pass rusher. But he has torn a pectoral muscle the past two seasons and may never return to Pro Bowl form. The doctors can't truthfully determine whether he will, so Washington must gamble on a long-term deal or make a painful cut. They likely will go long term.
The new deals should create enough cap space to operate. They just won't allow future growth. Unless NFL owners grow a conscience or the team suddenly sues to halt free agency in hope of some cap relief for its current $18 million sanction, Washington's offseason will center more on its second-round pick than a free agent spending spree.