In Depth: Why the Redskins need to sign Fred Davis

In Depth: Why the Redskins need to sign Fred Davis
February 13, 2013, 10:15 am
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Redskins tight end Fred Davis will be an unrestricted free agent on March 12. He was designated the team’s franchise player in 2012, a move that guaranteed him a salary of $5.4 million.

He only lasted seven games. In the first quarter of the game against the Giants in the Meadowlands, Davis suffered a torn Achilles tendon, ending his season. At the time he was injured, he was leading the team in receiving with 24 catches for 325 yards. He had not scored a touchdown.

For the rest of the season, he was occasionally seen around Redskins Park as he worked on rehabbing what usually is about a six-month injury. Working on that timetable he should be ready for the start of offseason workouts in mid-April.

But where will he be taking part in those workouts? Will it be in Ashburn? Or in another NFL city? Both Davis and the Redskins have some decisions to make.

Here is my in-depth look at the options and what I think the Redskins should go.

Franchise tag again

If the Redskins franchise Davis again, he would have to make either the franchise tag amount for that season or 120 percent of last year’s salary. It seems unlikely that the salary that goes with the tag will to up much so we are looking at the tag making Davis’ tender worth about $6.5 million.

Should the Redskins take this route, Davis would have two options. He could sign it, which would immediately guarantee that salary for the season. Or he could refuse to sign and stay away from offseason workouts and even training camp in hopes of getting a long-term deal.

It would be very unusual for a player coming off of an injury such as Davis’ to refuse to sign the tag. It’s a possibility but if the Redskins offer the tag there’s a very good chance that Davis will be on board with it.

But it will be hard for the Redskins to apply the tag. After subtracting the $18 million salary cap penalty, the Redskins are currently about $4 million over the cap. Giving Davis the franchise tag would immediately tie up $6.5 million in cap space. They would have to do considerable work in terms of releasing players and restructuring contracts in order to create enough cap space to franchise Davis. Even though the tag might be an attractive option, the cap situation makes it a very difficult one.

New contract

Davis and the Redskins could come to an agreement on a new contract, something they would have tried to do if Davis had stayed healthy in 2012. But given the current circumstances, it is a very, very tricky thing to do.

The first thing the Redskins would need to do is determine how healthy Davis is. He was injured on October 21. Free agency starts on March 12, a little shy of five months after the injury. It’s a six-month rehab so the team will only have a partial idea of if Davis will be at 100 percent for the start of the season.

Even if they can figure out that he’ll be ready to start the season, how to they judge his worth? He doesn’t have a full season as a starter under his belt. If you take Davis’ numbers over the last two years and project his per-game averages into a 16-game season he would catch 70 passes for 944 yards and three touchdowns. Compare those to the 2012 stat line for Jimmy Graham (85/982/9) or Jason Witten (110/1039/3) or Rob Gronkowski’s 2011 (90/1327/17) and you’ll see that Davis comes up short.

However, if you look at the 2012 stats for two other well-known tight ends, Jermichael Finley (61/667/2) and Vernon Davis (41/548/5), Davis comes up pretty favorably.

Davis signed a six-year, $42.7 million contract in 2010. The deal contained a $10 million signing bonus and a total of $23 million guaranteed.

Finley’s deal, signed a year ago, was for two years and $15 million with the bulk of the money coming in the second year. If the Packers want to keep him they will have to pay him a $4.45 million roster bonus on the 15th day of the league year.

The injury plays into the picture, too. The Vikings signed John Carlson away from the Seahawks a year ago after Carlson missed the 2011 season with a torn labrum. He signed a five-year, $25 million contract. But you would have to think that Davis will command more than Carlson. In 2011, Davis had a better performance in 12 games (59/796/3) than Carlson has had in any of his four years in the league (best year his rookie 2008 season 55/627/5).

Besides the injury, the other X factor working against Davis is his status in the NFL’s substance abuse system. If he has another positive test, he faces a one-year suspension. Davis would be suspended without pay; however, the CBA prevents teams from recovering any guaranteed money that was paid in the form of signing, option, or roster bonuses. Any team interested in signing Davis will want to try to protect itself as much as possible by tying some money to his continued availability.

Let him go

The Redskins could choose to let Davis go without making him a serious contract offer as they did LaRon Landry a year ago. After all, they did win seven straight games without him.

It’s not a good option. They might save some money but they will almost certainly have a less talented player at tight end. They will have to pay that player, eating up some of what they might save by letting Davis walk.

But the salary cap penalty will force them to make some suboptimal choices.

So there are the options, what the Redskins could do. What should they do? For my opinion, read on.

What they should do

The Redskins have quite a bit invested in Davis. They used a second-round pick to draft him in 2008. Davis and Rob Jackson are the only ones left of those 10 picks who should be forming the heart of the team. He has three training camps plus one full season and two partial seasons in the offense. They paid him over $5 million last year.

Barring a transformation of Logan Paulsen into a legitimate threat or a great leap forward by Niles Paul there is nobody on the roster who can replace Davis as an athletic, pass-catching tight end who can get open deep. Neither of them is likely to catch 70 passes in a season for nearly a thousand yards.

As noted, the other options on the free agent markets are not as talented as Davis. Perhaps they could find a replacement in the draft but the chances of there being a staring-caliber tight end on the board from the second round on are small.

Despite the season-ending winning streak, they are better off with him than without him. A defense simply doesn’t have to pay much attention to Paulsen in the passing game. Paul isn’t there yet in his conversion from the wide receiver position. You can’t have a defense concerned with just four receivers; the more weapons the better.

But there is that salary cap thing. Even though the franchise tag might be the best option, it would be very difficult to tie up that much cap space.

The second-best thing for the Redskins would be to sign Davis to a two- or three-year deal without much guaranteed money. But Davis is unlikely to accept one. If Carlson can get a five-year deal with $9 million guaranteed, it seems likely that someone out there—and it only takes one—will be willing to give Davis a five-year deal with considerably more in guarantees.

What about Davis’ competition on the free agent market? It’s a middling group led by Davis followed by Jared Cook, who the Titans could franchise, James Casey, used by the Texans as a fullback last year, Dustin Keller, and Martelius Bennett.

Davis will probably command the biggest contract of the group. Cook would cost less, in the $5 million per year range, and Casey even less than that. The Redskins have some good inside intel on Casey as Kyle Shanahan was Houston’s offense coordinator.

But saving a million or two a year due to a short-term cap situation is not the way to build a championship team. As noted above, the Redskins are better off with Davis than without him.

OK, so how do they get him locked up while squeezing him under this year’s cap and protecting themselves from both injury and the fact that Davis faces a one-year suspension if he has another positive drug test?

Davis probably isn’t going to give the Redskins much of a hometown discount and since this is probably the one big contract he’ll sign during his career it’s hard to blame him for that. However, there’s a good chance that he and his agent will work the Redskins on the structure of a deal so that the Redskins can fit him under the cap.

The key will be getting Davis to forego a large singing bonus this year and getting him the bulk of his guaranteed money in 2014. Without getting too bogged down in numbers, here’s how it could be done:

Give Davis a five-year deal that pays him the minimum salary this year and a signing bonus of about $5 million. For 2014 put in a $10 million option bonus that is guaranteed as long as he is not under suspension. The Redskins could eat that on their ’14 cap or convert all or part of it to signing bonus and spread it out over the remaining four years on the contract.

 For the last four years put in salaries starting at around $5 million and going up to $7 million or so and make part of the salary a roster bonus that is payable if he was not suspended the previous year. Also put in a per-game roster bonus that is payable as long as he is on the 46-man roster (i.e. not injured).

With a contract structured like that, Davis’ cap number would be around $1.5 million in 2013, very affordable even in a crunch. If they have the cap space next year they can just charge the $10 million option bonus to 2014 or they can spread some or all of it out over the rest of the contract.

Davis will be 31 the last year of the contract and it’s certainly possible that he will still be reasonably productive by then.

What do you think? Should the Redskins bring back Davis or move on? If they let him go, who should play tight end?