- The Washington Times
Tuesday, January 25, 2022

After signing Jonathan Allen to a four-year, $72 million deal last July, Washington enters this offseason standing at another couple of crossroads, with defensive tackle Daron Payne entering the last year of his contract and a May deadline looming for edge rusher Montez Sweat’s fifth-year option.

Will coach Ron Rivera and his executives in the front office pony up for a couple of former first-rounders who have shown flashes of greatness? Or did Washington’s disappointing defense over the season that just finished sour the brass on Payne and Sweat?

Payne, the 13th pick in the league in the 2018 draft, has played in the shadow of Allen, his former Alabama teammate, since arriving in Washington — but he‘d still likely earn top 10 defensive tackle money if he were to hit the open market.

But Allen‘s new contract may mean Payne is more valuable for Rivera and Co. as trade bait.

The case for trading Payne centers around the idea of asset management. Washington made Allen the league’s fifth highest-paid defensive tackle — and teams rarely hand out mega-extensions to two players at the same position. 

If Washington is not going to pay Payne in the long term, the goal should be to squeeze some value out of the lineman before he enters free agency next year.

Historically, Washington hasn’t done a good job of this.

Rather than preemptively trade Kirk Cousins for draft picks, the team used the franchise tag twice on the quarterback — only to watch him sign a three-year, $84 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings in 2018. The team is also currently going down a similar path with All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff, who is poised to leave this spring after receiving the franchise tag two years in a row.

When Cousins left, Washington ultimately received a late third-round pick as part of the NFL’s compensatory formula, which was later traded for two fourth-rounders who became running back Bryce Love and guard Wes Martin — both of whom are no longer on the team. The team is also likely to gain a comp pick if — or when — Scherff leaves. 

But in Cousins’ case, the compensation paled into comparison to what the team likely could have had if they had explored trading him. Last November, former coach Jay Gruden told the Team 980 he believes the San Francisco 49ers were willing to offer multiple first-rounders for Cousins during the 2017 offseason, but said management couldn’t “stomach” the quarterback possibly having success under former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. 

Recently, Gruden told The Athletic that Cousins should have fetched more than a third. The former coach also pointed to the team’s handling of Trent Williams — the star left tackle who was traded in April 2020 to the San Francisco 49ers for a third-round and fifth-round pick.

Gruden called the trade package “comical,” laughing when reminded of the compensation.

“When you have a top commodity, it’s no different than the stock market,” Gruden said. “Supply and demand. There’s a huge supply problem at the quarterback position and the left tackle position. And there’s a huge demand for it.

“So you better get what you can get when you have one, and if you don’t have one, you’re going to have to pay a lot.”

Of course, defensive tackle is not a marquee position like quarterback or left tackle. And who knows what Payne could fetch on the trade market. Even if a team offered, say, just a second-round pick, would that be worth it? 

In other words,  would Washington be better off with a future second-round pick — or another year of Payne and then receive a third-round comp pick? There’s an argument to be made that Payne’s talent plus another draft pick would still make Washington better in the long run than a higher draft pick.

Payne, after all, has been impressive when on the field. He‘s come along as a pass-rusher, posting a career-high 27 pressures this past season, according to Pro Football Reference. And Payne is still a force in the middle, with his quick reaction allowing him to sniff out the run game. He’s, in some ways, a perfect compliment next to Allen — even if they got into a sideline fight in December.

“I feel like when you have as much talent as we do, no one’s ever going to be able to get as much credit as they deserve at any given time,” Allen said of Payne. “He‘s explosive, he‘s a big guy moving really fast, dominating the run, effective in the pass-rush game. He can do it all.”

Allen, though, indirectly hit on another point — Washington’s depth may support the loss of Payne. If Payne is traded this offseason, Washington would still have defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, a key reserve who has played well when given a bigger opportunity. In 2019, Ioannidis led the team in sacks with 8 ½. 

Ioannidis, however, is also entering the last year of his deal in 2022.

“I’d love to get a contract done,” Payne said. “Only the future will tell.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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