Alex Smith’s uncertain recovery makes Redskins a QB wild card

The Washington Redskins remain in a holding position at quarterback: They don’t know when, or even if, Alex Smith will return; they still believe in Colt McCoy and they know they must add another quarterback. They just don’t know when or how they’ll do so.

That was the message the team delivered at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Smith, of course, must recover from a compound fracture in his right leg, which required multiple surgeries because of infections. The Redskins still don’t know, or aren’t ready to say, whether Smith will play this season. It remains a long shot, but no one has publicly said he won’t.

In the meantime, the Redskins must prepare for life without him. That means there is still ambiguity about whether they want a short- or long-term solution.

“That’s hard; this is new to everybody,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said at the combine via ESPN’s Jordan Raanan. “This is an injury that’s tough to overcome, but you also don’t know Alex and what he can do with his mind and what he can overcome. Will he be ready next year or the year after? I don’t know. We’ll play it by ear.”

The team’s leaders are confident in the work Smith will put in; they just don’t know yet when or if he will return.

That leads us to these questions:

Is McCoy really a possibility to start?

Yes. They have long liked him; they also have never given him the starting job entering the season, which suggests their admiration has its limits. But in each of the past two years, there were people in the organization who were OK going with McCoy and a rookie. Instead, they kept Kirk Cousins around one more year and traded for Smith.

Gruden is not the only McCoy fan in the building — others have privately said they can win with him — but he is the most public. McCoy has been with him for five years.

“I could be really ignorant,” Gruden said. “I’ve just seen him throw the ball for five years in the offseason, in training camp. I know that he was fired up to get an opportunity and when he finally got one, it was like letting an animal out of the cage. He ran right into the wall, got hurt. He’s got to slow down the process, which he will. But I have total confidence. He’s got a great knowledge of the system, he’s comfortable with the guys we have, he’s a great leader, he’s a competitor. He can run, he can move and he can make all the throws. But he’s been hurt and he hasn’t done it.”

That’s the rub: McCoy has received two chances to be the starter in Washington. Both times ended with injuries and neither stint lasted more than three games. In his first nine years, he never played more than 13 games and only once played more than eight. Gruden said McCoy must play smarter, knowing when to throw a pass away rather than scramble and risk injury. He broke his leg last season on a scramble in which he should have just thrown the ball away.

“That’s part of the reason you love a guy like Colt on your team, because of that great competitiveness,” Gruden said. “But I hope he tones it down a little bit and throws it away.”

Can he?

“I don’t know,” Gruden said. “Obviously he hasn’t so far. He’s a stubborn guy, man.”

Would they trade up in the first round?

The Redskins have nine draft picks, and they have long abandoned their crazy spending ways of the past, so adding young players is desirable. That means holding onto draft picks. It’s not a guarantee they don’t make a trade. After all, they can free up cap space — they only have about $17 million right now — to pursue a few free agents who can help. That would provide flexibility in the draft. Perhaps such a move would be to move up only a few spots and therefore not as costly.

Still, Redskins senior vice president of player personnel Doug Williams played down this notion.

“We’ve got a lot more needs than to say we can give up two or three picks and say, ‘pick one guy,’ and think we have the football team we hope to have,” Williams said at the combine, via Raanan. “We have to use our picks wisely.”

Redskins president Bruce Allen told reporters at the combine on Friday that they would like to come away with nine to 12 players from this draft. However, some of those could be undrafted players, and they could always move up early and then make moves to acquire more picks in later rounds.

Will they sign a free agent?

Yes, but at what cost? They have remained in contact with Josh Johnson, but there’s no real rush to get him signed now, simply because they might have more attractive options. Teddy Bridgewater would be one, but that depends on the cost. He has played one game in the past three years, so it’s hard to assume he would be a starter. He also would be signed for probably at least twice McCoy’s base salary of $3 million — and coming in as his potential backup. Another potential free agent is veteran Tyrod Taylor. The Redskins could free up cap space to add a more expensive passer, spending roughly $20-24 million, if they truly desired. But then they would be devoting about $45 million to the position — with Smith and McCoy’s cap numbers factored in — and that is far from desirable. It also would prevent other potential improvements.

Allen said they won’t be deterred by how much is allocated to one position.

“If a blue-chip player becomes available, we will pay for that,” Allen told reporters, “no matter what the position is.”

Still, it wouldn’t make sense if they ended up devoting nearly a quarter of their cap space to quarterback. Williams said they don’t yet know what the market will be because there are unknowns as to who will be available. Like fans and media, they too speculate about which players will be released.

There will be other quarterbacks available via trade — Ryan Tannehill perhaps? Tannehill does have fans in the organization but he’d cost a draft pick and cap room. The only way they’d make such a move is by converting base salary into bonus money and spreading it out over a couple years to lessen his hit. Is it worth it, especially not knowing Smith’s future?

“As far as a trade, I don’t know that we’re going to go that route,” Williams said.

Will they draft a QB in the first round?

Yes. No. Maybe. That’s the best anyone can say because, picking at No. 15 in the first round, there’s no way to know if a quarterback they like will be around. However, there are a few who would excite them should they be available at that spot. They would not be scared off by Kyler Murray‘s smaller frame, but they also probably won’t have a chance to pick him in the middle of the first round.

Considering the need — and the importance of the position — it’s not exactly shocking they might draft one in the first. Allen said they’ll go by their board, so if a quarterback is atop it at 15, they’ll grab him.

“If one is there at 15 that we like, that’s an easy choice to make,” Williams said. “But we are not going to reach for a guy just because we don’t have one. … If there’s not someone we like, we’ll go with Colt, and if we have to get a veteran to work with him, that’s probably what we’ll do. It all boils down to who’s there when it’s time to pick.”

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