EVERY ONCE IN a while, you get lucky and find a real steal at a clearance sale: a pair of shoes in your size, or a winter coat marked down 80 percent in April.
More often, though, when it comes to bargain bins, you get what you pay for.
Give Washington’s NFL franchise credit for not blowing its budget in its agreement to acquire quarterback Case Keenum from the Denver Broncos when the league’s new business year opens next week. The reported asking price was minimal (swapping a 2020 sixth-round pick for Denver’s seventh-round choice), and the Broncos restructured Keenum’s deal to pay roughly half of his 2019 salary, meaning Keenum’s reported cap hit in D.C. is a modest $3.5 million.
The move accomplishes two things. It gives Washington another option at a position of uncertainty, given Alex Smith’s doubtful future. And it preserves most of the team’s draft picks and $18.7 million in precious cap space to address other areas of need (receiver, secondary and linebacker). For a team best known for unwisely lavishing cash and picks on undeserving targets, the deal actually qualifies as restrained.
But how much will Keenum actually improve the product? If he recaptures his form from his 2017 days in Minnesota, it could be significant. If Jay Gruden gets the 2018 version of Keenum, it’s at best a wash.
Consider that after Keenum stepped in for an injured Teddy Bridgewater and led the Vikings to the NFC championship game in January 2018, Minnesota’s decision-makers decided they preferred ... Kirk Cousins, the same guy Gruden and Bruce Allen couldn’t commit to. (Cousins’ first season in Minneapolis looked a lot like his last couple in D.C., but that’s another story.)
And after a mediocre 6–10 2018 season in Denver, Keenum again became expendable because John Elway preferred Joe Flacco, who lost his job in Baltimore to a lightning-fast rookie (Lamar Jackson) who’s still a work in progress as a passer.
It’s true that one man’s trash can become another man’s treasure. But this marks two straight years that Keenum, 31, has been left at the curb with a “best offer” sign attached.
Given Smith’s shattered leg (and the $42 million it still owes a 34-year-old who may never play again), Washington needed to act quickly and decisively. Quarterback is the most important position in team sports, and after shuffling through four starters in 2019, Gruden craved stability in what could be his make-or-break year.
There were other options, though.
The Arizona Cardinals, who have the first pick in April’s draft, are reportedly enamored of Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. If so, they’re likely to trade away last year’s first-round pick, Josh Rosen, and his asking price will drop if teams know Arizona doesn’t want him. Trading a second-round choice for a former top-10 pick who’s still under an affordable rookie contract seems like a reasonable expense.
There are also free agents available, although Bridgewater and Tyrod Taylor each bring baggage.
Assuming Keenum beats out career backup Colt McCoy, he gives Washington a chance to be competitive in 2019—if a lot of moons align. He’ll need an injury-prone offensive line to stay healthy, and a solid running game (led by either aging Adrian Peterson or Derrius Guice, who’s coming off a torn ACL).
He’ll need separation from an undistinguished receiving corps whose most dependable member (Jamison Crowder) is a free agent and whose best athlete (Jordan Reed) can’t stay healthy.
Essentially, he’ll need to buck the black cloud that has loomed over this franchise since Daniel Snyder bought it two decades ago.
If Keenum pans out, Allen and senior VP Doug Williams will look like geniuses. More likely, though, this team will again spend next offseason in search of an elusive franchise quarterback—quite possibly with a difference coach and a general manager.