Commanders focus on O-line, secondary, linebackers as free agency opens


After agreeing to a long-term contract with defensive tackle Daron Payne on Sunday, the Washington Commanders shifted their focus to the offensive line and secondary Monday, agreeing to terms with linemen Nick Gates and Andrew Wylie and cornerback Danny Johnson, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of the deals. The team also claimed cornerback Cameron Dantzler off waivers from Minnesota and signed linebacker Cody Barton to a one-year deal.

The moves, which came soon after the start of the NFL’s legal tampering period, add depth and position flexibility to an offensive line that was depleted last season and stands to lose multiple veterans in free agency. The return of Johnson ensures a key reserve and well-respected veteran sticks around, and the addition of Dantzler boosts competition in a room that figures to change even more as the offseason progresses.

Gates — a former Giants lineman who played tackle, guard and center during his time with New York — agreed to a three-year contract worth up to $18 million, with $8 million guaranteed, according to two people with knowledge of the deal. Free agents cannot officially sign contracts with new teams until the start of the new league year Wednesday.

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Last season, Gates played 258 snaps at left guard and 132 at center, according to Pro Football Focus. It seems likely the Commanders will use him inside, but at 6-foot-5 and 307 pounds, he has similar size to tackles offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy worked with for Kansas City. Gates could play the same versatile backup role Wes Schweitzer has over the past three years and potentially fill in as a starter.

In September 2021, Gates, 27, broke the fibula and tibia in his left leg during a game at Washington. He was carted off the field, and his mother told the New York Post she feared that her son would lose his leg.

“I wanted him to have a leg and to be able to play with his children when he has them,” Sonja Gates said then. “Football was not foremost on my mind. It was on his. Every doctor we saw, every time he saw a doctor, that was his first question — ‘Am I going to be able to play football again?’”

Gates endured seven surgeries and returned in October. During the Giants’ run to the postseason, he started eight of the team’s final nine games.

Wylie, who has spent most of his six-year career with the Chiefs, agreed to a three-year, $24 million contract, three people with knowledge of the deal said, giving Washington even more options up front.

The 28-year-old started all 17 games at right tackle last season and allowed nine sacks and 49 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. He didn’t give up a sack in the postseason and allowed just one pressure in Super Bowl LVII. He began his tenure with the Chiefs at guard, shifting primarily from right guard to left and back again from 2018 to 2020.

His experience with Bieniemy, whom the Commanders hired in February to take over their offense, could also be a boon to the rest of the line as it learns the coordinator’s system this offseason.

An undrafted player out of Eastern Michigan, Wylie signed with the Indianapolis Colts after the 2017 draft and bounced on and off their roster before spending short stints with the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Chargers later that season. He signed to the Chiefs’ practice squad in December 2017, landed a reserve/futures contract in January 2018 and got his first start in Week 7 after starter Laurent Duvernay-Tardif suffered a season-ending injury.

Everything you need to know about NFL free agency

Wylie’s arrival in Washington gives the Commanders flexibility, especially on the right side of the line, where he’s most experienced. It’s possible the team could move Sam Cosmi to guard and rely on Wylie and Cornelius Lucas at tackle, barring additional help. But if Cosmi stays at tackle in a rotation with Lucas, Wylie could provide depth and even swing inside. Schweitzer, Trai Turner and Wes Martin are all pending free agents for Washington.

At the start of the offseason, Coach Ron Rivera said it was a priority for the team to finalize deals with some of its own free agents before looking elsewhere. Washington brought back Payne and linebacker Khaleke Hudson on Sunday, then reached an agreement with Johnson on Monday. Johnson’s contract is worth up to $7 million and includes $2.5 million in guarantees, according to a person with knowledge of the terms.

Johnson essentially earned his deal in the final stretch of the season, when he collected eight pass deflections and 24 tackles over the last five games (three starts).

“One guy who did step up that really helped us out an awful lot [after the William Jackson III trade] is Danny Johnson,” Rivera said in January. “He continues to be prepared, be ready to play, and every time he’s had an opportunity, he’s helped us out and done a really nice job.”

On Monday night, Washington brought in Barton on a one-year, fully guaranteed deal, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. The 2019 third-round pick was a reserve inside linebacker and special teams player for his first three seasons in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks. Last season, he started 11 games for Seattle and totaled 136 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions.

Barton will join a relatively thin linebacking corps. At minimum, he’ll compete for a reserve spot on defense and a role on special teams. At best, he’ll compete for a starting job at linebacker, depending on what the Commanders do in the rest of free agency and the draft.

Washington may still try to retain safety Jeremy Reaves, a special teams ace, on a new deal if it doesn’t use a restricted free agent tender on him first. It also needs a backup quarterback — Taylor Heinicke could return unless he wants to test the open market — and depth across the board.

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