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Redskins' new plan for free agency shows early progress, promise

It's not a sentiment I can ever recall expressing on the first day of the NFL's free agency period, but the Washington Redskins are making sense to me this year. For a change, I don't think they're trying to win the league's mythical offseason title by throwing stupid money around in a fast and furious manner. Instead, they're doing what they can to put themselves in position to win the real NFL championship next season, on the field. Where it counts.

No, the Redskins aren't Super Bowl ready. Not yet. Not by a long shot. They have finished in last place in the NFC East four years running, and many will pick them to do so again next season. I might even be among that number.

But the Redskins seem to have a plan this time, and it involves more than just access to a private plane, Daniel Snyder's checkbook and a list of the league's top 25 available free agents. And that's a sign of real progress in Washington.

In a daring move I loved, the Redskins last week swung the deal with St. Louis that earned them the right to select Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III in April's draft. They paid a heavy price to be sure, but they had to. After two seasons of floundering at quarterback, head coach Mike Shanahan knew nothing else mattered this offseason if he didn't get the game's most pivotal position figured out. Years from now, when Washington's trade is fully evaluated, I think history will bear out that they made the right call in terms of the 2011 Heisman winner. After Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman and John Beck calling the signals in Washington, desperation gave way to a bold and decisive gamble, but Griffin is a player worth rolling the dice on.

With a franchise quarterback secured, the Redskins on Tuesday went about the very logical business of upgrading their receiving corps, giving RG3 more than just Santana Moss and Jabar Gaffney to grow with. In typical lightning-quick Redskins fashion, they went out and signed two young pass-catching weapons in ex-Colt Pierre Garcon and ex-49er Josh Morgan, and also targeting ex-Bronco Eddie Royal, whom TheWashington Post erroneously reported the Redskins having agreed to terms with. Garcon and Morgan aren't 26 yet, they're entering just their second NFL contracts having been drafted in 2008, and both have been very productive at some point during the course of their first four seasons in the league.

Same old Redskins? Not really. The arrival of Garcon and Morgan, and potentially Royal, doesn't make Washington's offense an instant juggernaut. But it does surround Griffin with a young but still experienced corps of receivers to throw to and develop a rapport with. It gives him a chance to stay on the same field and compete with the more accomplished Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Michael Vick-led passing games in the NFC East, and to strike a little fear into the hearts of secondaries that haven't had to worry much about when it comes to Washington for a while.

This wasn't Steve Spurrier going out and rounding up his ex-Gators in 2002 (Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green and Chris Doering), and it wasn't the same risky maneuver of Washington pinning big hopes on Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle-El in 2006.

Rather than chase the biggest prize in this year's free-agent receiving class, as it was rumored the Redskins would in the case of San Diego's Vincent Jackson, Washington went for the smarter approach this time. Jackson signed with Tampa Bay later Tuesday, garnering a huge five-year, $55.5 million deal, with $26 million of it guaranteed.

Maybe that $36 million salary-cap penalty the NFL belatedly slapped the Redskins with on Monday altered the approach in D.C. and kept Jackson off their radar screen, or maybe Garcon-Morgan-Royal was the plan all along. Whatever the case, I think Shanahan got it right this time.

The size of the contract the Redskins awarded Garcon was plenty eye-opening (five years, $42.5 million, with $21.5 million of that guaranteed), and it'll draw some warranted criticism for hearkening back to prior Washington free-agency over-expenditures. But I at least understand the deal in the context of the Redskins' plan to dramatically remake their receiving lineup. The 6-foot, 215-pound Garcon has speed, size, youth and a track record of production. Even without the injured Peyton Manning last season, Garcon caught 70 passes for 947 yards and six touchdowns, despite playing with one of the league's worst offenses and Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky at quarterback.

While he has never been a No. 1 receiver and must prove he's up to that task, Garcon is the kind of seam-splitting playmaker Shanahan has been seeking and is known for his ability to make yards after the catch, something the Redskins were not adept at last year with Moss and Gaffney carrying the receiving load.

"It's a great signing by the Redskins,'' ex-Colts general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian said Tuesday on NFL Live. "He's got great size, great speed. Played at Division III Mount Union College [and] just now [is] coming into his own in the NFL. He's got world-class speed. In the West Coast offense, where they look for guys who can catch the ball across the middle and run with it after the catch, Pierre Garcon is a perfect fit.''

While most of the focus and attention will likely flow Garcon's way this offseason, Shanahan is said to consider Morgan the hidden gem in Tuesday's haul. The Redskins are excited about the former 49er, believing he was an ascending player before a broken leg ended his 2011 after just five games and 15 catches for 220 yards.

Morgan, a sixth-round pick in 2008, started 26 games in 2009-2010, catching 96 passes for 1,225 yards and five touchdowns over that span, despite playing in one of the weaker passing games in the league. Shanahan is eager to find ways to get the 6-1, 215-pound D.C. native and former Virginia Tech star the ball and thinks he'll mesh perfectly with Griffin's ability to throw the ball accurately on the run.

Morgan wasn't a cheap signing, but he didn't break the bank for the Redskins, who now have the burden of dealing with $18 million of lost salary-cap room in each of the next two years. Washington reportedly gave him a five-year deal that can void to two years, with those two seasons worth up to $12 million, including $7.5 million guaranteed.

If the Redskins can add Royal to the roster, the homecoming themes will be everywhere. Not only did he, too, star at Virginia Tech, playing alongside Morgan, but Royal also grew up in Northern Virginia and was drafted in 2008's second round (42nd overall) by Shanahan, in his final draft with the Broncos. As a rookie in Shanahan's offense, Royal was a revelation, catching 91 passes for 980 yards and five touchdowns (the catches were second-most ever by an NFL rookie).

He never again approached those levels, but perhaps some of the blame should be shared by recent Broncos coaches Josh McDaniels and John Fox, who didn't seem to know how to use Royal as effectively as Shanahan did. Royal, who's also an effective punt returner (16.2 yards per return in 2011), has reportedly been offered $12 million over two years. He would give Washington real depth in terms of its pass-catching, especially when you factor in the playmaking weapon that emerging tight end Fred Davis has become.

Time will tell if Tuesday's free agency splurge in Washington was successful and helps Shanahan's Redskins finally improve in the tightly clumped NFC East. But Washington didn't go for the big names and the screaming headlines this time, winding up with a collection of overpaid stars who have already played their best ball elsewhere. They focused on young and still hungry receivers who have room to grow, and they have a prized rookie quarterback on the way who probably can't wait to throw them the ball and learn their games.

Throw in the re-signing of useful defensive lineman Adam Carriker, who had 5.5 sacks last season, and it was a pretty good opening step for Washington's 2012 roster on Tuesday.

This wasn't the same old reckless Redskins routine of so many Marches of the past. Washington had a plan to improve its punchless offense this offseason, and so far, in the span of about four days, the future on that front looks considerably different and noticeably brighter. I like what the Redskins are building, and I get where they're trying to go. It all makes sense to me, and I can't remember ever saying that before about a busy first day of free agency in Washington.

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