Robert Griffin III trade provides lessons Redskins must heed in 2019

The Washington Redskins needed a quarterback and aggressively moved up to land one. For one season, it worked: Robert Griffin III was one of the most exciting players in the game. But it’s also a scenario the Redskins shouldn't repeat this spring.

They can’t afford to give up that much capital when trying to find a quarterback, mainly because of another similarity to 2012: the lack of cap space.

In 2012, less than a week after acquiring the second overall pick in the draft, Washington was hit with a $36 million cap penalty, spread over two seasons, for how they handled the uncapped year in 2011. That, coupled with the loss of two future first-round picks in the deal, set the franchise back for years -- as did Griffin’s eventual knee injuries, among other issues.

Washington also sent a second-round pick to the St. Louis Rams, along with the two future first-rounders.

“No way we could make the trade if we knew we’d get the cap hit,” said Mike Shanahan, who was the Redskins' head coach at the time. “Then you can’t upgrade your team after we had just won the East.”

Indeed, after winning the NFC East in 2012, the Redskins had little money to try to improve. They also lost a valuable, do-it-all performer and pivotal locker room guy in linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who received $3 million more to play with the Arizona Cardinals.

“I was so pissed. I was ready to resign on the spot,” Shanahan said. “That’s what people don’t understand ... how hard it is when you pay a quarterback or go in that direction and lose draft choices or money. It sets you back.”

That brings us to 2019. With Alex Smith’s long-term future in doubt after a compound fracture to his right leg, the Redskins know they must find another quarterback. But Smith's cap hit of $20.2 million makes it difficult to sign one in free agency, even a mid-tier one. Keep in mind, the Redskins can’t cut Smith without a severe penalty until after the 2020 season.

The cap space they do have right now -- about $20 million -- must go to finding help at other spots. The draft remains the most likely option, unless the Redskins free up a lot more space. Even then, it’s hard to see them investing that much in one position.

Now, there is a difference in 2019 from the RG III trade. Then, there was unanimity on the two best quarterbacks in the draft: Andrew Luck and Griffin. There was no way the Indianapolis Colts were going to move out of the No. 1 pick, so anyone trading up for a passer needed to get the second pick from St. Louis. There was competition, and the Redskins were aggressive. Griffin was worthy of being drafted second overall, but had they known the cap penalty that awaited them, it would have changed their strategy.

The Redskins can’t afford to make that sort of move again. Because of their cap situation, their best way to improve the next few years is through the draft. They should have nine picks this spring -- starting with the 15th overall -- once the compensatory selections are announced. They do have some flexibility with extra picks, so if they wanted to move up a few spots, they could. It’s just not a likely scenario at this point. They will draft a quarterback at some point; they just can’t force it, nor can they be as aggressive as they were in 2012.

It helps Washington that there’s no consensus on the quarterbacks in this class. That would limit the cost of moving to a certain draft spot, especially if a player they like gets past the seventh pick, which belongs to the QB-needy Jacksonville Jaguars. But that leads to another question: Are any of these quarterbacks worth giving up that much capital to select? If the Redskins wanted, say, Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins, they might need to move ahead of the New York Giants, who draft sixth.

Last year, the Buffalo Bills traded the 12th pick plus two second-round choices to move up five spots for quarterback Josh Allen. Arizona traded the 15th pick plus third- and fifth-round choices to the Oakland Raiders for the 10th overall pick, where the Cardinals took Josh Rosen. In 2017, Kansas City traded a third-round pick plus a future first-round selection to move from No. 27 to No. 10, where the Chiefs took Patrick Mahomes.

Perhaps the Redskins would be wiser to secure more draft capital in 2020, when the quarterback class is expected to be stronger, giving them more ammunition to move up regardless of their 2019 record.

But it’s really hard to imagine the Redskins being that aggressive this spring. This isn't the time.