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Assessing Washington's Free Agent Signings

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Cornerback Ronald Darby breaks up a pass in the end zone during the Washington Football Team's game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 22, 2020. (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)

Ron Rivera's free agency approach was simple: fill needs while fostering as much competition as possible. As the Washington Football team's new head coach, Rivera needed to see what he had before determining the next steps to build a sustainable, winning culture.

Rivera brought back established starting cornerback Kendall Fuller, but aside from him, Washington's free agent class was filled with lesser-known players on short-term deals. If they excelled, they could re-sign with Washington. If not, the team could easily move on.

Eleven weeks into the season, many of these players have worked out. Of the 13 players signed in the beginning of free agency, only safety Sean Davis, wide receiver Cody Latimer, tight end Richard Rodgers and offensive lineman Jeremy Vujnovich are no longer with the franchise. Seven of the nine others have started at least two games, while Fuller, running back J.D. McKissic, linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis and tight end Logan Thomas are having the best seasons of their careers.

Here's a breakdown of how each free agent signing has performed so far in 2020:

(NOTE: Quarterback Kyle Allen is not included in this story because Washington acquired him via trade.)

RB Peyton Barber

2020 stats: 48 carries, 116 yards (2.4 yards per attempt), 2 touchdowns

Peyton Barber has carved out a role as Washington's short-yardage running back this season, which is partly why he is only averaging 2.2 yards per attempt. The team has also relied on Barber when playing with a lead (35 of his 48 carries came in wins over the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals).

"All three backs played really well," offensive coordinator Scott Turner said after Washington's win over the Cowboys. "We talked about Antonio, we talked about J.D. with seven yards a carry, but Peyton Barber had 10 carries for 38 yards and those were hard yards. Those were, 'Hey, we're running the ball for sure,' and he's still able to move it. So, I was happy with all those guys and the way we played."

CB Ronald Darby

2020 stats: 41 tackles (31 solo), 7 pass breakups, fumble recovery

Ronald Darby has been a Day 1 starter and the only member of the secondary to start every game this season, which is significant considering he missed a combined 20 games the previous three seasons in Philadelphia. Not only has Darby been reliable, but he has thrived opposite Kendall Fuller. Coming off a career-high four pass breakups against the Bengals, Darby is now the sixth-highest graded cornerback per Pro Football Focus. He is also tied for the team lead with seven pass breakups, tied for second in solo tackles and tied for fourth in total tackles.

"Darby's done a nice job for us," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "Consistency is what we're looking for. When he's playing consistently, he's a really strong player for us. We like his contributions for us. We're looking throughout our defense for more consistency, and that's how we're working at it."

LB Thomas Davis Sr.

2020 stats: 4 appearances, 3 tackles (3 solo), 1 pass breakup

Thomas Davis Sr. is the NFL's active leader in career tackles (1,212), and he is coming off a 112-tackle season with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2019. But so far in Washington, the 37-year-old linebacker has made minimal on-field contributions. Davis dealt with injuries at the beginning of the season, but he has been a healthy scratch for four of the past five games. Rivera brought in Davis to help establish his culture in Washington -- Thomas played under him for eight seasons with the Panthers -- but it appeared the three-time Pro Bowler would at least be a role player in Del Rio's defense. That has not been the case, but he has still made a significant impact on the young linebackers.

"Shoot, he's got incredible insight and tips; you talk about street credibility with the guys," linebackers coach Steve Russ said. "He brings the juice every day. He's got a deal where people have to beat him out to the ball every day in practice before we start that segment of plays. It's amazing. Guys are flying off the field trying to get to the ball when we're going to start the next period. He's racing guys there. You talk about incredible way of starting a period out with that kind of energy and that type of intensity. It also keeps him ready. He's been phenomenal. I've said it before, he's just such an amazing leader. He's been bringing that every day. I've been very proud of him."

CB Kendall Fuller

2020 stats: 24 tackles (19 solo), 7 pass breakups, 4 interceptions

Kendall Fuller was the crown jewel of this free agent class, and he has performed even better than expected in his second stint in the nation's capital. Fuller, a third-round pick of Washington in 2016, is currently tied for third in the league with four interceptions despite missing two games because of injury.

"It helps us out a lot," Darby said about having Fuller in the secondary. "He's a real smart player, works hard during the week, studying -- there's a reason why he's ranked the way he is."

T Cornelius Lucas

2020 stats: 9 appearances (three starts)

Cornelius Lucas could not beat out Geron Christian Sr. in training camp, but he has thrived in Christian's injury absence. In his first two starts, Lucas did not allow a sack, pressure, hurry or quarterback hit, according to PFF. He also did not committed a penalty. Lucas missed the Bengals' game with an ankle injury, but there is a chance he returns against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day.

"For him, it's being in that playbook and being prepared," assistant offensive line coach Travelle Wharton said about Lucas before the Giants' game. "He's been preparing. He takes great notes. He was ready for the opportunity whenever it happened. Unfortunately, it happened to Geron, but for him to step in and do a great job is a testament to him of working hard and being patient."

RB J.D. McKissic

2020 stats: 49 carries, 217 yards (4.4 yards per attempt), 1 touchdown; 44 receptions, 317 yards (7.1 yards per reception) 248 receiving yards

Turner likes versatility in his running backs, and J.D. McKissic has certainly fit that description in the first half of the season. McKissic has only scored one touchdown, but he has helped Washington earn 32 first downs and averages 5.7 per touch. The fifth-year pro has already set career highs in rushes, rushing yards, receptions and receiving yards.

"You see it as a receiver, you see it as a runner -- he's a quality back," Rivera said. "I think the thing that he's showing is he can be a first-, second- and third-down guy. Do you want him touching the ball 30 times a game? Probably not if you don't want him to take that type of pounding. But you want the ball in his hands as much as possible. I do think he is a quality football player."

LB Kevin Pierre-Louis

2020 stats: 10 starts, 52 tackles (32 solo), 2 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble

Washington's coaches insisted that Kevin Pierre-Louis could be a key piece to the defense when the team signed him in March. He has lived up to those expectations with career-highs in starts (10) and tackles (52). Serving primarily as an outside linebacker, Pierre-Louis has continued to improve, according to Russ, and has grown into a consistent starter.

"The one thing I see from KPL is improvement, and that's what we want to see," Russ said. "We want to see guys that continue to improve, continue to get comfortable being out there in our system...with the guys that he's out there playing with and just turn it loose. Turn it loose, go out there and have fun, play hard and good things will happen. That's where I think he's headed, and I'm going to be excited to see what he can turn into and continue to get better."

G Wes Schweitzer

2020 stats: 10 appearances, 7 starts

After an injury prevented Wes Schweitzer from competing for a starting job during training camp, he filled in for an injured Brandon Scherff earlier this season and has been the starting left guard since Week 7. In 576 pass blocking snaps, he has only allowed one sack and four quarterback hits. His best performance came Sunday against the Bengals when PFF gave him an overall grade of 93.7, the highest among all guards.

"I'm a team player, and I just do whatever is asked of me," Schweitzer said prior to starting against the Cleveland Browns in Week 3. "I have 38 starts at right guard and left guard. Last year, I had to start at right guard and switch mid-game to left guard, and I've done it the other way, too. ...This is my fifth year, and I'm ready to play wherever they ask me to."

TE Logan Thomas

2020 stats: 30 receptions, 308 yards, 3 touchdowns

Rivera believes there are flashes of Greg Olsen, who was his starting tight end with the Carolina Panthers, in Logan Thomas, and there have been moments where the former Virginia Tech quarterback has exhibited that talent. Through 11 weeks, he is tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns and third in receiving yards.

Some of his best games have come recently; he had three receptions for 42 yards and a touchdown in the Week 6, followed by four catches for 60 yards and a touchdown a week later and four catches for 66 yards in Detroit in Week 10. There have been moments -- like Weeks 4 and 5 when he had 12 combined yards -- when he has struggled, but Rivera pointed out that Thomas is still learning the position and has the talent to be a starting tight end.

"As he learns our offense and puts that into his own mental frame, as he goes through his route progressions and things like that, he can understand what he has to do," Rivera said. "Because of that and being a smarter player, he knows who to run away from. He knows where his leverage is coming from. So, the more and more comfortable he gets, the smarter he is, I think the better he'll play."

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