‘New energy’ at Commanders OTAs, but contract talks put on hold amid ownership change

ASHBURN — Dressed in uniform and wearing his helmet, Kam Curl watched team drills from behind the end zone as the Washington Commanders safety soaked in the “new energy” that he and so many of his teammates have raved about.

During the session, new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy could be heard barking at players. The defense, too, erupted in celebration after second-year safety Percy Butler picked off quarterback Sam Howell. And for one of the first spring sessions in which the offense and defense could actually practice against each other, there was an urgency to the pace of play. 

And yet, Curl — who is in the midst of an unsettled contract situation — stood back and watch. Just as he planned.

“I like being around my team,” Curl said. “That’s why I’m here.” 

Curl said Wednesday he is fully healthy and that sitting out team drills had nothing to do with the lack of a contract extension. But Curl’s coyness about the situation didn’t mask the fact that the 24-year-old is in the final year of his contract and appears to be taking a page from teammate Daron Payne’s playbook — the defensive tackle sat out a portion of team drills last offseason over the lack of contract talks. 

Contract uncertainty loomed over the team’s voluntary offseason practice Wednesday.

Chase Young missed the session entirely. As did Montez Sweat. Both pass-rushers are skipping the workouts as they’re in the final year of their contracts. 

Commanders coach Ron Rivera didn’t seem bothered by the absences, telling reporters that Young and Sweat were working on their own while noting the practices were voluntary. But at the same time, it doesn’t appear any of the team’s contract situations are going to be settled any time soon.

The Commanders’ impending ownership change has prevented the team from striking any new long-term deals, Rivera said.

“For the most part, everything’s on hold,” he said.

Billionaire Josh Harris — who has a deal to buy the Commanders for $6.05 billion from owner Dan Snyder — will likely have the final say over whether to pay players like Curl, Sweat and Young. But since Harris’ signed agreement hasn’t been approved by the NFL yet, Harris is not allowed to communicate with Rivera or any other Washington employees. 

This offseason, Rivera and Co. have managed to address big-ticket items. Notably, the Commanders re-signed Payne to a four-year, $90 million contract on the eve of free agency — a deal that got done a month before Snyder reached a tentative agreement to sell the franchise with Harris. 

Elsewhere, though, the Commanders’ brass have had to make decisions without the input of their soon-to-be boss. In late April, Washington declined Young’s fifth-year option, which would have guaranteed the pass rusher nearly $17.5 million for 2024. Rivera and Co. reached the decision after factoring in Young’s serious knee injury from 2021 and the defensive end’s lack of production over the last two seasons (1½ sacks in 12 games). 

Rivera said Wednesday that he’s texted and had conversations with Young, who the coach said “understands” the team’s decision.

“Guys that produce for us we want to keep them around,” Rivera said. “That’s been the message. I believe (Young) has adapted to it nicely. He’s working hard. I’ll be excited to see him when he has to be here.”

In the meantime, though, Young is elsewhere. He hasn’t publicly said he is skipping OTAs because of his contract, but the absence fits in with the oft-used strategy of players who “hold out” to try to create leverage and protect themselves from injury.

“I don’t know if it’s as much leverage, but I think some guys in contract situations, if you don’t have a contract or a solidified future, you could possibly come out here and get hurt and that could put your future in jeopardy,” said star wideout Terry McLaurin, who skipped offseason workouts last year before reaching a long-term contract in July. 

Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, who missed workouts in 2021 because he was angry about how extension talks had gone, said “football is a great game, but it’s a terrible business.” He said he understood why Young and Sweat weren’t there, adding it won’t be an issue if the two come back ready to go. 

The Commanders hold mandatory minicamp June 6-8, so the two would be subject to fines if they don’t show up. 

But those who were at practice Wednesday repeatedly noted the energy level. Allen said this year “just feels different.” And while optimism is high every spring, the defensive lineman acknowledged that part of that excitement could stem from the looming ownership change. 

Specifically, Allen said he’s noticed an uptick in energy from fans over Snyder’s pending exit. 

“I definitely do,” Allen said. “The fans, honestly, were more affected than I was. I know a lot of fans were unhappy with how things were run, so just to see the energy from the fans is exciting, man. This is a great city. 

“I know once we get things going and rolling this season is going to be on fire.”