McKissic’s exit comes as a bit of a surprise. For months, he and the team publicly expressed interest in keeping him in Washington, creating the expectation that talks would lead to an agreement.
At the NFL combine this month, General Manager Martin Mayhew said he planned to meet with representatives for some of the team’s free agents, including McKissic’s and McCain’s, to share the Commanders’ hope of retaining them while cautioning that the team was not yet in a position to make an offer. Mayhew indicated that the team needed to address its quarterback issue first before the rest of the dominoes could fall.
“When the negotiation period begins in a week or so, they’ll have the opportunity to go out and talk to other teams and we want them to keep us informed as to where they are contractually and what kind of offers they’re looking at,” Mayhew told reporters. “That’s what our purpose here is, to express that we want those guys back. There’s no offers going back and forth, but they know of our interests and know how important those guys are to us.”
An undrafted wide receiver out of Arkansas State, McKissic signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 2016, then jumped to the Seattle Seahawks, where he converted to running back. After a stint with the Detroit Lions, he signed with Washington as a lesser-known addition to the offense.
Yet he quickly developed into a coveted part of Washington’s offense as a third-down back whose versatility in the running and passing games made him essentially an any-down back. Coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner praised his production on the field and highlighted his leadership off it as the veteran in a young group of backs that includes Antonio Gibson and Jaret Patterson.
In 2020, his first year with Washington, McKissic recorded multiple career highs while totaling 85 rushes for 365 yards and a touchdown to go with 80 catches for 589 yards and two scores. Only two other backs — the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Austin Ekeler — had more catches (123), receiving yards (986) and first-down receptions (47) than McKissic the past two seasons.
“J.D. McKissic is a big part of what we do,” Rivera said last season. “And he’s a young man that is showing that, when he gets a chance to touch the ball, he could make something happen.”
McKissic and Gibson gave Washington a rushing tandem that spurred the team’s four-game winning streak last season. But after scoring a pair of touchdowns to lead Washington to a win over the Seahawks in Week 12, McKissic suffered a head injury that ended his season.
“That was a big loss when he got hurt,” Turner said in January. “He’s so versatile, and he gets yards in both the rushing and receiving game. He provides leadership to the group, and he’s an energy guy. I mean, we had guys step up as far as that aspect of it, the leadership and the energy, but just on the field, he is a security blanket for the quarterback.”
Keeping both McKissic and McCain was the Commanders’ hope. But they devoted much of their salary cap space to Wentz while McKissic discovered a healthy market.
McCain’s deal ensures Washington’s secondary remains mostly intact and provides some continuity on a team that is still in the midst of a rebuild.
He arrived in Washington last season after spending his previous six seasons with the Miami Dolphins. In 16 starts, he notched a team-high four interceptions, including two in the season finale against the New York Giants.
Washington’s secondary was fraught with communication errors and coverage busts to open the season but found its footing later in the year. Washington relied more heavily on its “big nickel” package that featured its top three safeties — McCain, Landon Collins and Kam Curl — on the field together. The group played its best down the stretch, when Washington won those four straight games before injuries and a coronavirus outbreak depleted its roster.
“We know Kam is a depth safety,” Rivera explained in November. “We know Bobby is a good center fielder and communicator with those guys out there. And we know Landon’s an aggressive, at-the-point-of-attack player. So we can use all three of their skill sets.”
The Commanders are expected to release Collins, but McCain and Curl return alongside cornerbacks Kendall Fuller, William Jackson III and Benjamin St-Juste, who could get more playing time in his second year.
Contracts for McCain and McKissic cannot be signed before 4 p.m. Wednesday, when the new league year begins. Washington now has a quarterback and is settled with its free safety, but it’s only beginning to reshape its roster.
It could turn to the draft to help fill McKissic’s void. But it also needs a starting right guard following the departure of Brandon Scherff, desperately needs a middle linebacker, could use another wide receiver and tight end and would benefit from depth across the board.