But its biggest missing piece — and its biggest obstacle to a deeper playoff run — is a quarterback. Washington doesn’t know who its starter is for 2021 or beyond, and after losing out on the Matthew Stafford sweepstakes when the Detroit Lions agreed to trade him to the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday night, the team’s options appear limited. (According to a person with knowledge of the matter, Washington’s offer was “better” in 2021 for the Lions than the Rams’ offer, which included a 2021 third-round pick to go with two future first-round picks and quarterback Jared Goff.)
With a month and a half before the start of free agency and nearly three months before the draft, Washington has four basic paths it could follow to find its next quarterback.
Start with Deshaun Watson. The question is whether Washington is willing to match an unprecedented situation — a top-tier quarterback available at 25 — with an unprecedented offer. If so, considering the Stafford deal, the Houston Texans could expect a return of at least four high draft picks and a player. It’s possible competition drives the price even higher, and it’s also possible Houston doesn’t trade him. General Manager Nick Caserio told reporters he has “zero interest” in moving on from Watson, who requested a trade after the Texans offered to give him input into their organizational overhaul this offseason but then didn’t follow through.
Washington also has lower-tier trade options. It could target a young quarterback whose current team wants to start fresh (Sam Darnold, Drew Lock) or a veteran whose contract will expire (Marcus Mariota) or has no guaranteed money after 2021 (Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Ryan). The most attractive option could be Darnold if Washington believes the New York Jets’ dysfunction has prevented the former No. 3 overall pick from reaching his ceiling and if the Jets’ front office decides it wants to use the second overall pick this year on a top prospect such as Zach Wilson or Justin Fields.
Washington could also pursue Ryan, a steady veteran similar to Alex Smith without the injury concerns, or Mariota, a one-season stopgap. Washington’s new executive vice president of football/player personnel, Marty Hurney, was the Carolina Panthers general manager who signed Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million deal last year, and in a Jan. 22 news conference, new Carolina GM Scott Fitterer didn’t commit to Bridgewater.
If the Las Vegas Raiders or San Francisco 49ers decide to trade Carr or Garoppolo, Washington must consider whether it believes either player meets the minimum threshold to win a Super Bowl. This question has dogged Garoppolo since last season, when the 49ers lost Super Bowl LIV with an elite play caller, the NFL’s second-best defense and an offense predicated on a superb running game that gave the quarterback quick throws off play-action.
Sign a veteran free agent
This thin pool will be headlined by Dak Prescott — if the Dallas Cowboys don’t retain him with a contract extension or the franchise tag (again). On the open market, Prescott, 27, would probably be paid in the mid-$30 million per year range despite the uncertainty of his return from a severe ankle injury. This is a sizable portion of the salary cap to devote to one player, about 15 or 20 percent, but before his season-ending injury in Week 5, Prescott proved he was one of the league’s better quarterbacks, averaging a record 371.2 passing yards per game.
The second tier of free agents fit into one of two categories. There are the former starters who were unseated recently (Jameis Winston, Jacoby Brissett, Tyrod Taylor), and the early 30s stopgaps who turned in uneven seasons (Cam Newton, Andy Dalton). Winston is perhaps the most intriguing option; the 27-year-old spent this past year learning from Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints. But after Brees retires and the quarterback carousel continues to spin, the Saints could opt to retain Winston.
The wild card is Newton. The No. 1 overall pick in 2011 was the first player Rivera drafted with Carolina, and the two seem to have a good relationship. But this past year in New England, the 31-year-old Newton looked like a limited version of his former MVP self following shoulder, knee and foot injuries. He completed 65.8 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions while rushing for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns. If anyone knows whether Newton can build back close to what he once was or whether he is truly on the downslope of his career, it should be Rivera.
The downside of Washington’s playoff run this past season was the loss of a top-10 draft pick. The team fell to No. 19 when it defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 17 and clinched the NFC East title. And now it faces longer odds to find an immediate starter in the draft.
Of the 19 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2015, only nine have winning records as starters, and of those, seven were selected in the top 10. To narrow the pool further, only seven first-round quarterbacks in that span have won a playoff game and none of them did it as a rookie. Even Patrick Mahomes, the reigning NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP, sat for nearly the entirety of his rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017.
This year is further complicated for all teams because of the coronavirus, which has limited face time between prospects and NFL teams, and prompted some players to opt out of the 2020 college football season. But the projected top-five quarterbacks, at least for now, are widely regarded as Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, BYU’s Wilson, Ohio State’s Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones.
Lawrence appears to be the runaway favorite at No. 1 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, but it’s possible all five quarterbacks are selected in the top 15. Washington could trade up, but the cost of doing so has typically been steep — and steeper the higher a team tries to climb. And at a time when Washington has many other roster holes it needs to fill, giving up draft capital may not be in its best interest.
The other option: Washington could take a flier on a late-round quarterback or even a Day 2 prospect with the intent of letting him develop for a season, if not longer. Perhaps Florida’s 6-foot-5 pocket passer, Kyle Trask, would be a fit.
Smith, who will be 37 at the start of next season and said in January he would “take a few weeks” to decide his future, is Washington’s only quarterback under contract for 2021. He has two years left on his deal with nonguaranteed salaries of $18.75 million and $20.75 million, and respective cap charges of $24.4 million and $26.4 million. But if anything was gleaned from the Stafford trade, it’s that the salary cap can be easily manipulated.
Washington is also likely to bring back Kyle Allen, who is recovering from ankle surgery. He will be an exclusive rights free agent, making it almost a formality that he will be back on a minimal $850,000 salary. And while Taylor Heinicke will be a restricted free agent, Washington might be able to retain him on a right-of-first-refusal tender projected by overthecap.com to be worth $2.13 million.
Keeping all three would kick the quarterback question to 2022, and it would pose the risk of losing a year with Washington’s dominant defensive line if the offense lags. Defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen will both be due for new contracts that year. But Smith, Allen and Heinicke know offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s system, know the coaching staff, are collectively inexpensive and would allow Washington to retain draft capital it might otherwise use in a trade to fill holes elsewhere on the roster.
The feasibility of this option, however, will be decided by Smith. He returned from the compound leg fracture he suffered in 2018 to lead Washington back to the postseason, but he missed three games, including the team’s first-round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, because of a reported bone bruise in that same leg. If he retires, Washington will need to add someone — and probably a veteran — to the quarterbacks room. If Smith chooses to keep going, the question then is twofold: Can his body hold up, and does Washington’s coaching staff believe he can be mobile and efficient in the offense?