Commanders’ offseason grade: A big upgrade at QB filled with smaller moves

The rebuilding — or recalibration of the Washington Commanders, as new coach Dan Quinn calls it — was never going to be a small project. There was too much work that needed to be done on a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2016 and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2005.

What was most interesting about what new general manager Adam Peters and Quinn went about it, though, was that they underwent a major renovation with mostly small-ish moves. They were big players in free agency, but they avoided the big splash. They had more salary cap space to spend than any team in the NFL, but they didn’t blow it on bloated contracts.

Outside of their biggest move — drafting quarterback Jayden Daniels with the second overall pick — they made mostly medium moves to restock their roster in the short term. That gives them a chance to be competitive this season — or so they hope — while not being saddled with untenable contracts. The point is to not be terrible and give their young players a chance to grow.

Whether it works, and how quickly, all depends on how good their young players turn out to be. This was only the first step in a new direction for a franchise that has been basically lost for three decades, with just six playoff appearances in the last 31 years.

Here’s a look at what the Commanders did to “recalibrate” over the last five months:

What they did

There might not be enough room here to list everything they did because this was a very, very active offseason in Washington.

The biggest move, outside of hiring a new GM and coach, was drafting Daniels. They gave up on the promising, but flawed Sam Howell for a true, blue-chip prospect. Just how good Daniels can be, and how quickly he can get there, will set the tone for this franchise for at least the next 3-5 years.

To help him out, they started to fix an offensive line that was awful last season. They signed center Tyler Biadasz and guard Nick Allegretti. They also upgraded at running back by signing Austin Ekeler, who had 915 rushing yards and 107 catches for 722 yards with the Chargers back in 2022. And they brought in 33-year-old tight end Zach Ertz to fill a position that has been a black hole in recent years.

They also really retooled their defense, which was weak everywhere except at defensive tackle, where Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne still rule. After trading away Chase Young and Montez Sweat last season, they added Dorance Armstrong, Clelin Ferrell and Dante Fowler to provide the pass rush off the edge.

They added help behind them, too, with the addition of two linebackers — Frankie Luvu and 33-year-old veteran Bobby Wagner, who Quinn knew from their days together in Seattle. He could be the perfect leader for a relatively young defense.

And they added stop-gap secondary help with safety Jeremy Chinn and cornerback Michael Davis.

What they didn’t do

They didn’t finish their offensive line rebuilding project, which they might have needed to do to completely protect their young, franchise quarterback. They did not bring in a left tackle, leaving it to Cornelius Lucas. And the entire right side of last year’s disastrous line remains the same.

They also did not spend big, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective and how it works out. For example, instead of pursuing a top tight end, they brought the fading Ertz, who will be a stopgap for rookie Ben Sinnott, their second-round pick. And Lucas might just be holding the place for tackle Ben Coleman, who was taken in the third round.

Even all of the additions they made to their defense were basically second-tier free agents. They stayed away from all the big-ticket stars. Quinn is hoping to piece together a pass rush without an expensive, stud pass rusher. Or, to put it another way, he’s going to rely on Payne and Allen and hope the others can contribute in their roles.

What is Commanders QB Jayden Daniels’ NFL ceiling?

What is Commanders QB Jayden Daniels' NFL ceiling?

Biggest addition

Daniels is the key to everything for the Commanders. There’s just no understating the importance of a franchise quarterback. If he’s everything that most of the NFL expects him to be, they could be set for at least five years and maybe the next decade. If they are wrong about him, it could set the franchise back 3-5 years, if not more.

It’s why it’s a bit of a mystery that they didn’t do more to upgrade the offensive line. Nothing is more important to this franchise than Daniels’ development, and protecting him is a big part of that. If he’s good, the Commanders will be good. That will be their story for a while.

Biggest loss

Safety Kam Curl was a favorite of the old regime, and he seemed poised to strike it rich in free agency this offseason. Instead, he signed only a two-year, $9 million with the Los Angeles Rams that gave him $6 million in guaranteed money.

It’s somewhat surprising the Commanders couldn’t or wouldn’t pay that. The 25-year-old Curl is a strong, ascending player who could have been a big help to a secondary that’s in transition. They replaced him with Chinn, but the upside for Curl feels higher.

Biggest question heading into camp

Did they do enough to help out Jayden Daniels?

That’s really what it’s all about. How their franchise quarterback grows is the most important thing about this season. The good news is he inherits a pretty good receiving corps with Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson. They did lose Curtis Samuel to free agency, but they have high hopes for Luke McCaffrey, their third-round pick. And Ekeler should be a threat out of the backfield, and a nice part of a 1-2 punch with Brian Robinson.

But it’s unclear just how much Ertz has left at his age. And it’s really unclear if a Commanders line that gave up a ridiculous 65 sacks last season can really be better with only two new pieces. Daniels is a dangerous runner, so maybe that won’t matter as much. But overall, the quality of his supporting cast will matter a lot.

Austin Ekeler has high praise for Commanders rookie Jayden Daniels

Austin Ekeler has high praise for Commanders rookie Jayden Daniels

Offseason grade: B

On the surface, most of their free-agent additions are generally unimpressive. They are decent, solid players who are unspectacular. They did not go shopping for stars.

But they get a decent grade because their plan is sound. Only a foolish team would have gone on a spending spree in free agency in the hopes of becoming an immediate contender. That’s just not how it works in the NFL. The new Commanders regime inherited a bad team that didn’t have a strong base of young talent. They needed to build that, which they have tried to do through a very full draft class. The veterans they brought in were really just for support.

If Daniels is good, they might have enough to be a mediocre team — one that hangs around the fringes of the playoff chase until late in the season. But they know they are still a couple of years away from being a true contender. They are trying to get there by growing young talent. And they clearly know they can’t do that with money. It mostly takes time.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more

Source link