This is a crucial year for Rivera and Co. because, after a year of remodeling, it’s time to show the new pieces can deliver on their promise of a brighter future. These are the team’s four most difficult decisions headed into this year’s NFL draft.
How to find the future at quarterback
Rivera has said he does not feel pressure to identify a franchise quarterback this year, but if Washington wants to, it has no easy options. After being outbid for Matthew Stafford and not finding a long-term solution via free agency or a trade, Washington is left looking to the draft. The top three picks are expected to be quarterbacks, and though it is considered a deep class, Washington is likely out of range for the consensus top-five prospects at No. 19.
Rivera said Washington has quarterbacks it likes but will react to what happens ahead of it in the draft. If the team drafts a quarterback this year, there seem to be two options. The first is to trade up high enough to select the fourth or fifth prospect, which is likely to cost a lot of draft capital. The second option is to bet on the second tier by staying at No. 19 or waiting until the second round or later for quarterbacks such as Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond, Florida’s Kyle Trask or Stanford’s Davis Mills.
Passing on a quarterback altogether remains an option. Rivera said at a news conference last week that he believes the best route might end up being the reverse of what his team did in Carolina, when the Panthers drafted Cam Newton first overall and then built the roster around him.
“I’ve seen a lot of teams that have had things in place, then drafted their quarterback next year,” he said. “This could be one of those situations where we put all the other pieces in place and then a year or two from now the right guy is there and we can make that move. We’ll see. Again, you just never really know until you get there.”
How to balance the new front-office voices
Rivera spent the first stage of the offseason remodeling the front office, and now that he has the veteran executives he wanted — General Manager Martin Mayhew, executive vice president of football/player personnel Marty Hurney, senior director of player personnel Eric Stokes, director of pro personnel Chris Polian and director of college personnel Tim Gribble — he needs to find the most effective way to use them.
Rivera said some dynamics have come into focus. Hurney is a road GM who enjoys scouting; Mayhew is more of an “office guy” who prefers watching film. During free agency, Rivera noted Stokes provided constant updates on new contracts to help the team find positions of value. The coach’s task is keeping them all working as a team.
“Everybody’s on the same page,” Rivera said. “When we’ve gotten together with the top guys … it’s kind of neat because there’s a lot of experience in those rooms. Each one of those guys has over 20 years in this league. We got older, but I think we got a little more experience.”
When to address remaining positions of need
Washington still has several holes and thin spots on its roster, including at linebacker, safety, left tackle and tight end. The front office must choose whether to address them in the last waves of free agency or at the draft, though it seems unlikely the team would find more than depth on the open market. The only addition Washington made this late in free agency last year was cornerback Ronald Darby on April 1.
“What we’re going to do is take a step back, continue our prep for the draft,” Rivera said last week of the team’s free agency plans. “But we’re also going to look at who’s still out there. We’ve targeted a couple of positions that we still want to pay attention to and monitor.”
What to do ahead of next year’s roster problems
Roster-building is a game of whack-a-mole, so while Washington fills its needs for this year, it also must keep an eye on problems for next year. This includes the future of key players, including defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, tight end Logan Thomas, right guard Brandon Scherff and safety Landon Collins.
Allen and Thomas are on expiring contracts but at different stages of their careers. Allen is 26; Thomas will turn 30 in July. Washington must decide if it wants to sign them to longer-term deals before the season or wait and see afterward.
The next question is Scherff. The right guard will play on his second straight franchise tag unless he and the team work out a long-term deal by July 15, and Rivera said the sides hadn’t discussed an extension since he signed his tender a few weeks ago. If Washington believes it won’t be able to retain him next year, it will have an all-pro-caliber hole and could try to get ahead of the problem by acquiring an interior offensive lineman.
The last is Collins. Washington must decide whether to keep him at strong safety after he returns from the season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury he suffered in October. The emergence of rookie safety Kam Curl will force this issue because, while Curl could shift to free safety, he’s seen as better at strong. The team has leverage because Collins’s play hasn’t equaled his $16.9 million salary cap hit, and he’ll become cut-able next offseason when his contract runs out of guaranteed money.
The team has a need at linebacker following Kevin Pierre-Louis’s departure, and there has been some discussion in the media about the possibility of Collins switching to that position. But Collins recently said on Instagram, in response to a fan’s question, that he wouldn’t play linebacker. ESPN analyst Ryan Clark said Washington must decide whether its best lineup is Curl at free safety and Collins at strong, or Curl at strong and Collins at linebacker.
“Kam Curl has to play,” Clark said. “… So now it’s figuring out where Kam fits. Does Landon move to dime [linebacker] when they’re in sub package? Obviously, [Collins] can fit off the tight ends, can play the run, an extremely good blitzer and tackler. So now we can have Kam at the strong safety, Landon as the dime backer, a true [middle linebacker] calling defenses.”