Ron Rivera held a media session with local reporters this week. In that session, he talked about Washington’s quarterback situation, saying that Ryan Fitzpatrick, the free agent with 16 years’ experience signed from the Miami Dolphins last month, would enter training camp at the top of the depth chart, but that there would be a competition.
“[Ryan Fitzpatrick] is gonna come in as the number one, but there will be a competition,” said Rivera. “We want to play the best football player, obviously, that gives us the best opportunity to win. We feel very comfortable and very confident in the guys that we have.”
Washington has three other quarterbacks under contract, but none are proven NFL starters. Rivera stressed, though, that he believes that competition creates the opportunity for players to “put it all on the line”.
One player that did just that in 2020 was Taylor Heinicke, who rose to prominence, not just locally in the DMV area, but with all NFL fans, with his incredible performance in the wildcard game against the eventual super bowl winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January. Heinicke had been completely out of football for over a year when Washington’s offensive coordinator, Scott Turner, invited him to sign with the Washington Football Team as their “COVID quarterback” in early December last year. He would be part of the team, Turner told Heinicke, but would stay apart from the other quarterbacks in a “break glass in case of emergency” role if he was needed due to a COVID outbreak in the WB room.
It turned out that Heinicke did get a chance to play, but under very different circumstances than those described by Turner. Dwayne Haskins fell out of favor with Ron Rivera over the course of the 2020 season, and after a Week 16 loss to the Panthers and a subsequent social media incident, Coach Rivera made the decision to release Haskins.
The following week, with Alex Smith unable to finish the final game against the Eagles due to a leg injury, Heinicke was brought in for the final 9 minutes of the fourth quarter. He showed the ability to make dynamic plays and move the offense.
A week later, with Smith still not 100% healthy, Heinicke got the second start of his NFL career, and his first since 2018, in the playoffs against Tom Brady. Heinicke was again dynamic, throwing for 306 yards, rushing for another 46 and scoring two touchdowns – one passing and the other on an unbelievable scramble out of the pocket that ended with a 4-yard dive to the pylon with the ball extended in a spectacular highlight play that kept his team in the game.
Though Washington ultimately lost the game, Heinicke, who just a month earlier had been on his sofa studying for his final exams at Old Dominion University, entered Washington football lore with his gritty performance.
Kyle Allen also started four games last season. His chance came after Ron Rivera made the decision, four weeks into the season, to bench Haskins. Allen started four games (1-3) before his season was ended by a dislocated ankle against the Giants in Week 9. The coaches and front office thought enough of Allen to trade for him last off-season, so it isn’t clear whether he or Taylor Heinicke will enter camp as the #2 guy on the QB depth chart.
The lowest spot on the depth chart is clear; Steven Montez was with the team from the start of training camp last season, but the coaches signed Heinicke off the street and played him ahead of Montez. The former Colorado quarterback will be struggling to make the roster in 2021, though he is a likely candidate for another year on the practice squad.
Will the team select a young quarterback in the draft?
Washington sits at #19 in the draft as a result of their first-place finish in the NFC East last season. Rivera, in his media session, did not rule out the possibility of drafting another quarterback, but stopped well short of saying that the team would target a rookie signal caller. He promised, instead, that the team would go where the draft leads.
“I can’t tell you how things are gonna unfold once we get into the draft; we’re gonna react to what’s gonna happen in front of us,” said the head coach. “You know, picking where we’re picking, a lot of things can happen. We have targets; we have ideas, we have guys that we like, but that always changes just because of the fact that everybody has a choice, and so you just never know what’s gonna happen at that point.”
Options in the draft
While there’s no firm consensus on the top draft prospects at the quarterback position beyond Clemson’s standout Trevor Lawrence, who is widely expected to be drafted first-overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the broad expectation is that the next three quarterbacks off the board are likely to be Zach Wilson, Justin Fields and Trey Lance (not necessarily in that order). In a contrary view, media analyst Chris Simms has been vocal in expressing his belief that the 49ers will select Alabama QB Mac Jones with the #3 pick in the draft, which they acquired in a recent trade with the Miami Dolphins.
Most other analysts have Mack Jones outside the top-4, but ahead of players like Kyle Trask from Florida and Kellen Mond from Texas A&M. In fact, early mock drafts often had Washington picking Jones at #19, though the focus of most mock drafters has shifted to positions like offensive tackle, wide receiver, tight end or linebacker since Washington signed Ryan Fitzpatrick in mid-March.
Moving up high enough in the draft to select one of the first four quarterbacks taken would require a ton of draft capital, and seems unlikely given coach Rivera’s recent comments about having enough draft capital and cap space to build a consistent winner. It seems more likely that, if the team is going to select a quarterback at all in this draft, it would happen in the second or third round.
The “quarterback of the future”
Asked on Thursday about drafting the “quarterback of the future”, head coach Ron Rivera had some interesting comments. He said that he didn’t feel any pressure to draft a quarterback at the end of this month.
“If you put all the other pieces into place, when that guy does show up, when that guy is in the right position, you can grab him. I went through it the other way in my first stint as a head coach in Carolina. We drafted the quarterback of the future [Cam Newton] in the first round, and he was – lo and behold – the immediate future. After the first preseason game, I made him the permanent starter.
“At that point, we had not put all the other pieces around [him], and we finally got them all together in 2015.
“So, I’ve always thought, ‘Wow, if you could do it the other way, where you put all the pieces around and then go out and get your quarterback – man, that might be a pretty good situation, too.’”
This isn’t the first time the head coach has made comments like this. He seems to be strongly signaling that he’s very focused on using salary cap and draft picks wisely to build a complete team before making a bit move at the quarterback position, so it seems likely that Washington, absent any draft day surprises from other teams at QB, will enter training camp with the four signal callers they have on the roster today. Of course, with the draft just about 4 weeks away, it's "lying season" for coaches and GMs, so maybe Rivera's comments are a smokescreen. Still, he seems to be genuine in his desire to build the team and add the quarterback later, which also seems consistent with the signing of 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick as a one- or two-year bridge to the future.
Rivera: “I’ve seen a lot of teams that have had things in place and then drafted their quarterback the next year. This could be one of these situations where we put all the other pieces in place and, a year or two from now, the right guy’s there and we can make that move.”
There are a lot of moving parts with the draft and training camp still ahead, but the tea leaves seem to be pointing towards a season of Ryan Fitzpatrick backed up by either Heinicke or Allen as Rivera and the front office work towards rounding out the roster in search of a second consecutive NFC East division title.