INDIANAPOLIS — Sam Howell sat in the front row of the Washington Commanders’ team meeting room, sandwiched between Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson, to get his first glimpse of his future.
Sam Howell is the Commanders’ first-string QB — for now
“The kid is a dynamic football player,” Bieniemy told reporters last week. “He can make throws from different platforms. You can tell he has a baseball background. The thing that got me fired up was when he ran in on that touchdown, he flexed.”
From the outset of the offseason, the Commanders have maintained they have a plan at quarterback to possibly stop their turnover at the position and guide them into a new era of sorts, with Bieniemy as play caller.
Howell will be the team’s first-string quarterback going into training camp. The Commanders will add “competition” to the room with a veteran quarterback, but the job is essentially Howell’s to lose.
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“Sam will have every opportunity to win that starting job,” General Manager Martin Mayhew said at the NFL combine Wednesday. “[I] was very impressed with the way that he played and practiced last year. Obviously a very small sample — he only played in one game — but we got to see him the whole offseason. We got to see him all through training camp, every week in practice. He has the skills that it takes to be a starter in this league, in my opinion.”
Since 2020, when Washington named Ron Rivera its head coach, the team has churned through seven starting quarterbacks plucked from free agency, the draft and a trade. The Commanders viewed Howell a developmental player when they selected him in the fifth round of the 2022 draft, but the team’s abrupt exit from playoff contention gave him a lone start to close the season.
Though it was hardly a large enough sample size to project Howell’s future in the league, the Commanders are staring at a less-than-ideal reality: Howell is the only quarterback on their books for 2023. Washington recently cut Carson Wentz, and Taylor Heinicke will be a free agent in March.
Heinicke, the emergency quarterback turned starter, helped turn around a dismal start for the Commanders in 2022, but it came at a cost: Washington has the 16th pick in the first round of the upcoming draft, well below the slots where teams typically land top-tier quarterbacks. Although Mayhew didn’t rule out trading up, the Commanders have insinuated they see more value in trading back, if they trade out of their first-round spot at all.
“Frequently when you’re going up, you’re saying the rest of the league is wrong,” Mayhew said. “When you’re going back, you get more opportunities to get guys that can help you and make plays for you.”
Washington has so far shown little interest in taking on a hefty contract for a veteran starter in free agency (Derek Carr) or possibly in a trade (Aaron Rodgers). The Commanders tried both routes to no avail in recent years, signing Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2021 and trading for Wentz a year ago.
“There’s a lot that goes into making sure you’re acquiring a quarterback that fits what you want to do offensively, and we’re going to be better at that process this year,” Mayhew said.
Moving forward with Howell and a middle-tier veteran would keep the cost of the quarterbacks room manageable, affording Washington the cap space to add to the roster and re-sign key players, such as Daron Payne; on Tuesday, Washington used the franchise tag on Payne, with the intent of keeping him on a longer-term deal.
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Re-signing Heinicke could be a good choice, given his experience with the team and respect from those in the locker room. But he could want to test his options on the open market for a potential starting role.
Other candidates for Washington could include Baker Mayfield, Teddy Bridgewater and Marcus Mariota — players who could add experience and competition to the room.
“I think it’s important to have somebody with some experience on the field playing,” Mayhew said. “I think it’s also important to have somebody who can understand our scheme, who can learn our scheme, and has an ability to be another sort of coach on the sideline for [Howell]. A guy that can support him and probably a more mature guy that can be so sort of a sounding board for him. I think that’s what really helped Pat Mahomes playing behind Alex Smith out there. I think it probably helped Aaron Rodgers playing behind Brett Favre.”
That doesn’t preclude the Commanders taking an earnest look at all the quarterbacks in the upcoming draft, the projected top picks as well as those likely to go on Day 2.
Washington is changing schemes to implement Bieniemy’s version of the West Coast offense, and his arrival already has had a ripple effect. Bieniemy, who was also named assistant head coach, was given leeway to remake the offensive staff as he saw fit. The new scheme will also influence Washington’s quarterback decisions.
“We can find a quarterback to fit that,” Mayhew said. “We think that Sam can be that guy. … We’re going to add to that group, and we’ll see how it all plays out.”