- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The last time the Washington Commanders held the 16th overall pick, it was because of a trade that, in hindsight, worked out pretty well for Ron Rivera and Co.

By sending No. 11 to the New Orleans Saints last spring, the Commanders netted wide receiver Jahan Dotson (pick No. 16), running back Brian Robinson (98) and the 120th pick that was then traded for the picks that became quarterback Sam Howell (144) and tight end Cole Turner (149).

A year later, the Commanders coincidentally are slated to draft at No. 16 again — and they would be more than happy for a similar outcome, whether they find a player as impactful as Dotson or receive a haul like the one from New Orleans.

With Sunday’s Super Bowl capping another eventful season, get ready to gear up for the NFL draft. While the event doesn’t take place until late April, the league’s scouting combine in Indianapolis is just two weeks away. That provides a pivotal showcase for teams — and fans — to evaluate this year’s class.

Washington heads to the event with a slew of needs. The Commanders reportedly examined offensive linemen closely earlier this month at the Senior Bowl, and the line remains a top priority. But many mock drafts have Washington taking a cornerback — which makes sense, looking at the team’s roster.

Beyond the offensive line and the secondary, the team has needs at linebacker, tight end and quarterback.

Rivera will have an opportunity to plug many of those holes with an incoming rookie class that breaks down well for Commanders.  

“This is easily the best center (and IOL in general) class we’ve had in a while,” CBS Sports draft analyst Chris Trapasso tweeted last week, referring to the talent among the available interior offensive linemen.

“Over 120 names deep, the 2023 NFL Draft CB class has it all: Top-end talent, middle-range value, depth, small-school sleepers,” Pro Football Network’s Ian Cummings wrote on Twitter. “No one is worth overlooking.”

If Washington decides to prioritize a premium position at No. 16 — cornerbacks are often regarded as more valuable than starting centers — then there could be a few corners that could fit in well. According to Mock Draft Database’s consensus mock draft,  Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon (6 foot, 180 pounds) has been the most popular player mocked to the Commanders over the last week.

Other cornerbacks commonly floated in Washington’s range include Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr., South Carolina’s Cam Smith and Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez.

Despite allowing the fourth-fewest passing yards last season, the Commanders figure to be in the market for a No. 1-style cornerback because Kendall Fuller is entering the last year of his contract and Benjamin St-Juste, while physical and talented, hasn’t been able to consistently stay on the field. The team also traded corner William Jackson III last season to Pittsburgh.

In his most recent mock draft from Jan. 25, ESPN’s Mel Kiper projected five corners to be taken in the first round. But none of those players landed to the Commanders — who Kiper had taking Georgia tackle Broderick Jones.

“They have to improve along the offensive line,” Kiper wrote. “Jones is a 310-pound mauler who didn’t allow a single sack as the Bulldogs’ left tackle in 2022. I wouldn’t be shocked if he went in the top 10.”

Drafting a left tackle would be a slight surprise given that veteran Charles Leno Jr. has played mostly well since coming to Washington two years ago. But Leno did struggle in big moments last season — Giants rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux beat Leno around the edge for a game-changing strip-sack in a prime-time loss for Washington — and premium tackles are hard to find.

Washington is more likely, the prognosticators say, to look to patch up the interior. Rivera said Washington would look to solidify the center position after the group has been hit hard by injuries the last two years. The Commanders can save $4.7 million by cutting starter Chase Roullier, and the draft has intriguing talent like Michigan’s Olusegun Oluwatimi and Minnesota’s John Michael Schmitz.

The Commanders could use help at both guard spots, too. Last year’s move to bring in veterans Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner did not work out as intended. Turner is a free agent, while Norwell may also be a cap casualty.

As for quarterback, the Commanders seem set on giving Howell an opportunity to win the starting gig. Though there’s a chance Washington’s brass could fall for a prospect or take a flyer on a later-round developmental type, the team is likely out of the range to draft this year’s top signal-callers.

The top quarterbacks in this year’s class, considered to be much stronger than last year, include Alabama’s Bryce Young, Kentucky’s Will Levis, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Florida’s Anthony Richardson. Most mock drafts have them all selected before the Commanders pick at 16.

The Commanders are set to enter April’s draft with eight picks, with six of their original selections and two compensatory picks: 16 (first round), 47 (second round), 97 (third-round comp), 118 (fourth), 152 (fifth), 193 (sixth), 215 (sixth-round comp) and 235 (seventh).

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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