During his rounds on radio row Wednesday in Phoenix ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl, Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera publicly acknowledged what had become the plan over the last month: Sam Howell will get every chance to be the team’s starting quarterback next season.
But in his remarks, Rivera added an important caveat: The 22-year-old will have to win the job through competition. And in that lens, what Washington will do over the next few months figures to be much more informative in showing how much the team actually does — or doesn’t — believe in Howell.
Rivera told multiple outlets that the Commanders don’t plan to chase a high-profile quarterback this offseason, opting to take the opposite approach of last year when the team traded for veteran Carson Wentz.
“We’re not looking for a guy we have to spend a lot of capital on,” Rivera told NBC’s “PFT Live.” “We’re looking for a guy who is going to come in and compete first and foremost.”
The NFL’s quarterback carousel is expected to be just as frantic as a year ago as teams such as the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers explore adding a veteran. Big-ticket names that will be available include Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo, while others like Aaron Rodgers may also be an option depending on how the trade market develops.
Washington will sit out the rush to find a splashy signal-caller, Rivera said. If they do add in free agency, it could be a veteran that could push Howell but also be accepting of a backup role if he loses a competition.
“We want to find the right situation, a guy that can come in and be that supporting guy that can really help him grow and become the guy that gives you an opportunity to win football games,” Rivera said.
There are varying levels of that type of player, however.
Two years ago, Rivera stressed there was a competition between journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and Taylor Heinicke — though it was clear throughout the offseason that Fitzpatrick was going to be Washington’s Week 1 starter. Heinicke, in a twist, ended up starting for 15 games of that season after Fitzpatrick went down with a season-ending hip injury in the opener.
Heinicke, meanwhile, will be a free agent, and so if the Commanders are interested in having the 29-year-old be the one to push Howell, they’ll have to sign the quarterback to a new contract first.
Other veteran backups set to become free agents include Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert, Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater. All have starting experience — Dalton started 14 games in 2022 — but have reached the stage of their careers in which they’ve spent considerable time in a reserve role. Bridgewater also holds a connection to Washington’s regime as executive Marty Hurney signed the quarterback in his final year with the Carolina Panthers in 2020.
If the Commanders wanted to bring in veteran competition for Howell that was younger than that group then perhaps someone such as Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold would make sense. Those two are each under 30 and are former first-round draft picks. But are they at the stage of their careers in which they could mentor Howell if losing out on a starting job? Would they be interested in Washington?
Mayfield, for instance, told reporters he had “no doubt” he can still be a starter in the NFL after starting the last four games of the year with the Los Angeles Rams. Darnold has slightly more experience as a backup but started the last six games for Carolina in 2022.
In any event, the Commanders are set to give Howell — a 2022 fifth-rounder who impressed in the team’s season finale against the Dallas Cowboys — a shot at winning the starting job.
But who Washington brings in may very well determine how serious of a competition Howell will face.
“He’s going to have to earn it to keep (it),” Rivera told The Associated Press, “that’s for darn sure.”