During a news conference, Rivera listed all of the upgrades his team had made and called Brissett “a backup quarterback coming off of one of his best years.” Then he added, “I shouldn’t say backup but a guy that’s going to compete to play for us.”
Over the past four months, Washington has addressed the main issues that torpedoed last season. It hired a new offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, and remade the offensive line with more youth. It maintained a key member of the defensive line by retaining Daron Payne on a four-year deal, motivated a disappointing part of it by declining Chase Young’s fifth-year option and addressed a lack of turnovers by using its first-round pick on ball-hawking cornerback Emmanuel Forbes Jr.
Rivera seems to have confronted every major weakness, pressed every big button that could help his team win as many games as possible in 2023, which will be critical to keeping his job under potential new ownership. But did he approach this offseason with greater urgency?
“I would say no,” Rivera said. “We had a plan coming out of the season. We mapped it out with the current ownership. We stuck to that plan, [went] into free agency and [came] out of it with the depth and potential starters that we really like. … You look at those different things that we’ve done, and you feel positive.”
Commanders draft class: What each player brings to the roster
In the draft, Washington prioritized defensive backs and offensive linemen. Its top four picks were Forbes, explosive nickelback/safety Quan Martin, smart center Ricky Stromberg and light but athletic guard/tackle Braeden Daniels. Like many picks from the past two years, they have backgrounds that suggest they can be immediate contributors.
“The first four picks were exactly what we talked about doing,” Rivera said, joking that if defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio were in the room, he “would be going on and on and on about the positivity coming from the defense for what we did.”
There are still plenty of questions. Howell, with his one game of NFL experience, is the most glaring. The offensive line additions may be more quantity than quality. Middle linebacker Cody Barton has just one year of starting experience, and Washington replaced two of its top position coaches, Chris Harris (defensive backs) and John Matsko (offensive line), with their assistants, Brent Vieselmeyer and Travelle Wharton, who have never run their own rooms. The third-string quarterback — who has played at least one game in every season of Rivera’s tenure — is Jake Fromm, who has struggled in three career games.
“The draft is not a finish line. We’re not done,” General Manager Martin Mayhew said Saturday. “… [There’s] a lot of time before the season starts, and we’re going to keep trying to make our roster better.”
But will there be moves to make? In three years under Rivera, the only time Washington has made significant additions after the draft was in 2021, when it scooped up left tackle Charles Leno Jr. and defensive back Bobby McCain. There are still quality free agents available — including linebackers, offensive linemen and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater — and more could hit the market in the coming weeks.
NFL draft grades: Texans, Eagles, Seahawks are at the head of the class
Yet even if there were moves to make, how would Washington make them? It has just $2.4 million in salary cap space, per database website Over the Cap, and figures to need more than that just to sign its draft class. The Commanders could create space by cutting or restructuring the contracts of cornerback Kendall Fuller and center Chase Roullier. If designated as post-June 1 cuts, each would create roughly $3.5 million in dead salary cap but save the team more than $8 million.
“It’s way too early to discuss all that stuff,” Rivera said. “Guys are here. They’re working out; they’re working hard. This is how the draft has fallen for us.”
For now, Rivera has made most of his major moves. They can be boiled down to a few surnames: Bieniemy, Howell, Brissett, Payne, Young, Forbes. If the team can protect better, if it can take the ball away more often, then maybe it will have a chance to reach the threshold that a new owner will set for Rivera to keep his job. But for the next four months, the question will linger, unanswerable: Will it work?
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