National Football League
Commanders' fire sale jumpstarts rebuild in Washington
National Football League

Commanders' fire sale jumpstarts rebuild in Washington

Published Oct. 31, 2023 5:05 p.m. ET

Ron Rivera knew he needed to win this season to have any chance of keeping his job. He had his team just one game out of the last NFC playoff spot with nine games remaining, too. He believed they had a chance to make a run in the second half of the season.

Then Washington Commanders owner Josh Harris decided the smart move was to start blowing it all up now.

He's not necessarily wrong about that, but it was a jolting day nonetheless in Washington when the Commanders traded away both of their star defensive ends. They sent Montez Sweat to the Chicago Bears for a second-round pick and then Chase Young to the San Francisco 49ers for a third-round pick.

That's 11 ½ sacks out the door for two picks in the 2024 draft as the Commanders broke up their vaunted, but underperforming defensive line that was filled with four former first-round picks.


It was good business, though, considering neither Sweat nor Young were signed beyond the end of the season. And the return was terrific — especially for Young, who scared off several teams, according to multiple NFL sources, because of the 21 games he missed with a torn ACL the last two seasons. The Commanders now have five picks in the first two days of the draft next year — a first, two seconds and two thirds. Three of those picks are almost certain to be in the Top 50. The one they got from the Bears might end up at the top of the second round.

All of that is great for a rebuilding team, which the Commanders now definitely are. They may be in the thick of things in the NFC, but they had lost five of their last six games and were headed in the wrong direction. They seem to have found a franchise quarterback in Sam Howell, but their offensive line has been a disaster and their defense was suddenly falling apart and frustration was mounting. 

Worse, two weeks ago, after an ugly loss to the Giants, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen vented about "seven f—ing years of the same s—t". And Magic Johnson, one of Harris' billionaire partners, had been criticizing the team on Twitter, too.

Rivera, according to a team source, had a strong belief that despite all the turmoil, better days were ahead, that a berth in the expanded playoff field wasn't out of reach. But that source said Harris made the decision that building for the future mattered more.

It's just a future that increasingly seems like it won't include Rivera.

Rivera was probably on a hot seat already, but now he and general manager Martin Mayhew clearly have to be considered endangered given the way the season has gone and now that their team was stripped of two of their best players. Rivera is now 25-32-1 in his four seasons in Washington, which doesn't inspire confidence. And though he deserves credit for steadying the ship during Dan Snyder's tumultuous reign, that didn't happen on Harris' watch.

There is a feeling around the league that Harris was willing to give Rivera a chance, but is more likely to do one of two things: Either give a long-awaited shot to Commanders offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy if Howell and the offense surge, or try to make a huge splash on the coaching market. The problem with that is there aren't many big-name coaching candidates available, unless he took a risky dip into the college ranks for Jim Harbaugh or Lincoln Riley.

But that search is still a long way off. And he also needs someone to run the football operation, too — again, assuming that won't be the tag team of Rivera and Mayhew. And that should be an incredibly attractive job, not just because of Harris' deep pockets. Whomever he hires will have a lot to work with to fix the franchise. They'll have nine picks in the 2024 draft, including those five in the first three rounds. They have two stellar defensive tackles signed to long-term deals — Allen and Daron Payne — and an offense loaded with skill players who'll be back for at least next year, too.

49ers acquire DE Chase Young from Commanders

They also have what looks like a franchise quarterback in Howell who is only in the second year of his rookie contract. Unless Harris is crazy enough to try to make a big splash by signing or trading for a high-priced veteran quarterback — and most seem to believe he's not — that will give the new Commanders regime plenty of financial flexibility. They're already projected to have more than $90 million in salary cap room to spend.

And with none of it earmarked for a quarterback or either of their two unsigned defensive ends, plus all those high draft picks, they are in great position to put a better product together quickly. They could restock both their offensive line and their pass rush, re-sign safety Kam Curl and still have room to find a quality tight end.

In other words, more changes are coming. Big changes, possibly, too.

Would they have been better off with Sweat and Young for nine more games? In the short term, sure. That dynamic duo would surely have helped the Commanders win a few more games than they're likely to win now, especially once reality sets in inside the locker room that ownership is waving the white flag. 

But Harris is playing a longer game, which is the right way to go, even if it goes against the short-term interests of others. He knows it's smart to sacrifice the present for a better future, especially when the past has been pretty miserable and even the present wasn't looking all that good.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.


Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more