National Football League
Rookie Sam Howell takes his turn on Commanders' QB carousel. Who's next?
National Football League

Rookie Sam Howell takes his turn on Commanders' QB carousel. Who's next?

Published Jan. 4, 2023 5:01 p.m. ET

In his three years running the Washington Commanders, Ron Rivera has now had eight different starting quarterbacks. And the one who has started the most games for him — Taylor Heinicke, with 24 — is the one he's spent most of the past 12 months trying to replace.

"Quarterback" is, as Rivera said back in early October, the biggest reason for the organization's struggles. It is, as he said on Wednesday, the biggest problem they have to fix.

"It comes back to the one question that's looming over everybody, and that's the quarterback position," Rivera said. "I was kind of hoping that we had found a solution. And who knows? We may not. We may have.

"We'll find out on Sunday how we feel about it."


On Sunday, in an otherwise-meaningless season finale against the Dallas Cowboys, the Commanders (7-8-1) will start their third different quarterback of the season — rookie Sam Howell, whom they drafted out of North Carolina in the fifth round a little more than eight months ago. He replaces veteran Carson Wentz, whom Rivera thought was the "solution" when the Commanders traded for him last March. And Howell steps over Heinicke, who has won 12 of his 24 starts, but couldn't win Rivera's heart.

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Will Howell? The Commanders have been high on him since he arrived. And Rivera praised him for how much he has improved since the summer. The coach said he's "really intrigued" to see what Howell can do on Sunday, though he promised, "We're not going to judge everything on Sam based on just one game."

Maybe not, but it's still a huge opportunity because the Commanders will be heading into the offseason wondering who their starting quarterback will be next season for the sixth consecutive year. With a strong performance, Howell could at least guarantee himself a seat on the quarterback carousel when it starts spinning.

But there will be a lot of other options for the Commanders to consider as they try to again answer the question they have been unable to answer for far too many years. Here's a look at Washington's options.

The rookie

Right now, Howell might have the best chance of anyone on the Commanders roster to be the 2023 starter. The organization is excited about his potential. Back in the summer, one scout told FOX Sports that Howell was "one of the steals of the draft." And over the past few days, as Rivera asked players, coaches and others about Howell, they told the coach they were eager to see him on the field.

"They said he was ready for his opportunity," Rivera said. "That was a big part of the reason, just how people felt based on the things we saw."

It's still a leap of faith, though, because they've only seen him at practice and in the preseason finale when he was an impressive 24-of-35 for 280 yards and a touchdown, with eight carries for 62 yards against the Baltimore Ravens.

This is his first real test. And the stakes — for him — are huge.

More of the same

The Commanders didn't trade for just one year of Carson Wentz. They were hoping he'd stick around for a while. But that's over now. Rivera demoting him to third string for Sunday was surely a signal that the 30-year-old will be cut this offseason before the Commanders have to pay him a $6.2 million roster bonus. They know there are better ways to spend the $26.2 million he'd cost them against the '23 cap.

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As for Taylor Heinicke, he's a free agent, and considering he's been shunned by Rivera twice — last offseason and again last week — he probably wouldn't want to come back without some guarantees about a job. It's better to move on anyway. He's a fan favorite, but a limited player. He'll make a nice backup for somebody else.

Dream free agents

First things first: If Lamar Jackson becomes available, the Commanders — like any other quarterback-needy team — needs to jump in head-first. The cost would be enormous. He's reportedly already turned down a five-year, $250 million contract because he wants something fully guaranteed. He might get it, too, because the 25-year-old would be the best quarterback ever to hit free agency in his prime and there might be 15 teams pursuing him.

The Ravens will probably use the franchise tag on him, though.

If Tom Brady doesn't retire at age 45, he'll be a free agent and would bring instant credibility and probably a bunch of wins to any new team. But he can pick his spot, and it's hard to imagine he'd choose a dysfunctional team with a head coach on the hot seat. He's more likely to end up in Miami, or wherever Sean Payton lands as head coach.

Don't laugh, but one other quarterback would make this list if he hits free agency — Daniel Jones. The Giants intend to bring him back, so it's a moot point. But one reason the Giants drafted him at No. 6 in 2019, instead of with their other pick at 17, is because they were sure Washington wanted him at 15 (where the Commanders took Dwayne Haskins). Of course, that was an old Washington regime. But Jones did just have a breakout year.

Trade targets

The Raiders are clearly done with Derek Carr, and multiple NFL sources believe they'll try to trade him. But they have to do it quickly. Right now, there's no guaranteed money left on Carr's contract, but that changes three days after the Super Bowl, according to reports, when his $32.9 million salary for 2023 and $7.5 million of his 2024 salary become guaranteed.

The Raiders could — and probably would — release Carr to avoid those salary cap hits. Technically, they could trade him after that deadline, too, but then they'd risk being stuck with all that money on their books.

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The good news is since the 31-year-old Carr is so costly, the trade price won't be high. But the Commanders figure to be about $50 million under the salary cap without Wentz. Carr, who certainly comes with question marks, would cost about 64% of that.

Tier 2 free agents

There will be a lot of decent quarterbacks available in free agency, including a bunch of young ones who once were considered to be pretty good prospects. So if the Commanders can't get a quarterback they like in the draft and want a young-ish veteran to compete with Howell, they could do a lot worse than Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold, who are both in their mid-20s and were the first and third picks of the 2018 NFL draft.

An older, more expensive, but possibly more reliable option would be 31-year-old Jimmy Garoppolo, though he'll have some options if the 49ers don't bring him back. And then there's Geno Smith, the surprise breakout star of the season in Seattle. He's 32 and it's fair to worry he might have been a one-year wonder. The Seahawks will surely bring him back to try and find out.

After that, it's basically the backup brigade — players like Teddy BridgewaterJacoby Brissett, and Gardner Minshew. They're all decent quarterbacks and could be place-holders for Howell or a prospect from the draft, but they surely aren't long-term solutions to Washington's problem.

Draft roulette

The ideal solution for any quarterback problem is to draft the QB of the future (and enjoy the savings from a rookie contract). But it's a risk. Just ask the teams that passed on Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson in 2018 for Mayfield, Darnold and Josh Rosen.

Also, the Commanders will pick somewhere between 10th and 17th in the 2023 draft. It's early, but that almost certainly won't be high enough to grab Alabama's Bryce Young or Ohio State's C.J. Stroud. Could they be in position for Kentucky's Will Levis, Florida's Anthony Richardson or another quarterback who rises in the months before the draft? Maybe.

But at least five quarterback-needy teams are guaranteed to draft ahead of the Commanders unless there are trades — the TexansColtsFalcons, Raiders and Panthers. The Texans might have two picks before the Commanders choose. The Titans could pick ahead of them, too. Same for the Lions, who might want a quarterback for their future.

So getting a quarterback in the draft is far from a guarantee for the Commanders. They'd also have to wait until late April, obviously, to find out if they could get the one they want.

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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.


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