“Our problems really didn’t start until when?” he asked reporters that day. “Until our quarterback got hurt.”
Two years later, Rivera is still searching for a solution at quarterback, but this time in Washington, where his team built a foundation in his first season with a strong defense, a few budding stars and a spot in the playoffs. For the first time in years, the Washington Football Team has hope of developing into a respectable team — a winning team — but only if Rivera and his newly built front office, with General Manager Martin Mayhew and executive vice president of football/player personnel Marty Hurney, can successfully revamp a roster that has many glaring holes.
Their priority is undoubtedly quarterback, a position that has featured nine starters over the past four seasons (playoffs included) and has no lead candidate for 2021.
Only one of Washington’s QBs from last year — Alex Smith — is under contract for next season. The 16-year veteran, who returned from a compound leg fracture to lead the team to the playoffs, has two years remaining on his deal, but it’s not a certainty he’ll return. Smith, who turns 37 in May, was beset by another injury — a bone bruise in his leg — that sidelined him late in the season, and he said he plans to “take a few weeks” to decide his future.
Washington might decide for him. Smith’s contract includes salary cap hits of $24.4 million and $26.4 million over the next two seasons. Should the team release or trade him, it would save $13.6 million in cap space; $10.8 million from his prorated signing bonus would count against Washington’s cap as dead money.
Meanwhile, Kyle Allen continues to recover from ankle surgery and will be an exclusive rights free agent, making his return all but a formality on an $850,000 salary. Taylor Heinicke could also return on a minimal salary; he will be a restricted free agent, and Rivera has said the team would like to keep him.
But, barring a training camp surprise, it seems neither is perceived as the long-term starter.
Washington needs a franchise quarterback, and it believes coordinator Scott Turner’s Air Coryell offense has proved it can succeed with drop-back pocket passers or mobile dual-threat players.
“Physical traits are one part of it, but they come in all shapes and sizes,” Turner said in November. “… You’ve got to be accurate, and you’ve got to make good decisions.”
To find its guy, Washington has three options: get a veteran who can be the starter for the foreseeable future; turn to a player on the roster or from outside who can tide the team over for a year or two while a young quarterback develops; or draft a quarterback and start him immediately.
The additions of Mayhew and Hurney give Washington direct ties to a pair of quarterbacks who could be options as experienced starters. The Detroit Lions are looking to move Matthew Stafford, their soon-to-be 33-year-old starter who was drafted in 2009, when Mayhew was the team’s GM. Stafford has two years and $43 million left on his contract — a reasonable cost for a possible franchise player — but could have plenty of suitors, which may give him leverage to seek an extension.
Speculation of Cam Newton landing in Washington has hovered over the team since Rivera was hired, and as Newton heads for free agency again, talk has resurfaced. Hurney was Carolina’s GM in 2011 and worked closely with Rivera to evaluate Newton ahead of the draft, and Newton knows Turner’s system well. But he’s coming off a down season in New England, and though he says he’s entering the offseason healthy for the first time in years, his durability may still be questioned.
Two other veterans could be costly, if they even become available. Deshaun Watson is reportedly unhappy in Houston after signing a new contract, and Dak Prescott is due a big second contract — or another franchise tag — from the Dallas Cowboys.
But the team’s needs extend well beyond quarterback.
Washington re-signed center Chase Roullier and has right tackle Morgan Moses returning, but right guard Brandon Scherff will be a free agent after playing on a $15.03 million franchise tag last season. Although he hasn’t played a full season since 2016 because of injuries, Scherff is coming off one of his finest years yet, with all-pro and Pro Bowl honors, and former sports agent Joel Corry believes he could command $15 million per year in average value on a long-term deal. A second franchise tag, with a 20 percent raise, would cost roughly $18 million.
“I’ve always said I want to stay where I got drafted,” Scherff said. “I’ve been here for six years, and I absolutely love it here. … We are building something here to absolutely make a run for it in the future.”
Washington also needs depth across the offensive line, notably at tackle. It needs depth at tight end behind Logan Thomas. And it needs another starting wide receiver to pair with Terry McLaurin. The team is expected to have Kelvin Harmon back from injury, and it hopes Antonio Gandy-Golden develops into a downfield threat. But Mayhew and Rivera in the past have cited the value of having an established veteran at the position.
One player who could be of interest in free agency is Curtis Samuel, a versatile wideout who played for Rivera and Turner in Carolina. Samuel, 24, posted career highs in catches (77), receiving yards (851), carries (41) and rushing yards (200) last year for the Panthers. There are several other big-name receivers who could be available as free agents, including Allen Robinson (Chicago), JuJu Smith-Schuster (Pittsburgh) and Kenny Golladay (Detroit).
Washington is better equipped on defense, with a deep line that will boast four first-round picks if Ryan Kerrigan leaves in free agency as expected. But it needs help at linebacker — Thomas Davis is retiring and Kevin Pierre-Louis will be a free agent — and at cornerback.
Ronald Darby’s contract is up, and he was praised by Rivera at season’s end, a sign he could be one of the team’s priorities among its own free agents. To find depth at cornerback — Fabian Moreau will be a free agent, too — Washington could turn to both the market and the draft.
“I think [it’s] finishing off what we feel is the few pieces we need to solidify that group,” Rivera said of the defense. “We found out a little about a lot of our young players. We have some ideas as to some positions that we can strengthen and improve on. We can be even better.”