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Preseason opener to provide an important first test for Washington’s quarterbacks

Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) is expected to start at quarterback in the Washington Football Team's preseason opener Thursday at New England, with Taylor Heinicke (4) and Steven Montez (6) in line to play behind him. Kyle Allen, the third-string quarterback, isn't expected to play after missing the past 10 days of practice with an ankle injury. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

In his first preseason game as coach of the Washington Football Team, Ron Rivera will be in somewhat uncharted territory. Even though Ryan Fitzpatrick is almost certain to emerge from training camp as the starter, Rivera will head into an exhibition game without an unquestioned franchise quarterback for the first time in his career.

Without years of familiarity, as he had in Carolina with Cam Newton, Rivera will probably have more opportunity to learn about Fitzpatrick, who is expected to start, and the rest of his quarterbacks during Thursday’s preseason opener at the New England Patriots. Rivera emphasized that he will look for his quarterbacks to have good cadence, control of the huddle, command of the offense and rapport with teammates, especially the skill-position players.

“Is he going through the checks, the processes he needs to?” Rivera said. “When I’m done, I’m going to take a look and see what the playbook tells us, whether or not we spread the ball around properly and we used all of our assets out there.”

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It’s possible, Rivera hinted, that Washington’s starters play more Thursday than might normally be expected for a preseason opener. He said he wants to evaluate his players against a well-coached team and added that the preseason’s new structure — three games with a two-week layoff before Week 1 — could allow him to push his players a little harder.

And while many of the team’s wide receivers, defensive backs and special-teamers might have more riding on these games — at least in terms of making the final roster — no position group’s performance is as important as the quarterbacks’. Washington’s offense ranked among the league’s least productive last season, in large part because of instability behind center.

Yet the preseason is a delicate balance of letting players find a rhythm and avoiding injury — a lesson reinforced for Rivera in 2019, when Newton, playing a few series to regain strength in his surgically repaired shoulder, suffered a left mid-foot sprain. It’s probably why Thursday’s rotation will be limited to Fitzpatrick, Taylor Heinicke and Steven Montez. Third-stringer Kyle Allen hasn’t practiced for 10 days after tweaking his ankle, which recently required surgery, and is not expected to participate.

In practice, Fitzpatrick has seemed to bring the downfield throwing ability, savvy and charisma expected when Washington signed him in March. By all accounts, he has developed trust in his top targets, including wide receiver Terry McLaurin and tight end Logan Thomas, as well as with the offensive line. There have been several moments, whether on a timing route or an adjustment at the line, when Fitzpatrick has displayed his ability to adapt quickly to a new team.

The question is whether it will continue with the lights on.

“Guys change a little bit when you get to the games,” Fitzpatrick said. “So, we’ll get to see … if the guy that’s been running the in-cut at 20 yards the whole time all of a sudden runs it at 12 and freaks out a little bit. There’s some stuff like that where we need to get some more reps and just get a good feel for all these guys.”

The wild card figures to be Heinicke, who is expected to start the season as the top backup. The 28-year-old has followed up a strong effort in the first-round playoff loss to Tampa Bay with an uneven training camp, sometimes struggling to complete simple throws while other times delivering precise strikes to the back of the end zone.

During practice Monday, Heinicke seemed to be in pain after rolling an ankle, and by the end of the session, it looked as though it was affecting his throwing. But he looked better during a Tuesday walk-through, and Rivera downplayed any concern.

In fact, Rivera said Heinicke might perform better in the preseason games, because the mobility and off-schedule plays that are a strong suit of Heinicke’s game are harder to replicate in practice, so Heinicke might hang in the pocket longer or try to fit the ball into tighter windows than he normally would.

“I don't have the strongest arm, so I always have to be on time,” Heinicke said. “My biggest thing is making sure my footwork and my reads are all in rhythm, so that ball can get there on time and let those receivers be safe and not get killed by safeties.”

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The experience of a preseason game will be valuable for Montez, a 2020 undrafted free agent. Last fall, Rivera said one of the reasons he hesitated to play Montez despite the team’s thinning quarterback depth chart was the “little bit of awe” he saw in the rookie’s face during ­warmups before games.

During camp, Montez has struggled while leading the third-team offense in place of Allen. Specifically, he has had a difficult time with the two-minute drill, throwing an interception to end practice four times over the past week. Montez is likely to see a high volume of reps in the preseason, and he has a chance to show he can put it together in a game situation.

“He’s got to stop trying to make the perfect play and just make the right play,” Rivera said. “[We] just hope he learns from those mistakes and we don’t see that [same] mistake over and over and over again. Because there is a point where they get to the old thing about insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting something different to happen.”

For many in the fan base, the same sentiment applies to the past 20 years of trying to find and develop a franchise quarterback. This preseason might not offer the hope of an anointed young passer training to become the long-awaited answer, but these snaps will nonetheless serve an important purpose.

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