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Commanders’ trade for Carson Wentz altered draft plans — for first round, at least

Commanders Coach Ron Rivera speaks to reporters Tuesday at the NFL’s annual meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Everything changed on March 9, when the Washington Commanders agreed to trade for Carson Wentz and had to adjust their offseason plan quickly. Their $30 million-plus in projected salary cap space quickly dwindled, prompting them to clear room by cutting veterans, including guard Ereck Flowers and defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, and possibly rethink the draft.

“It does at [number] 11, most certainly,” Coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday at the league’s annual meetings.

Had they not traded for a veteran who cost them a pair of draft picks and is owed $22 million in salary this season, the Commanders probably would’ve targeted a rookie quarterback with their first-round pick in April.

Still, Rivera and his staff have trekked the country attending pro days for all of the top passers — Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, Liberty’s Malik Willis, Mississippi’s Matt Corral, North Carolina’s Sam Howell and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder — for due diligence. Anything can happen on draft day, but Washington’s focus at that position now is depth.

“We have to,” Rivera explained. “Right now, we have two quarterbacks — we got Carson and we got Taylor [Heinicke] — and we feel very good about that combination of guys right now. But we have to take a long look at the potential future, and it could be a guy that’s four, five, six years down the line. But we’re going to take a look at it.”

Rivera, for now, is searching for a potential starter for years down the line; Wentz’s contract has three years remaining, but his salaries for 2023 and 2024 aren’t guaranteed — nor is his success as Washington’s latest starter.

Yet Rivera is convinced Wentz can be the solution and help Washington’s offense finally gain stability and consistency. Speedy wide receivers Terry McLaurin and Dyami Brown and a healthy Logan Thomas at tight end may allow coordinator Scott Turner to create more of a vertical attack.

“One thing that stood out quickly were his deep throws,” Rivera said of Wentz. “ … His quick release on the short passes, his three-step read, decision-making, his quick twitch in being able to throw in a phone booth where he’s looking over here and realizing that’s not my read and you see him change his focus and come all the way back really quickly and get the ball out — and it happened in the sequence it should: the head moves, the shoulders move, the hips and feet both move, and he delivers the ball.”

Camp questions

The Commanders’ offseason workout program will begin April 18, Rivera said, but plans for training camp remain unsettled.

Returning to Richmond for at least part of camp, as the team did last year, is a possibility. But the Commanders also are weighing their options for joint practices. Teams have only three preseason games, so any joint sessions presumably would be coordinated with one of their opponents.

“The really neat thing about it is you do get to watch them compete, but at the same time, you want to make sure everything is set and in place with the new quarterback,” Rivera said. “It’s something we have to consider, and we’ll see how things go.”

The Commanders didn’t have any joint practices the past two years because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Return of Young

Chase Young, Washington’s star defensive end, has spent much of his offseason in Colorado recovering from a torn ACL. Rivera and General Manager Martin Mayhew have praised his approach to his rehab, but over the past year Rivera also has stressed his desire to have his full team attend the voluntary offseason workout program and minicamp.

Last year, Young and fellow defensive end Montez Sweat opted to train elsewhere before returning for training camp. Rivera believes that could change this year, but Young’s participation could depend on his recovery.

“Well, without saying it and getting in trouble for making it sound like that, but yes,” Rivera said when asked whether he anticipates Young joining the team’s offseason program. “In my conversations with them, he says he’s going to be here, and I’m pretty excited to see him here.”

After he was the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year in 2020, Young’s second season disappointed: He had 1.5 sacks and 24 total pressures in nine games. Rivera believes Year 2 for Young was “a little bit of an awakening” — and perhaps it was for the team as a whole, too.

“For us, I think hopefully the realization that we hadn’t arrived has set in and that just showing up is not good enough,” Rivera said.

O-line competition

Rivera pitched the offensive line’s play last season as one of Washington’s top selling points. But after losing both starting guards — Brandon Scherff signed with Jacksonville, and Flowers was cut — the line’s interior will look new.

Andrew Norwell, who played for Rivera and offensive line coach John Matsko in Carolina, was signed to start at left guard, leaving the right side open. Wes Schweitzer has the most experience at guard, but Rivera said the job will be up for grabs.

“It will be a very competitive position,” he said. “Wes will have every opportunity to be that guy, but it’s going to be very competitive.”

Rivera said Saahdiq Charles “will be in that conversation.” Charles was used at guard and tackle the past two seasons, but the 2020 fourth-round pick has struggled to stay healthy.

“Guys grow out of that because they learn how to prepare, they learn how to warm up and get themselves ready to go,” Rivera said. “We’re going to see how that goes.”

New athletic trainers

The Commanders are still in need of an active head athletic trainer but maybe not for much longer.

“I anticipate in the next couple weeks having our head trainer ready to go and having that room complete,” Rivera said.

Head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion and one of his assistants, Doug Quon, were placed on administrative leave in October amid an investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The team relied on former Capitals trainer Greg Smith, ex-Washington trainer Bubba Tyer and a group of summer interns to assist the team’s staff for the rest of the season.

Chief medical officer Anthony Casolaro and head team physician Chris Annunziata are heavily involved in the process, which has included interviews with multiple candidates for the head athletic trainer job over the past couple of months. The team also will hire an assistant athletic trainer, Rivera said.

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