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Commanders expect movement (and opportunity) in NFL draft’s middle rounds

Commanders Coach Ron Rivera, left, and General Manager Martin Mayhew discussed the team's draft plans at a news conference Monday. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Draft evaluations started early this year for Ron Rivera. The Washington Commanders coach needed a starting quarterback, so he began to pore over video and analyze rookie prospects as early as late January, weeks before he usually would begin.

“This year I went from a top 100 to a top 150 in terms of players to watch,” Rivera said Monday during a news conference at team headquarters. “... I ended up watching, probably on the average, four to five games per player. But starting as early as I did, it was a big change.”

The Commanders found their quarterback in March, when they traded for Carson Wentz, and Rivera has said their approach to free agency and the first round of the draft subsequently was altered. Their salary cap space shrank significantly, and going after a quarterback with the 11th pick no longer was in the plans.

But with the first round of the draft looming Thursday, Rivera and General Manager Martin Mayhew have set their board and begun to make calls, knowing this year features an unusual class and more uncertainty than ever.

Sitting just outside the top 10, the Commanders normally would be in good position to cut a deal with a quarterback-needy team looking to trade up. But this draft class has no consensus leader for the quarterbacks nor among its talent overall, leaving most teams to guess and explore trading down to collect additional picks.

“It’s not one of those drafts where you sit there and say, ‘These are got-to-have-its,’ ” Rivera said. “So we’re just going to react.”

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Uncertainty at the top may complicate teams’ projections, but Mayhew sees opportunity in the middle rounds, where he believes the draft is deep on starter-quality talent.

“There’s just a lot of really good, talented players in that middle that haven’t been there in the past, and I think there are a couple of different things that have been factors with that happening,” Mayhew said. “One is the covid year — a lot of guys came back to school and played one more year — and, two, I think the [name, image and likeness marketing deals], where some guys are now staying in longer and guys that are coming out now would’ve come out last year. It’s a lot deeper this year.”

But the middle rounds are where Washington is thin on draft capital.

The Commanders gave up their third-round pick in the Wentz trade, and during last year’s draft they sent their 2022 fifth-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles to collect late-round selections that they used on long snapper Camaron Cheeseman and defensive end William Bradley-King.

The Commanders enter this draft with six picks, tied for the third fewest in the league. But that could change.

“I doubt we’ll end this draft with those same six picks,” Mayhew said. “I think there will be some movement, up or back, in those rounds. There’s just a lot of really good talented players in that middle that haven’t been there in the past.”

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Although Rivera and Mayhew offered few details on the prospects they are eyeing or even the position groups they’re prioritizing, the Commanders’ roster leaves little room for guessing. The secondary is in flux and needs another player (or maybe a few), and the linebacking corps is still searching for someone to play in the middle. Washington lost both starting guards this offseason and has been depleted at wide receiver for several years.

“We got to be able to protect [Wentz], but then you do have to put dynamic playmakers around him,” Rivera said. “So we’ll go into this draft with that mantra, that mind-set that, if you can’t get one, then make sure we get the other to help him.”

The Class of 2022 has plenty of wide receiver depth, which could prompt Washington to seek value in the middle rounds.

“It’s about guys fitting us and fitting what we try to do offensively and guys having the most ability,” Mayhew said. “Size comes into play, obviously, but I think it’s more about talent.”

On defense, Rivera has emphasized the importance of the “Buffalo nickel” subpackage, which requires a versatile defensive back or a linebacker to play a hybrid role. Turning to the draft to fill that spot — be it with a safety, cornerback or linebacker — may be high on the Commanders’ list.

“It is a valuable piece,” Rivera said. “There’s several players that fit that bill, and they’re not just linebackers. We’re obviously looking at different possibilities, and wherever that player comes from and whatever position he comes from, we’ll believe that that’s the guy best-suited to do it for us.”

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Days 2 and 3 of the draft have, in recent years, yielded some key starters and reserves for Washington, including running back Antonio Gibson (third round) in 2020 and tight end John Bates (fourth round) in 2021. But no mid-round pick in recent years for Washington has had as great of an impact as wide receiver Terry McLaurin, a third-round selection in 2019 who is now a team captain and a focal point of the offense.

McLaurin is entering the final year of his contract, and re-signing him also is on the to-do list.

“We have had dialogue with Terry and his agent and have great respect for both of those men,” Mayhew said. “We’re really excited about the opportunity of having Terry continue with us for a long time. So we’re working on that.”

No matter the status of McLaurin’s contract or the health of fellow wide receiver Curtis Samuel — who told The Washington Post on Monday that he “finally feels like myself again” after missing most of last season with hamstring and groin injuries — Washington’s view of potentially drafting a wideout won’t change, Rivera said.

But the draft haul could influence the team’s moves after the draft, when it looks to fill the gaps with free agents and via the waiver wire when Week 1 rosters are formed this fall.

“If we’re able to get more than six [draft picks], then it cuts down on what we’ve got to chase afterwards,” Rivera said. “So we’re just going to react to what happens more so than anything else. We can try and create some things as well. We have all of our options open, and we still have a couple of days left.”