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Amid OC search, Commanders point to Sam Howell as likely starter at QB

Sam Howell looks to have the inside track on the Commanders' starting quarterback job in 2023. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

As the Washington Commanders search for their next offensive coordinator, they’re telling candidates that Sam Howell is likely to be the starting quarterback next season but he will have to earn the job, according to two people familiar with the team’s plans.

Those people said the Commanders intend to keep all options open at quarterback as they continue to evaluate their best course, which General Manager Martin Mayhew mentioned during his end-of-season news conference alongside Coach Ron Rivera.

“You pretty much have to enter every season and look at the entire landscape of what’s available,” Mayhew said Tuesday. “I thought we did a really good job of that last year. We talked about drafting guys, we talked about who we could trade for, and we talked about free agents. And we went through the entire process of all those guys and did a very thorough evaluation. We will do the same thing this year. We’re not going to rule out acquiring a vet. We’ll go through the entire landscape of who’s available. We’ll evaluate them, and we’ll get to a consensus on somebody.”

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The Commanders fired offensive coordinator Scott Turner on Tuesday after three seasons as their play caller and have begun the process of forming a list of candidates to fill the vacancy.

A priority, according to a person with direct knowledge of Washington’s intentions, is to find someone with a record of developing young quarterbacks. Each of the past two years, the team turned to a veteran, signing Ryan Fitzpatrick in free agency in 2021 and then trading for Carson Wentz in 2022. Taylor Heinicke, an undrafted player signed initially to serve as an emergency “quarantine quarterback” during the coronavirus pandemic, started in place of both after they suffered injuries.

The team does not view Heinicke as a long-term starter even after he helped it rally into playoff contention this season, and he will be a free agent in March. Wentz has no more guaranteed money on his contract, so his time with the Commanders probably has ended.

Although Washington’s plans could change, staying young (and thereby cheap) at quarterback would allow it to continue to fill out the roster — notably in trying to re-sign defensive tackle Daron Payne, who is set to become a free agent. The team will soon have to decide on the future of defensive ends Montez Sweat, who is set to be a free agent in 2024, and Chase Young, with the deadline to exercise his fifth-year option arriving in May. Washington also must factor in the long-term future of safety Kam Curl and fill out the interior of its offensive line.

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One coordinator candidate, a person knowledgeable about the Commanders’ plans said, is former Cleveland Browns and New York Giants coach Pat Shurmur, who most recently was the Denver Broncos’ coordinator in 2020 and 2021. In 2013 as the Philadelphia Eagles’ coordinator, Shurmur helped Nick Foles have a breakout season. In 2017 in the same role, he helped Case Keenum produce career-best numbers as a fill-in starter with the Minnesota Vikings.

Ken Zampese, the Commanders’ quarterbacks coach, is also a candidate for the coordinator job, according to one person familiar with the search. A 24-year NFL coaching veteran, Zampese worked with Baker Mayfield in Cleveland and Carson Palmer in Cincinnati, among others.

Jim Caldwell, formerly the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions, was on the Commanders’ list of coordinator candidates. But Caldwell, who most recently was assistant head coach/quarterbacks with the Miami Dolphins in 2019, declined Washington’s interest, instead choosing to focus on head coaching roles.