Washington's plan: Build its roster until right long-term QB arrives

ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera noticed when the Kansas City Chiefs made their big move four years ago. He paid attention to the aggressive trades the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams made this offseason.

Those teams had their rosters ready; they just needed a quarterback they believed could take them further. And when they found that player, they struck: The Chiefs traded from the No. 27 pick to No. 10 to draft Patrick Mahomes in 2017, and the 49ers moved up nine spots this offseason to draft Trey Lance. The Rams outbid Washington for Matthew Stafford, offering the Detroit Lions two future first-round picks, a third-rounder in 2021 and quarterback Jared Goff. Washington had offered Detroit its first-round pick (No. 19 overall) in the 2021 NFL draft and a third-rounder.

Those teams serve as a blueprint for Washington, which did not draft a quarterback this year. From the moment it signed Ryan Fitzpatrick in mid-March, team sources said Washington still wanted to find its quarterback of the future, but would not force the issue and that "it could take a year or two."

Washington opted to strengthen the rest of its roster and resume the QB quest later.

"It's really about getting the right quarterback, whether it's a young guy or an old guy," said Rivera, who worked for Chiefs coach Andy Reid in Philadelphia and remains tight with him. "You've got to look and say: 'Hey, this is the fit that we want. This is the fit that we need. Now's the time.'"

Here's why Washington didn't draft a QB this year:

Fitzpatrick: Though he's 38 years old and signed a one-year contract, Fitzpatrick could hold the job for a few years. That is, if he continues to play as he did the past two seasons in Miami, when he and his coaches felt he was playing the best ball of his career. Over the past two seasons, Fitzpatrick had the NFL's seventh-best total QBR at 71.5, sandwiched between Seattle's Russell Wilson and Houston's Deshaun Watson.

Unlike his previous stops, Fitzpatrick does not have an obvious replacement. Washington does have Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Allen and Steven Montez, and while there's a level of intrigue with each, they aren't being groomed as The Guy. As coaches have told Fitzpatrick: It's yours to keep. And if he does well, there's no reason why the team couldn't extend him after this season. If he struggles, the team can seek a replacement.

Like, not love in the draft: There was no true consensus in Washington on which quarterback to draft. Some in the organization favored Ohio State's Justin Fields, others liked Lance and another group wanted Alabama's Mac Jones. Without a consensus, the team wasn't going to surrender draft capital to move up for any of them. However, if one had fallen to Washington at No. 19, the team likely would have pounced.

In 2019, at the behest of owner Dan Snyder and then-president Bruce Allen, Washington drafted Dwayne Haskins Jr. at No. 15 overall. The front office and coaching staff, as has been well-documented, was not in agreement with the Haskins pick. In part to appease the coaches, Washington traded back into the first round and selected defensive end Montez Sweat.

But, as one source said, what if the team had drafted, say, safety Darnell Savage at No. 15 -- as some there wanted to do -- and also traded back into the first for Sweat? The defense would be better. Washington wanted to avoid a similar scenario in 2021.

Build that roster: The Carolina Panthers' downfall when Rivera was their coach occurred, in part, because of key draft misses from 2014 to 2016. In that three-year stretch, they missed on first-round picks Kelvin Benjamin (wide receiver) and Vernon Butler (defensive tackle), and on second-round choice Kony Ealy (pass-rusher).

That was in the back of Rivera's mind. Forcing a pick in the early rounds, and then missing on it, would not be conducive to good roster building. Whether Washington's early picks all hit in 2021 and beyond remains to be seen, but the team stuck to its philosophy of how it wanted to build. Though Washington won the NFC East in 2020, it did so with a 7-9 record. The team improved last season, but the organization knows work remains to become a consistent contender.

Washington did like quarterbacks Davis Mills (Stanford) and Kyle Trask (Florida), but early in the process, one source said the team would consider Trask in the third round. Rather than drafting one too high, it opted for Texas offensive tackle Sam Cosmi with the No. 51 pick in Round 2. By the time Washington selected in the third round, both quarterbacks were gone. The team knew that likely would be the case.

Washington selected speedy wide receiver Dyami Brown in the third round after signing Curtis Samuel and Adam Humphries in free agency. It recently traded for guard Ereck Flowers to provide more depth for the offensive line.

Despite not drafting a quarterback, Washington improved its offense, which wasn't hard to do. In the past three years, its best finish in total yards or points was last season -- when it ranked 25th in points per game. It has finished in the top 10 in one of those categories only twice since 2012. The team hopes changes this year after adding more speed with Samuel and Brown to complement top wide receiver Terry McLaurin; improvement from second-year running back Antonio Gibson will be key.

"We've put playmakers around, and then we got an experienced quarterback in Fitz," Rivera said, "[Who] we think can really do a good job distributing the ball for us and has the arm strength to get that ball down field. We felt like we solidified the offensive line."

Washington also hopes it improved its defense by signing cornerback William Jackson III, and drafting linebacker Jamin Davis in the first round and corner Benjamin St-Juste in the third. Washington drafted 10 players, adding to the eight it picked last year -- all of whom remain on the roster.

By adding so much youth now, Washington is building its roster with lesser-priced talent, giving it the ability to be more aggressive pursuing a quarterback in the future, whether via a trade or the draft. If it's a rookie, that would allow Washington to have a lower-priced quarterback when other key players will be in line for massive pay raises.

"It means to get younger, healthier, faster and with the salary cap, to get cheaper," Washington general manager Martin Mayhew said. "We want to build this team through the draft. We want to supplement our draft process through free agency and for us, where we are as a football team right now, we see investing in this group right now with draft picks is going to make us better fast."

And, as Rivera has said, the better they get the more aggressive they can become.