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Ryan Fitzpatrick still must prove he should start for Washington

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ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Football Team starting quarterback job belongs to Ryan Fitzpatrick. That's how the spring ended and it's how training camp will begin next month. The question, though, will be simple: For how long?

Fitzpatrick's career, Washington coach Ron Rivera's history and Taylor Heinicke's ascension make it clear: Anything can still happen. Rivera said the competition won't be in name only.

"Taylor pushed him, yes," Rivera said of the spring workouts.

After mandatory minicamp ended last week, Rivera said there would be a competition this summer -- unlike last year when Dwayne Haskins took all the reps. After four starts, and 11 weeks with Haskins taking all the first-team snaps, Rivera benched Haskins. Rivera said in hindsight, he would have held a competition but he wanted to get Haskins ready in light of no preseason games.

Rivera told reporters last week he had learned a lesson, and that's why this summer, the coach likely will have Heinicke take snaps with the starters, although it's uncertain how much he and Fitzpatrick will rotate. That, more than anything, will reveal the true depths of Washington's quarterback competition.

"We want everybody pushed," Rivera said. "This phrase will be very important when I get together with the team: Now what?"

Fitzpatrick wasn't always sharp this spring with some of the hang-ups stemming from learning a new offense, mostly facing the No. 1 defense and still getting a feel for his teammates. Some of that could also be part of the reason he has bounced around the NFL, now with his ninth franchise. He's good enough to last a long time in the NFL, but he has spent more than two years with only one team (four years with the Buffalo Bills).

While Fitzpatrick's career has been spotty, he's less of a gamble than the other QBs on the roster. He has made 146 career starts and thrown 223 touchdowns, but he has also thrown 169 interceptions and never played in a playoff game. Heinicke has made two career starts and got hurt in both.

Veteran savviness is important to Rivera, who referenced it often when former quarterback Alex Smith took over in 2020, leading Washington to a 5-1 record. Rivera liked how Smith handled working with the younger players.

"I loved his interactions with his teammates," Rivera said of Fitzpatrick. "The rapport he developed with the line, the rapport he developed with the skill positions, the way he developed his relationship and is challenging of our defense. That's what I'm expecting from him. As long as he plays at a high level and handles those situations, he has every opportunity to be our starter."

On one pass route during mandatory minicamp, rookie wide receiver Dyami Brown ran a particular route against zone coverage. He ran it fine, but Rivera said it could have been better. After the play, Fitzpatrick talked to the receiver about how, when he reached a certain point, he would throw to him away from the defender.

"Later on, Dyami did it and Ryan commented on it and gave him praise and you could see his attitude and the smile on his face was like, 'OK, I did it right; I'm learning,'" Rivera said. "That's what a veteran like Ryan Fitzpatrick can do for us in helping develop our young players."

As for Heinicke, there's intrigue. For the most part around the NFL, he is viewed as a backup. However, Heinicke also threw for 306 yards and a touchdown, had one interception and rushed running for a TD in a 2020 playoff loss against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, about one month after he was sitting in an Old Dominion classroom. Shortly thereafter, Heinicke signed a two-year deal with Washington.

Washington's coaches asked Heinicke to gain weight this offseason and he added 15 pounds. He was listed at 210 pounds this spring, four pounds lighter than when he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Minnesota Vikings in 2015. Rivera said Heinicke "came in and looked really good."

But this coaching staff, led by Rivera, is the same group that cut the Carolina Panthers quarterback in August 2019.

"He's playing with a little more resolve," Rivera said. "When we had him [in Carolina], he did some really good things, but he was hesitant to do certain things. It was like he was trying to be too cautious. Now, especially after watching him, I think he realizes his strength is when he cuts it loose. Part of his game is the improvisation. That's what he does best. He makes things happen and once he did that in those games last year, his teammates really respected that."

As Washington left the field following the loss to Tampa Bay, wide receiver Terry McLaurin walked up to Heinicke and told him he appreciated him. Defensive end Chase Young became the QB's biggest advocate.

But are the endorsements enough to project Heinicke as someone who could be a 17-game starter, when durability again becomes an issue and teams can now game plan for him?

Rivera hasn't been shy lately about making quarterback moves, as it was pointed out by one league source. Two years ago in Carolina, he shut down an injured Cam Newton and stood by Kyle Allen as the Panthers' starter. Last season, Rivera benched Haskins after four games and, once more, inserted Allen.

For now, Allen hasn't entered the conversation in this competition. He was limited this spring because of an ankle injury that ended his 2020 season. Allen is about 90% healed and should be fine by August. Last season, his total QBR of 74.5 in four starts was Washington's best (Heinicke was second at 61.4).

Fitzpatrick is the one who can make sure this doesn't become a full-blown competition.

If he looks good, his veteran knowledge will carry him. But no one should take anything, or Heinicke or Allen, for granted in this situation.