ASHBURN, Va., -- The Washington Commanders traded away two of their top talents Tuesday. They did not abandon their hopes for the season.
One day after trading defensive ends Montez Sweat and Chase Young, Washington coach Ron Rivera said, "We have an opportunity to go out and play well. I do think there's every opportunity in front of us. ... It's an opportunity to see what else we have. It's an opportunity to go out and win football games using different guys."
The Commanders (3-5), though, have lost five of their last six games entering Sunday's game at New England (2-6). Washington traded both pending free agents for draft picks, receiving a third-round pick from San Francisco in return for Young and a second-rounder from Chicago for Sweat. Those two had combined for 11.5 sacks this season, putting each one on pace for their career best total.
Sweat, with 6.5, had not topped nine in his previous four years. Young, with 5.0, recorded 7.5 as a rookie in 2020 en route to being named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He had 1.5 in the next two years combined, missing 21 games because of a torn ACL and ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee.
But Rivera said trading that level of talent did not equate to altering their belief in what they can still accomplish. He pointed to his 2014 season with Carolina when he made some personnel moves late in the season as the Panthers won their last four games to finish 7-8-1 and NFC South champions. They also won a wild card game.
"I've gone through this before," Rivera said. "Do we have that opportunity? I think this is what this is. It's the same kind of opportunity."
"You're going to miss those guys," Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said. "But as players we know that this is a business and things like this happen. We can't let it trickle into next week."
Washington will start fourth-year ends Casey Toohill and James Smith-Williams. Those two replaced Sweat and Young when both were injured in 2021. In the six games Toohill and Smith-Williams both started, Washington went 4-2, and the defense's numbers improved - having allowed 29.9 points per game in the other 11 games to 17.5 with them.
Toohill has three sacks this season; Smith-Williams has one.
"You see them boys flying around making plays," Washington defensive tackle Daron Payne said, "and playing hard, rushing hard. It ain't like we're dropping. They're some good players."
Rivera also pointed to quarterback Sam Howell's development as another reason he remains upbeat about the rest of the season. Howell is coming off a 397-yard, four-touchdown game in a 38-31 loss to Philadelphia. He now has thrown 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Howell is the 33rd quarterback to start for Washington since it last won the Super Bowl after the 1991 season.
"I know this franchise has been looking for quite some time [for a quarterback] and for the first time in a while, I think that that guy might be here," Rivera said. "I really do. I mean, I just got done looking at a bunch of stuff the analytics of football and they're all pointing in the right direction as far as the quarterback is concerned."
Howell himself is looking forward to the challenge.
"Still a lot of football left," Howell said. "We're not just fully set on rebuilding, we're trying to win right now. We feel we have the players to do that."
Rivera had expressed interest during the offseason in extending Sweat. With Young, it was going to hinge on his production as to whether or not they'd try to retain him after this season. Rivera had said they hoped to keep their starting defensive line together - they extended tackles Daron Payne and Jon Allen in the previous two offseasons. One source said Washington had been receiving calls since training camp on both players - and others - but Rivera said talks really began in earnest 10 days ago.
The moves represented a change in thinking about how they allocated resources. The new path stemmed from their thoughts on the respective players, but also from input received from Eugene Shen, their new senior vice president of analytics who doesn't officially start until Nov. 6, and owner Josh Harris, about whom Rivera said is "really thoughtful. There's no knee-jerk reaction to anything." Rivera called the new plan a "paradigm shift."
Washington has approximately $90 million in salary cap space for 2024 and now five picks in the top 100.
That combination, he said, "gives us a chance to spread [the talent] around and keep some of the guys that we want to keep go after some of the guys we want to go after [in free agency] and draft who we want to draft. That's pretty good for us going forward."
The players know what they must do.
"It's a shock and seeing them go is awfully tough," Washington corner Kendall Fuller said. "But guys are accustomed to seeing it. Whether Chase or Sweat are here or not we have to play football on Sunday. That's our job."