ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Football Team won seven games this season, as it did in 2020, and remains in the same position as last offseason -- searching for a quarterback. But for the team's decision-makers, there is a big difference: They can be more aggressive trying to obtain one.
Last offseason Washington did not view its roster as being complete enough to mortgage the future for a quarterback. That meant making an offer, but not going overboard, trying to trade for Matthew Stafford. This offseason the team plans to be "selectively aggressive," according to general manager Martin Mayhew.
After a 7-10 season, marked by COVID-19 absences and key injuries down the stretch, coach Ron Rivera said he likes the roster construction. He liked how the team played during its four-game winning streak (Weeks 10-13), shaping his vision for the future.
Rivera is 14-19 over his first two seasons with Washington and improvement in 2022 will be pivotal. But he remains steadfast the franchise is on the right path.
"I look at things with rose-colored glasses," he said. "I'm an optimist. As you look at things you go, 'I feel pretty good about this.'"
In 2021, Washington offered a first- and third-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft to the Detroit Lions for Stafford, a proposal that would have allowed Washington to keep building. But the Los Angeles Rams made an offer Washington couldn't top, sending quarterback Jared Goff plus two first-rounders (2022 and 2023) and a 2021 third-round pick to Detroit.
Then during the 2021 draft, Washington tried to move up to select quarterback Justin Fields, but the asking price was too rich.
This offseason Washington will explore deals involving the top quarterbacks who could be available. That includes Seattle's Russell Wilson, Houston's Deshaun Watson (who is facing 22 lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior and requested a trade a year ago) and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. And likely the next level down, such as Las Vegas' Derek Carr.
However, those players might not be available or realistic, and the rookie class might not provide the immediate help desired. The sweet spot could be a mid-tier quarterback such as San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo, who would not require as much trade capital or salary-cap space. He would represent an upgrade while allowing Washington to maintain talent around him.
Here is why Washington thinks it can be more aggressive:
The offensive line: There is optimism here despite the potential departure of right guard Brandon Scherff, a pending free agent. There has been little movement over the past two offseasons towards a new deal with the 2020 All-Pro -- Mayhew confirmed the team made him an offer to be the highest-paid guard in the league last offseason, likely about $15 million to $16 million per year -- who opted to play for $18 million this season on the franchise tag.
However, Washington likes the unit's depth (a focal point the past two offseasons) and ability to maintain a high level of play, perhaps with the addition of another key piece. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Washington ranked 14th in percentage of quarterback pressures allowed (29%), a number that could have been better if not for the team ranking second in average time before the quarterback threw the ball (2.96 seconds) and third in most time spent in the pocket by its quarterbacks (2.59 seconds).
The playmakers: Or, in Washington's case, the potential. It has receiver Terry McLaurin, who has surpassed 1,000 yards in two of his first three seasons. Tight end Logan Thomas is the team's top red zone threat. Over the past two seasons he ranks third among all tight ends in red zone yards (151), trailing leader Mark Andrews of Baltimore by 12 yards despite playing 10 fewer games.
If Thomas recaptures that form after tearing his ACL in December -- he played six games this past season -- it would be a big boost. So would the return of running back J.D. McKissic, a pending free agent Washington definitely wants to retain. At receiver, the team needs a healthy Curtis Samuel, who was limited to five games and six receptions because of various soft-tissue injuries. It also needs speedy 2021 third-round pick Dyami Brown to develop after he caught 12 passes as a rookie.
There's a leap of faith to say Washington has enough playmakers, but for Rivera and others it's not a stretch.
"This is what I grew up on: You have the franchise quarterback, you have to protect him and put playmakers around him," Rivera said. "We did it the other way. We set ourselves up to protect the quarterback; now you've got playmakers around him, so let's see if we can find that [QB] and plug that guy in and see what happens.
"I like our receiver group. If everyone comes back healthy, ready to roll ... we have playmakers around our quarterback."
The run game: In Washington's last five wins it averaged 154.8 rushing yards per game and 36 minutes, 32 seconds in time of possession. That was about the offensive line (and tight ends) blocking well, coordinator Scott Turner committing hard to the run and running back Antonio Gibson's development.
It coincided with the defense, which entered the season considered a team strength, playing its best ball; it was fifth in points allowed and fourth in yards allowed from Weeks 8-13. But it underachieved prior to that and was hit hard by injuries and COVID-19 in the final five weeks. What will it be in 2022?
"I like the development of our running game," Rivera said. "[Gibson] took a big step going forward. Defensively, we have guys that showed at one point they are impact players. We just have to get it going."
The same can be said of the quarterback pursuit. The team has been studying its options for a while, from the draft to potential targets via free agency or a trade.
Washington is ready to make a move and should have at least 12 starters who are age 27 or younger next season.
"Our personnel is more than good enough," Rivera said. "Again, I'm optimistic. I believe in our team. I believe in what we can be."