Washington Commanders NFL offseason preview: Quest for long-term answer at quarterback continues

Taylor Heinicke played well for Washington under tough circumstances in 2021, but the team will seek an upgrade this offseason. Michael Ainsworth/AP Photo

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Commanders entered 2021 hoping to build on a seven-win season, albeit one with an NFC East title attached. They enter the 2022 season hoping to remove the stench of another seven-win season, along with a third-place division finish. They did manage a four-game winning streak to even their record at 6-6 heading down the stretch. But injuries, COVID-19 and lackluster red zone play resulted in a 1-4 finish.

Washington's defense did not meet expectations, save for a six-game stretch in the middle of the season. A talented line didn't play together as well as it had hoped; the secondary had too many new parts to mesh immediately; the linebackers were inconsistent. Washington's defense finished eighth in points allowed, 22nd in yards allowed and 31st on third-down conversion rate.

Injuries wrecked the offense, starting in the opener with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, though Taylor Heinicke filled in admirably. The team also lost key targets such as tight end Logan Thomas (hamstring, ACL), running back J.D. McKissic (neck) and receiver Curtis Samuel, who dealt with a groin or hamstring injury almost the entire season. The result: An offense ranked 23rd in points and Total QBR, 21st in yards and 26th in the red zone.

They have work to do.

Projected salary-cap space: $33,253,858

Top free agents: Fitzpatrick, McKissic, G Brandon Scherff, S Bobby McCain, LB Jon Bostic, WR Adam Humphries, WR/KR DeAndre Carter, TE Ricky Seals-Jones, OL Cornelius Lucas, DT Tim Settle

Potential cut candidates: Safety Landon Collins has a cap hit of $16.2 million this season. Washington wants him back -- the Commanders loved him in a hybrid safety/linebacker role and consider him a dynamic player -- but that number will be tough to swallow, so if he returns, it most likely would be with a lower cap number. Guard Ereck Flowers' cap number jumps from $2.98 million to $9.98 million, but rather than cut him, they would be wise to extend him and lower the cap hit.

The big question: Where will Washington find its quarterback? Coach Ron Rivera has made no secret of his desire to be aggressive in ending Washington's decades-long quarterback search -- they're at 32 starters and counting since the franchise last won the Super Bowl after the 1991 season. But being able to find that guy will be difficult. There are rumors about big names such as Russell Wilson, but Seattle does not have to trade him and must be blown away by an offer. Houston's Deshaun Watson, the defendant in 22 civil cases filed by women in four states alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior, is another possibility, but the legal issues are substantial and he would have to waive a no-trade clause. It's possible the best veteran option will be the 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo, who is available via trade.

There is also the draft, and Kenny Pickett would be intriguing if he lasts to the 11th pick. Or they could opt for a bridge veteran and draft a quarterback -- Desmond Ridder after the first round perhaps. Regardless, it's not considered a great class, and that makes Washington's quest challenging.

Best-case offseason scenario: They find a quarterback who will lead them for the next five years -- or more -- and, for the first time in a while, excite their fan base. They re-sign McKissic, Humphries and Carter and strengthen the line (Scherff is likely to depart). They also find a true middle linebacker to lead the defense and find a way to keep Collins and McCain, who won't be expensive.

Worst-case offseason scenario: They end up with a mediocre bridge quarterback and another selected after the first round, meaning there's no guarantee they have solved this position. They have to get this right. They view Heinicke as a low-end starter and high-end backup; what they need is a distinct upgrade and not more Band-Aids.

Early look at the NFL draft, from ESPN analyst Jordan Reid: Quarterback will remain the big topic of the offseason for the Commanders. Likely in search of an upgrade from Heinicke, the No. 11 overall pick could be where the QB of the future is selected. Washington is also looking for a true middle linebacker, even after spending a first-round pick on Jamin Davis last year. Keep an eye on linebacker if Washington finds a veteran quarterback elsewhere.

Top needs: QB, LB, DB

Top pick: No. 11