This isn't the first time Washington Commanders general manager Martin Mayhew has been in charge of building up a roster. He was given the same task nearly 15 years ago, when he was promoted to the same role with the Detroit Lions to turn a team that went 0-16 into a playoff contender.
Granted, the situations are much different. The Commanders, while in need of improvement, are far from a winless team. Mayhew's time in Detroit was a valuable experience, though, and he still leans on it to influence his decisions in Washington.
"It was a real challenge," Mayhew said of his role with the Lions.
It was a monumental undertaking that Mayhew faced after the 2008 season. The Lions had the 32nd-ranked defense and the 30th-ranked offense. Calvin Johnson, who was in his second season, was clearly a piece to build around, but there was much to be desired at several spots throughout the roster.
For starters, Mayhew had to find a long term answer at quarterback. The Lions had three signal-callers started games, and five total threw at least one pass attempt. The leading passer was Dan Orlovsky, who entered free agency after the season.
It's not so different from what the Commanders are dealing with now, as they saw four quarterbacks play in some capacity in 2021. Mayhew chose to draft Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009. He and coach Ron Rivera might choose to find an answer in this year's draft, but the team is looking at all avenues for the answer.
Either way, having the right player under center does fix a long list of problems. And while he appreciates what Taylor Heinicke did last season, Mayhew made it clear the Commanders want to upgrade the position.
"It was critical," Mayhew said on drafting Stafford. "With all these Super Bowls, what we're seeing is the elite quarterbacks who are leading these teams to championships, who are at least playing at an elite level. And that's really important."
At the same time, having an answer at quarterback doesn't solve every problem. Mayhew still had to surround Stafford with players on both sides of the ball. The Lions had Johnson, but they also retooled the defensive line with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. They grabbed a four-year starter on the offensive line in Larry Warford and tight end Eric Ebron.
Fortunately, the Commanders already had several key pieces in place before Mayhew arrived. On defense, they had Chase Young leading a defensive front full of first-round talent. On offense, Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson served as the unit's most explosive weapons. Mayhew envisions both as pieces of the future, but he had high praise for Gibson specifically at the NFL Scouting Combine.
"He played great for us last year, did a great job, rushed for over a thousand yards," Mayhew said. "And he's very important moving forward."
For the Lions, it took three years for them to get to playoff contention. After going from 2-14 in 2009 and 6-10 in 2010, they finished 10-6 in 2011 (it was the first winning record in 11 years), fueled by Staff throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, and earned a Wild Card spot.
Mayhew and Rivera have high hopes that the Commanders' roster can do the same. Although injuries and COVID-19 cases disrupted the chance at claiming the NFC East crown for the second straight season, they like the additions they made on both sides of the ball in 2021.
It's clear, however, that work still needs to be done to help the team improve. There are several options to do that, both in the draft as well as free agency, and Mayhew's time in Detroit gives him an idea of how to address those needs and address them with the proper decisions.
"It's really about that balance," Mayhew said. "That's going to be key for us this year. Obviously quarterback is one of the biggest ones, but we have several others that we plan on working on. And we have to make sure we have some balance on whether it's free agency or the draft and how we approach those things."
At least there are already several tools to work with.
"We can kind of build that as our foundation and build around those guys," Mayhew said. "So we're really focused on this offseason and just finding the right balance. The quarterback's gonna be critically important, and that's gonna help as far as determining what else we can do."