The Washington Commanders did not make many surprising moves in free agency, but their acquisitions did give them something more valuable than mid-March headlines: flexibility.
During the league owners meetings in Phoenix, coach Ron Rivera expressed confidence in Washington's signings during free agency, saying that by addressing positions that needed depth, the Commanders have opened up more opportunities for themselves when the NFL Draft starts on April 27.
"I'm excited about us as a football team," Rivera told SVP of Broadcasting Julie Donaldson. "We can now go into the draft knowing that we don't have to do something. We believe we can do what is best for the football team."
The Commanders did have some cap room to play with heading into the new league year, even after signing standout defensive tackle Daron Payne to a reported four-year extension. Rather than use most of that money on a big-ticket player, they elected to spend their time spreading that wealth around, addressing multiple positions of need, rather than just one.
This was particularly true at offensive line, where needs for depth at all three positions of guard, center and tackle resulted in lapses in production last season. They were able to address all three by reportedly agreeing to terms with Andrew Wylie, who was vouched for by assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, and Nick Gates. While Gates and Wylie primarily work at center and tackle, respectively, both have experience playing guard.
In total, the Commanders either retained or added a total of five offensive lineman to the group, including center Tyler Larsen and tackles Trent Scott and Drew Himmelman. Those players, combined with those that are still on the roster, make Rivera believe there will be strong competition up front, specifically at left guard, where Andrew Norwell, Chris Paul and Saahdiq Charles are expected to be vying for the starting role.
"That is the thing that is exciting, and I think that is what has been created with adding the players that we have added," Rivera said. "And at the same time, recognizing the fact that these young guys are going to get the opportunity."
Other positions of need -- cornerback and linebacker -- were not addressed as heavily but got some reinforcements. Cameron Dantzler Sr., while technically not a free agent signing since he was claimed off waivers, does provide the Commanders with starting experience behind Kendall Fuller and Benjamin St-Juste. In addition to re-signing most of their linebackers from last season, the Commanders also brought in Cody Barton, who had a breakout year with the Seahawks.
"We think he's an ascending guy," general manager Martin Mayhew said of Barton. "I think he has a lot of upside, and we're looking forward to working with him."
As a result, Rivera said the Commanders are "not necessarily" looking at specific positions to lock in on less than a month before the draft.
"That really helped us a lot to the point where this truly may come down to being able to take the best player available," Rivera said.
Rivera made a similar statement to a group of reporters earlier in the week when asked about the possibility of taking a quarterback with the No. 16 overall pick. Rivera and the Commanders have stood pat on their stance of giving Sam Howell the chance at becoming their starting quarterback, but the former fifth-round has not been named to that role yet and will have to earn it this offseason.
In terms of what the Commanders will do with the pick, Rivera said they must look at "every avenue," and that includes quarterback.
"I mean, it's kind of twofold because the best player for us could be a different position, but the best player available may be that position. So, we'll see."
Most of the staff are on a break right now, but preparations for the draft will be revved up in earnest once they return. Scouts will continue to travel across the country to attend pro days, and the team will host a select group of prospects for in-person visits at the facility in Ashburn, Virginia.
Then, the Commanders will meet two weeks before the draft to submit their reports and make the final preparations for their board.
"We're excited, and we're getting ourselves ready to go," Rivera said.