Commanders can change franchise trajectory in 2024 NFL draft

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ASHBURN, Va. -- In Adam Peters' first draft as the Washington Commanders general manager, he has a chance to:

  • Find a franchise quarterback with the second overall pick.

  • Select a left tackle who could be in place for a decade.

  • Transform the franchise with six picks in the top 100.

"There is a lot of pressure and it's great responsibility, and we take this very seriously," Peters said. "But that's what we signed up for."

He also signed up to help turn this longtime struggling franchise around. This draft could accomplish that.

Washington not only owns the second overall pick, it also has five more before the end of the third round -- and in many cases the Commanders' wish list matches the strength of the draft. If they play it right, they could come out of it with young players at premium positions.

"That's a big deal," Peters said. "It's not just six picks in the top 100, it's the number two overall pick and then really high second-round picks and then three third-rounders. So that's a lot that we can do with that. It could really help us."

For a franchise that has endured little success in recent years, it's a chance to build a strong roster that could compete for a while. That hasn't happened in Washington in decades.

The organization has not made the playoffs in consecutive seasons since it made five consecutive trips from 1989-93. Since that time, Washington has only had consecutive winning seasons once (2015-16). The franchise was a combined three games over .500 in that span.

In the past year the Commanders have a new owner (Josh Harris), general manager (Peters) and head coach (Dan Quinn). They can continue building momentum with a strong draft.

One league source said the direction "has already been changed" considering the number of free agents they've already brought in.

Indeed, Washington signed 22 free agents in addition to re-signing four of its own. The Commanders added at least eight new starters via free agency, including linebackers Bobby Wagner and Frankie Luvu and tight end Zach Ertz. They also added third-down back Austin Ekeler.

"He's got a massive decision in front of him, starting with his very first pick," NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. "So that's a lot of pressure. That's difficult when you are just coming together with a coach and a general manager, not to mention new owner, new organization and trying to learn your existing roster. They were very aggressive in free agency in terms of bringing in a lot of guys. So trying to make all these pieces fit. And then, oh, by the way, right away you've got to make a call on the quarterback position and make sure that you get that right."

Even if they didn't have all those picks in the top 100 -- and only had the second -- the choice would still be pivotal to their future. Washington has drafted five quarterbacks in the first round since 1994; only one has started 52 or more games (Jason Campbell) for the team. Those quarterbacks have made an average of 27.4 starts for Washington.

"It's monumental," said former NFL general manager Marc Ross on the importance of getting the No. 2 pick right. "They've been in quarterback purgatory, or hell, for a long time. They have to make it right."

Ross pointed to the Houston Texans last season as proof of what can happen when you draft the right quarterback. The Texans, under first-year coach DeMeco Ryans, went from 3-13-1 in 2022 to 10-7 last season in quarterback C.J. Stroud's first season. Washington was 4-13 last year.

"Use the Texans as a blueprint," said Ross, who thinks Washington should select LSU's Jayden Daniels at No. 2. "At this point, that team was in utter despair."

But their success stemmed from more than just drafting Stroud. Houston also drafted defensive end Will Anderson Jr. one pick after the quarterback. Both made the Pro Bowl.

"The key for us is all about the people, adding CJ, adding Will," Ryans said at the league meetings last month. "Two tremendous young men, two great leaders. Adding those two helped turn it around. Everyone saw, no matter if it was veteran players or young players, what those guys brought every single day. They were easy to follow. ... The biggest challenge was it all starts with the people. It's not about a scheme, it's about adding the right people to the organization."

The Commanders also have two picks in the second round (36 and 40) and three in the third (67, 78 and 100). They need to find a starting left tackle, whether it's by trading back into the first round or by landing one in the second round.

They've met with multiple edge rushers for visits who could go late first or early second, including Penn State's Chop Robinson. They've also brought in a number of cornerbacks for top-30 visits -- all considered big corners; most of whom would be projected in the third round or later.

With all their top-100 picks, Jeremiah suggested Washington could trade back into the first round to select a left tackle. So the assets can be used in many ways to help. One NFL scout said Washington should look to acquire more capital in the 2025 draft which, he said, will be one of the deepest in a while.

"Those top six really allow us to make a dramatic impact on our roster right away," Washington assistant general manager Lance Newmark said.

Finding strong contributors at premium positions would also enable them to spend more on other roster spots over the next four years. Stroud, for example, received $36,279,246 in guaranteed money with a base salary of $2,399,057. Cincinnati's Joe Burrow, the first overall pick in 2020, signed an extension last offseason that included $219 million in guaranteed money. Positions such as left tackle and defensive end also see larger increases on second deals -- if the player produces.

Eventually a team must pay those players, too.

"That's a good problem to have," Ross said. "That means you got good players so you did the right thing. You deal with that when it comes. I'd rather hit and then have to pay rather than miss -- then you're scrambling and out of a job."

Of Washington's 11 picks in rounds 1-3 from 2017-2020, only three received a second contract from the team -- defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen and receiver Terry McLaurin. The Commanders will have a decision to make on four players from the 2021 class after this season.

Washington's recent drafts are part of the reason the team is in a tough spot. The Commanders might have only nine players from their last five drafts combined who start this season. They have no players left from the 2020 draft that included defensive end Chase Young as the second overall choice. He was traded to San Francisco for a third-round pick last season.

Since 2016 Washington has drafted 68 players; only four have appeared in a Pro Bowl while playing for the organization. And since 1990 only one Washington draft pick has been named first-team All-Pro while playing for the team -- guard Brandon Scherff in 2020.

But in their first season as a revamped organization, Washington has a chance to change this past.

"You want to just make sure you nail it whether that's the second pick or the second round, the third round," Peters said. "All of these players potentially have a chance to have a really high impact."