Why Sam Howell’s contract is central to the Commanders’ almost unprecedented QB play

Ron Rivera’s phrasing created more confusion than the desired tension.

“We’re building a roster for the first time,” the Washington Commanders head coach said at March’s league meetings, “and feel really good about doing the things that we’re trying to do right now.”

Rivera and his staff broke the roster-building seal when they arrived in 2020, and they’ve been successful: Three years later, the team has more overall talent and has significantly upgraded the offensive playmakers and secondary. But the primary battle remains to consolidate the sport’s most important position. In the NFL, nothing compares to the quarterback.

“That’s been what’s held them back in a lot of ways,” Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said. “You have to get that position right. And (the commanders) haven’t been able to get it right for a while or with any degree of sustainability.”

That goes for Washington before and after Rivera’s hiring. The coach, who has the final say on personnel decisions, inherited a new QB contract, but that scenario stalled. He tried big swings (Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson) and leaps of faith (Carson Wentz). What Rivera hadn’t done was go young — and cheap — by design.

It’s happening now with Sam Howell. So is, as Rivera bluntly said, the Commanders’ roster planning around this type of quarterback contract. But building around a late round QB who has minimal NFL experience? There is almost no recent precedent, assuming Howell actually starts Week 1 at FedExField against the Arizona Cardinals.

Washington began leaking its intent to land Howell — the 144th player and sixth QB selected in the 2022 NFL Draft — atop the depth chart days after the Commanders finished a playoff-less 8-8-1 season in which Wentz and Taylor Heinicke started the first 16 games.


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No more planning around a veteran or having an expensive signal caller on the roster. Instead, the staff fixed Howell, 22, and his rookie deal, which stretches through the 2025 season with a salary cap between $960,400 and $1.19 million.

The rookie contract is the holy grail if you can’t have stars at the sport’s most important position.

“Yeah, to start, (it helps) put your (list) in the right position,” Rivera shared Athletics of the roster with a cheap QB contract.

His coaching brothers agree.

“It helps,” said Jaguars coach Doug Pederson, who has Trevor Lawrence on a rookie deal and was with the Eagles when they drafted Wentz and Jalen Hurts. “It helps to have a young, talented quarterback who’s the franchise guy still on a rookie deal, so you can sign your free agents, sign other free agents and make decisions now on your roster that hopefully can put you in walk.”

Washington re-signed its top free agent, defensive tackle Daron Payne, to a four-year, $90 million extension this offseason. Although the Commanders weren’t otherwise big spenders, they did add right tackle Andrew Wylie and journeyman quarterback Jacoby Brissett, among others. Aside from oft-injured center Chase Roullier, no one was released solely to save salary cap space.

That’s not possible without Howell’s minimal QB1 salary.

“It definitely helps. Yeah, there’s no question,” said Colts coach Shane Steichen, who was in Philadelphia with Hurts and will now develop Anthony Richardson in Indianapolis. “When you have a rookie quarterback who’s a really good player on a rookie contract, you can add the pieces around them.”

Washington’s 2024 free agents include defensive ends Montez Sweat and Chase Young, who could command salaries in excess of $20 million annually. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel, safety Kamren Curl, cornerback Kendall Fuller and running back Antonio Gibson are all starters or key contributors entering contract years. Massive savings at QB would allow the team to resign whoever they want and possibly add offensive linemen, tight ends or linebackers if the currently unsecured positions struggle.

Usually, valuable young QBs are first-round picks or Day 2 picks. Even if it’s a later-round passer, that player has typically flashed productivity over multiple games Before being anointed for Week 1 starters (other than as injury compensation). This is what makes the choice of Howell unique.

Naming a young player QB1 is common; in 2022, 15 of the league’s 32 teams either started a rookie-contract QB in Week 1 or nursed such a player already on the roster.

Usually, these passers, like Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa, were selected in the first round. Second- and third-round picks like Hurts and Desmond Ridder are rarely drafted with long-term backup assignments in mind. But with the selection of Day 3, starting expectations crater dramatically and with justification.

From 2010 to 2021, teams selected 74 quarterbacks in rounds 4-7. Only six have started more than 11 games at QB. Only Tyrod Taylor, Kirk Cousins ​​and Dak Prescott have started more than 30. Prescott was the only QB of that trio to become a full-time starter before his fourth season, and only because Dallas — which offered an ideal environment for a young QB with the league’s best offensive line — turned to the fourth-round rookie after a back injury sidelined Tony Romo in 2016.

Two Day 3 QBs, Sam Ehlinger and Nathan Peterman, got chances to start early in their careers for reasons other than injury – and flopped.

Howell made his only start in Week 18 last season, completing 11 of 19 passes with two touchdowns (one rushing) and an interception as Washington routed the playoff-bound Cowboys. The only QB in recent memory with such a poor resume who (barring injury) was named a Week 1 starter? Trevor Siemian with the 2016 Denver Broncos.

Like Howell, the 2015 seventh-round pick made just one appearance as a rookie (though he did play just one snap, one knee as Brock Osweiler’s backup when Peyton Manning was out with an injury). Siemian was first named the starter in late August 2016, after beating out Mark Sanchez and first-round rookie Paxton Lynch in a preseason contest. He went on to start 24 games over the next two seasons with the Broncos, posting a 79.9 passer rating and has been a journeyman backup ever since.

The story goes that the Howell plan is risky, especially for a staff that has yet to deliver a winning record in three seasons, is implementing a new offensive system and faces an impending ownership change. Without a viable chance to get genuine help in the first round or free agency, Rivera has taken the untrodden path since coming to Washington. He still is.

While Rivera said it remains a competition, Howell did not share first-team reps with Brissett during offseason practices. (Geoff Burke/USA Today)

Howell’s offseason workouts included the ups and downs you’d expect from an inexperienced QB, but Rivera said Howell maintained his QB1 status over Brissett, who signed a one-year, $8 million contract.


Commander’s takeaways, part 2: Sam Howell’s QB1 team, Ron Rivera awaits sale

“A really good opportunity this year to build a roster,” Rivera said in March. “A lot of it has to do with the quarterback numbers between the guys that we have right now.”

Rivera’s first QB in Washington, 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins, was benched twice in 2020 before a late-season release. Also on that list was a rebounding Alex Smith, who had two years remaining on a four-year, $94 million contract. Smith’s heroic comeback from a devastating leg injury and Washington’s 5-1 record in his six starts notwithstanding, the 36-year-old wasn’t a long-term plan.

That season’s inexplicable NFC East title, despite a 7-9 record, Washington fell out of reach for top draft prospects in 2021. Enter Ryan Fitzpatrick. The folk hero was always a one-year fix as a free agent, but he lasted one game before a season/career-ending hip injury.

Last year’s trade for Wentz — which cost two third-round picks and $28.3 million in salary — was Rivera’s most aggressive move and biggest flop.

Brissett is a Fitzpatrick-level quarterback, but without starter status in Washington. Rivera maintains that there is still a competition between Howell and Brissett. But any logical interpretation of the situation is that Brissett will only rise if Howell falters. The commanders need one of them to shine.

“Hopefully one of those guys will play consistently and help them out,” Aikman said.

Howell is the ideal path. It’s hard to see Washington concluding that Brissett is the answer beyond 2023, regardless of this season’s results. If Howell wins games and wins over space, the Commanders would enter 2024 with a projected $83.2 million in effective cap space, per Over the Cap, the fifth most in the NFL.

The other NFC East starting quarterbacks — Hurts, Prescott and Daniel Jones — average salaries between $40 million and $51 million annually.

“It’s obviously a slight advantage from a salary cap perspective,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said, “because of the most obvious thing in the world: Veteran quarterbacks who play very well can approach (20 percent) of your salary cap. “

Hurts signed a five-year, $255 million extension this spring with the Eagles after counting $1.64 million on the 2022 cap hit for the NFC champions. Philadelphia used the extra cap space last season to trade and extend wide receiver AJ Brown and sign free-agent cornerback James Bradberry while maintaining strength in the trenches and throughout the offense.

“We had a lot of good pieces around Jalen to help him play at a high level,” said Steichen, Philadelphia’s offensive coordinator last season. “He’s a good player the way he is, but adding those pieces … was really good.”

Many draft analysts pegged Howell as a Day 2 pick entering the 2022 NFL Draft, making the North Carolina product’s slide to Round 5 a surprise. Rivera contends that some in Washington’s organization had first- or second-round grades on Howell thanks in part to his dynamic sophomore campaign, strong arm, mobility and gritty demeanor. The belief in Howell handling starting duties also comes from watching Brock Purdy, the final pick in the 2022 draft, thrive for the 49ers when he’s pushed into the lineup due to injury.

“I don’t think this is as much of a wild shot as people think it is,” Rivera said. “You see a young man like Brock Purdy have the season he had last year and you’d like to think we have a guy with the same type of ability and skill set.”

Hurts’ cap hits won’t balloon until 2025 ($21.8 million) before reaching $41.15 million in 2027. Feeling confident at QB is excellent, but the deal means thinking about the financial puzzle of subsequent moves.

The Bengals will soon face this situation when Burrow signs what will surely be the largest contract in league history.

“We always knew this day was coming,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said.

Cincinnati can improve the roster moving forward with organizational planning, “but maybe not in ways we (could)” when Burrows’ extension happens, Taylor said.

Washington would happily sign up for a scenario where Howell’s performance warrants an elite payday. Teams will leverage their salary cap plan into a difference making QB.

“You’ve seen quarterbacks on those (lucrative) contracts still win Super Bowls,” Steichen said less than two months after Philadelphia lost Super Bowl LVII to Kansas City. “Patrick Mahomes is a perfect example.”

Having a future Hall of Fame-level quarterback like Mahomes is the dream. Most realities fall far short. But teams like Washington will relentlessly search for success, even if it means risking inexperience for the right price.

“Is (rookie contract QB) the model?” McDaniel asked rhetorically. “I think you can be opportunistic, yes. But the bottom line is you want the best players, especially at the quarterback position. When you have a known device, you pay what you have to pay. There are a lot of teams that have a lot of success with quarterbacks that are also rookie contracts.”

(Top photo: John McDonnell / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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