As we get well into the second half of the 2023 season, and the harder part of the Commanders’ schedule, many fans will choose to celebrate the team’s dim and diminishing prospects for a playoff appearance. If that is you, I highly recommend that you follow Bill-in-Bangkok’s weekly Wild Card Watch.
Others are ready to embrace the reality that the chance of Ron Rivera leading the 2023 Commanders to playoff success for the first time in four seasons is negligible. Fans in that category derive hope from the promise of a better future under new ownership after the final remnants of the Snyder era have been purged from the organization. Those fans may recognize that losing in the short-term, while painful, can offer long-lasting benefits by giving the next General Manager more draft capital to work with and possibly by hastening the spring clean.
For those who recognize that some good can come from losing, I will be posting weekly updates on the progress of the Commanders’ journey down the league rankings and up the draft order from now until one of two things happens: the regular season ends or the Commanders clinch a playoff spot. For those of you still entertaining the idea that the Rivera regime might be worth keeping around if he can pull a rabbit out of the hat over the remaining seven games, I will also include some weekly updates on the outcomes of a few of his most notable draft-related decisions.
The Benefits of Losing
Before I get into the first weekly update, I need to clarify one thing. As a fan for over 50 years, I could never bring myself to cheer for the team formerly known as Redskins to intentionally throw a game. While people talk about tanking for draft position, I actually doubt that any self-respecting NFL coach ever takes to the field with the intention of losing a game. Of course, that’s a little different from using a few games after the team has been eliminated from playoff contention to give the rookies some playing time and do some evaluation to prepare for the offseason.
And while I have no doubt that Ron Rivera is firmly focused on trying to win games and keep his job, the team’s decision to trade their two starting defensive ends provides a clear signal that ownership is already looking forward to next season.
The way I see it, if the team is going to lose anyway, there can’t be any harm in looking for a bright side. The Tank Tracker is not about cheering for the Commanders to lose. Rather, it is about celebrating the silver rays of sunshine that may emerge from the edges of the long cloud of defeat that is likely to settle on the 4-6 Commanders as they enter the harder part of their schedule.
For those who might argue that gaining a few places in the draft order is not worth the pain associated with losing most of the remaining games, I would like to illustrate how much the Commanders have to gain from a good end-of-season tank in terms of draft capital.
According to Tankathon, the Commanders are currently slated to pick 10th in each draft round. The following table shows their current draft picks and associated draft capital (trade value based on the Rich Hill trade value chart), if the season ended today, as well as what would happen if they lost 6 of their 7 remaining games. The Commanders original picks, which are in their control, are indicated by bold font. The picks gained in the trades for Chase Young and Montez Sweat remain as projected by Tankathon in both scenarios.
If the Commanders lose 6 more games, they will finish the season with a 5-12 record. Last season, the two 5-12 teams picked 5th and 6th, so I have projected them to get the 5th overall pick in the 5-12 scenario. As you can see from the totals, losing 6 of the next 7 games would improve the position of their original picks in each round by 5 positions, resulting in an overall gain of 132 points of draft capital. That is the equivalent of adding the 45th overall pick in the draft to their total draft capital.
That would be a substantial gain, on its own. But the benefits of moving from 10th to 5th in the first round might be even greater than just gaining the equivalent of a mid-2nd round pick.
It is generally recognized that the Commanders’ biggest need in the 2024 is an offensive tackle. There are currently two OTs rated as elite draft prospects, who are likely to go in the top 10: Penn State's Olu Fashanu and Notre Dame's Joe Alt. Moving up to 5th in the draft order could position the Commanders to draft a franchise left tackle, who might not be available to them at 10th overall.
Alternatively, holding the 5th overall pick could create opportunities for the new GM to trade back to acquire a large excess of Day 1 and 2 draft picks. History tells us that, despite the fact that such moves never work out, QB needy teams are often willing to surrender large excesses of draft capital to trade into the top-5 to chase elite QB prospects. The 2024 draft features two elite QB prospects who are likely to go 1-2: Caleb Williams, USC and Drake Maye, UNC. After them are at least four more prospects who could move into early first round consideration by draft time (e.g. Bo Nix, Michael Penix, Riley Leonard, JJ McCarthy). If a team is desperate to move up for one of those players, a team holding the 5th overall pick could potentially trade back in the first round to acquire multiple additional first and second round picks in 2024 and/or 2025.
Blockbuster trades of that sort are seldom offered for picks beyond 5th overall.
Draft Position Watch
As discussed above, according to Tankathon’s projection, if the season ended today, the Commanders would pick 10th overall. Using last season’s draft order as a rough guide, if they lost their remaining 7 games to finish 4-13, they could end up picking as high as 3rd overall. That seems unlikely, however, as their next game is against the Giants who are down to their third string QB and have a roster depleted by injuries.
Through 10 weeks the Commanders have played close games against the league-leading Eagles and lost to two teams that are in the running for the first overall pick (Giants, Bears). They have yet to beat a team that currently has a winning record and face 5 matchups against teams who currently have 6-3 records.
To get an idea of how they are likely to go, lets have a look at how they match up against their remaining opponents.
Week 11 Giants at FedEx
There are no sure things in NFL football, but this is as close as it gets. The Commanders always find a way to make Daniel Jones look like Joe Montana, but he tore his ACL a few weeks ago and then his backup Tyrod Taylor went on injured reserve with an injury. The G-Men will be starting rookie UDFA Tommy DeVito who has completed 57.4% of passes in three games, with 3 TDs to 3 INTs and has taken 11 sacks for 54 yards over the last 2 games. DeVito leads a roster with 15 players questionable to play on Sunday, including starters at OT, CB, WR LB, OLB, RB and S.
If Rivera’s Commanders can’t overcome the crippled Giants, who were one of the worst teams before the injuries, then the possibility of a mid-season firing has to be put on the table.
Prediction: Commanders win by more than one score
Weeks 12 and 18, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys are second in the division and are one of 8 teams with 6-3 record. They have a point differential of +104, with an average margin of victory of 11.6 pts per game, which might seem to indicate they are formidable opponent. However, like the Commanders, all of their wins have come against teams with losing records. Are they the real deal or the biggest underachiever in football? Probably closer to the latter. Another consideration is that the second matchup is the last game of the season, when they might be resting starters or just choke like they did last season.
Prediction: Commanders have a reasonable chance to split the series
Week 13, Miami Dolphins
In a bit of a recurring theme, the Dolphins are currently leading their division at 6-3 and a +60 point differential, but all of their wins have been against losing teams. Then again, they have been very efficient at beating up on losing teams, such as the Commanders. The Dolphins’ offense, featuring Tua Tagovailoa, Tyreek Hill, Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane, ranks 1st in the NFL in total points, passing yards and TDs, and rushing yards per attempt. The matchup of Miami’s offense against the Commanders’ 31st ranked defense essentially a perfect storm. This is likely to get ugly.
Prediction: Commanders will be lucky to keep this within 2 scores
Week 15, @ LA Rams
This season’s Rams are pretty evenly matched to the Commanders on offense, both ranking in the teens in most metrics, with fairly similar QB performances. The Rams have a modest advantage on defense but are stronger against the run than the pass. Since the Commanders don’t run the ball, that’s a wash. The Rams are not particularly good at rushing the passer, which has been one of the Commanders’ biggest weaknesses. The homefield advantage is probably larger than any difference between these teams.
Prediction: Rams by less than one score
Week 16, @ New York Jets
The Jets have a bottom-4 offense in total yardage and scoring, combined with a top-3 passing defense (3rd in passing yards and TDs, 2nd in opponent net yards/attempt). Zach Wilson has taken a ton of sacks (33 for 240 yards), but Washington sold its pass rushers to the highest bidders a few weeks ago. They have a bottom-10 rushing defense, but Eric Bieniemy would have to have some kind of epiphany to take advantage. It is almost as if these two teams’ weaknesses exactly complement each other. If Eric Beiniemy can revive the running game from hibernation, the Commanders have a real chance. Unfortunately, that’s a really big if.
Prediction: Commanders by less than one score
Week 17, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are a legitimate championship contender. Their offense is loaded with All-Pro talent and ranks 3rd in points scored and total yardage, while the defense is only slightly weighted down by the addition of Chase Young and ranks 2nd in scoring 5th in yardage. The 49ers have outscored their opponents by an average margin of 12.1 points per game, and that figure is likely to increase when they play the Commanders.
Prediction: 49ers by 2 or more touchdowns
My slightly optimistic best guesses have the Commanders’ winning 3 more games (Giants, Dallas, Jets) and losing 4 (Dallas, Miami, Rams, 49ers), which would see them finish the regular season with a 7-10 record, consistent with Ron Rivera’s record in Washington.
Last season, 6 teams had 7-10 records and picked 8th through 13th. So, if my predictions hold up, they are currently on track to end up picking right around where they are now. It would not be unreasonable to predict additional losses to Dallas and possibly even the Jets, which could see them dropping to 5th or 6th, based on last season’s draft order. On the other hand, it would probably be a stretch to predict more than three wins against the remaining schedule, so it is unlikely the Commanders will drop out of the top half of the first round, unless something changes dramatically.
Coaching Hot Seat
Ron Rivera, Head Coach and Head of Football Operations
It has been 1,081 days since Ron Rivera was last fired from a head coaching job, following the Carolina Panthers’ 21-29 loss to the 2-9 Washington Redskins on December 3, 2019. When he was hired, Rivera announced that he did not have the patience for a 5 year rebuild. Since then, he has led the team to regular season records of 7-9, 7-10, 8-8-1 and 4-6 with one Wild Card playoff loss. As a head coach, he has not had a winning season since 2017.
The new ownership group would have to expect more than Rivera has delivered thus far from the team they just purchased for over $6B. Since taking over at the start of the season, they had been taking a hands off approach to football operations until they apparently intervened to force trades of Montez Sweat and Chase Young at the end of October.
The current expectation is that they will start making major personnel moves after the season. However, that could change if the team suffers a major setback. Would losing to the 2-8 Giants and stalling their death spiral be enough to compel Josh Harris to take action? Check back next week.
Jack Del Rio, Defensive Coordinator
Del Rio’s unit ranked 7th in the league in scoring defense and 3rd (best) in yardage allowed in 2022. This season they have dropped to 31st in scoring defense and 29th in yardage allowed. While Rivera’s job currently appears to be safe until the end of the season, Del Rio is the most likely candidate for a sacrificial offering if it is decided that someone needs to be let go before the season is over.
Will the Harris Group keep the coaching staff intact until the end of the season, or make a move to demonstrate they are serious about performance on the field? This is likely to be a week-to-week call for the remainder of the season.
Eric Bieniemy, Offensive Coordinator
Eric Bieniemy’s hiring was seen as a major coup for Rivera and the Commanders’ franchise last offseason. As offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, he oversaw the development of Patrick Mahomes as one of the NFL’s elite players while leading the offense through 2 Super Bowl championships and three AFC conference championships.
Since he took over as OC in Washington, Sam Howell has emerged as one of the league’s most promising first year starting QBs and the offense has improved from 24th in points scored and 20th in total yardage in 2022 to 17th in points and 16th in yardage in 2023. Whatever you may think about his over-reliance on passing, you would have to think that Bieniemy’s job is safe at least until ownership starts making major moves in the offseason.
Ron and the Martii’s Draft Bust Watch
Prior to the season I promised (some would say threatened) to provide occasional updates on The Ones That Got Away – players that Washington could have had instead of some of Ron Rivera’s more questionable draft choices, including draft picks squandered on bad trade decisions.
Here is a Week 11 update on The Ones That Got Away and the players that Ron’s front office chose instead, with a few additions since the preview.
2020 Draft, Round 1, Pick #2
Could have had: QB Tua Tagovailoa, QB Justin Herbert
Tua Tagovailoa is leading the NFL’s #1 ranked offense and ranks 1st in passing TDs, 3rd in total passing yards, 2nd in yards per attempt and 8th in total QBR. He is currently 2nd place in MVP betting odds (+840) behind Patrick Mahomes (+570).
Justin Herbert ranks 9th in passing yards, 5th in passing TDs, 13th in yards per attempt, and 5th in total QBR.
Commanders pick: DE Chase Young
Young earned official bust status when the Commanders traded him to the 49ers for a 3rd round comp pick amid reports that the team viewed the move as addition by subtraction.
In truth, the “should have drafted Herbert narrative” only emerged well after the 2020 season, when the confetti from the Chase Young DRoY celebrations finally settled to the ground. There was little support for the idea at the time of the draft on Hogs Haven and little reality to it with Ron Rivera inheriting Dan Snyder’s hand picked starter, Dwayne Haskins. Furthermore, the Commanders appear to have finally hit on a QB when Rivera picked Sam Howell in the 5th round of the 2022 draft.
Nevertheless, just imagine how differently the Ron Rivera experiment could have turned out if the team had started Tagovailoa or Herbert at QB in 2020, in place of the 7 QBs who started for Washington from 2020 through 2022.
2021 Draft, Round 1, Pick #19
Could have had: OT Christian Darrisaw
Darrisaw has started 32 games at LT for Minnesota since being selected 23rd overall in the 2021 draft. He is currently PFF’s top-ranked OT in overall blocking (grade 86.1) and ranks 5th in pass blocking (grade 83.9) and is tied with Trent Williams at 4th in run blocking (grade 82.4).
Washington Pick: LB Jamin Davis
Davis took a couple of seasons to adjust to the speed of the NFL, but eventually developed into a solid starter. He currently ranks 26th in combined tackles (68) among starting LBs and 67th in opposing passer rating in coverage (96.2).
2021 Draft Trade – Washington 2022 Fifth Round Pick for Philadelphia Picks 225, 240
Could have had: OG Trey Smith
The Football Team traded a future 5th round pick to get back into the 6th round at pick #225. Such a trade would have made a ton of sense if they were targeting the best player remaining in the draft at a position of dire need (Smith). Instead, they selected long snapper Camaron Cheeseman. I believe, but cannot confirm, this was the first time in NFL draft history that a team has traded for a long snapper. I am sure it will be the last.
Smith was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs with the following pick. He has started all but one regular season game and all 6 playoff games since he was drafted, earning a Super Bowl ring in 2022. In 2023, PFF ranks Smith 14th among NFL guards (min 146 snaps) with an overall blocking grade of 69.5. He ranks 9th in run blocking (grade 72.0) and 30th in pass blocking (grade 66.0). He has allowed 16 total pressures and 0 sacks on 406 pass blocking snaps. He is vastly superior to any OL on Washington’s roster by these metrics on a per snap basis.
Washington Pick: LS Camaron Cheeseman
Through his first two seasons, Cheeseman performed his long snapping duties without incident, which is the most one can expect from a long snapper. During the 2023 offseason, he changed his snapping motion and has been struggling with bad snaps all season, leading to more than one missed kick and several heroic saves by punter/holder Tress Way. Unless he can turn that around, he is likely to be released, or at least face competition next offseason.
Washington also picked up the 240th pick with this trade which they used to select DE William Bradley-King. King played 83 defensive snaps in two seasons with Washington and recorded 1 solo tackle and 5 assists, 0.5 sack and 1 QB hit. He is currently on the Patriots practice squad and has not been active in 2023.
2022 Draft, Round 2, Pick 47
Could have had: S Jaquan Brisker
Brisker has started 23 games for Chicago, aligning primarily at free safety, but also lining up in the box and occasionally in the slot. He has started 8 games in 2023 and recorded 54 combined tackles, 1 TFL, 4 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, half a sack and 2 QB pressures, while only allowing a 59.4% completion rate in coverage.
The real value of this pick is that it would have made the reach for Quan Martin in 2023 unnecessary (see next pick).
Commanders Pick: DT Phidarian Mathis
Mathis missed his rookie season due to injury. Since returning to the lineup in 2023, Mathis has played 46 defensive snaps in 3 games as a rotational DT and recorded 1 assisted tackle and 1 fumble recovery.
2023 Draft, Round 2, Pick #47
Could have had: G/T Cody Mauch, C John Michael Schmitz, or G O’Cyrus Torrence
Mauch has started 9/10 games at RG for the Bucs. His PFF pass blocking grade of 63.1 ranks 3rd in the rookie OL class (min 142 snaps) and 38th among all starting guards. He has allowed 20 total pressures and 5 sacks, which is actually not a whole lot better than Saahdiq Charles (21 pressures, 3 sacks in 7 games).
Torrence has started all 10 games for the Bills at RG. He ranks 6th in the rookie OL class in overall blocking (PFF 60.4), 5th in run blocking (PFF 52.8) and 8th in pass blocking (PFF 57.8). His overall blocking grade of 60.4 ranks 41st among all NFL guards. He has allowed 20 total pressures and 1 sack.
Schmitz has started 7 games for the Giants and missed 3 games with injuries. His overall blocking grade of 49.4 ranks 17th in the rookie draft class out of 19 players who have played a minimum of 142 snaps. He ranks 14th in run blocking (PFF 52.2) and 16th in pass blocking. He has allowed 14 total pressures and 2 sacks in 7 games.
Interestingly, based on pressure stats and PFF blocking grades, none of these three obvious choices at pick #47 would have been a substantial upgrade over Washington’s current players this season. That is not unexpected, since OL typically take at least a year to adjust to the NFL. But they would have helped bolster the depth and offer upside for the future.
Washington’s pick: S Jartavius “Quan” Martin
Quan has become a regular on special teams in his rookie season, averaging around 70% of ST snaps, but has struggled to get snaps on defense. Through Week 10 he has played a total of 50 defensive snaps in 5 games, and recorded 6 solo tackles and 7 assists with 1 missed tackle, and 1 interception and 2 pass breakups. He does not appear to have played well enough to beat out Danny Johnson for the slot corner role when Emmanuel Forbes was benched and Benjamin St-Juste was moved to boundary CB.
Quan might have developmental upside for the future, but he has made little contribution in 2023.
Picks Traded for Carson Wentz
Washington traded its 2022 second round pick (#42) and 2023 3rd round pick (#79) to the Colts for Carson Wentz. The Colts used pick #42 in a multi-pick swap with Minnesota and drafted a player with the 79th pick in 2023. For purposes of this exercise, the Colts’ draft picks derived from the Wentz trade that I’m tracking are 2022 #53 and #73 from Minnesota, and 2023 #79 from Washington.
Could have had: WR Alec Pierce 2022 Round 2, Pick #53
Picking Pierce here might strike some as a luxury pick, after the selection of Jahan Dotson in the first round. But Pierce is a different type of WR. At 6’3” and 211 lbs would have added size and mismatch capability to the Commanders WR room as a possession receiver and red zone threat. In his rookie season he had 41 receptions for 593 yds and 2 TDs. In 2023 he has 18 receptions for 264 yards and no TDs.
Could have had: TE Jelani Woods 2022 Round 3, Pick #73
The Commanders could certainly use more young talent at TE. Woods (6’7”, 253 lbs) had a productive year for a rookie TE, with 25 receptions for 312 yards and 3 TDs, but has spent this season on IR with a hamstring injury. He is expected to return soon.
Could have had: WR Josh Downs, 2023 Round 3, Pick #79
Downs was Sam Howell’s number one receiver in his senior season at UNC where he was a homerun threat at slot WR and on punt returns. In his first season he has started 6 games and established himself as the Colts’ WR2, after Michael Pittman Jr. Through Week 10 he has 43 receptions for 523 yards and 2 TDs. That stat line would position him as Washington’s WR2 as well, only 78 receiving yards behind WR1 Terry McLaurin. The Colts have not tried him on returns.
If the Commanders end up with the 5th overall pick, what should they do with it?
This poll is closed
Pick an elite OT prospect
Pick a QB
Pick an edge rusher
Pick the best player available
Trade back for a haul of Day 1 and Day 2 picks
Trade up for Caleb Williams or Drake Maye