We did it! Thanks to another concerted whole team effort by the Commanders, and a continuation of their amazing run of help from other teams, Ron Rivera’s team has reached the apex of their climb up the draft order. Last week, the 4-11 Commanders had reached third place, and found themselves in a neck and neck battle with the 4-11 Patriots to win the strength of schedule (SoS) tiebreak to retain their draft position.
Moving any higher would require the 3-12 Arizona Cardinals to stage one of the upsets of the season on the road against the 11-4 Eagles (-12.0). While a win by the Cardinals in their final game of the season against the Seattle Seahawks seemed like an outside possibility for the Commanders to move up to second, the chance of an upset over the Eagles seemed so remote that I didn’t even give it any thought.
But you know what they say about any given Sunday. Kyler Murray and the Cardinals weren’t having any of it and dealt the Eagles their fourth loss in five games. The unexpected win dropped Arizona to fourth in the draft order, behind both Washington and the Patriots. Thanks to the Steelers’ road upset of the Seahawks (-4.5) and the Saints’ upset of the Bucs (-2.5), the Commanders maintained their SoS advantage over the Patriots and moved up to second place.
To appreciate just how well the Commanders’ tank has gone, and how badly the second half of Ron Rivera’s make-or-break season went, just look back to Week 11. When I wrote the first edition of the 2023 Commanders’ Tank Tracker, it had only been a little over a week since Washington’s last win. Sam Howell had just completed 65.9% of passes for 312 yards, with 3 TDs and no interceptions in a close loss to the Seahawks. If the season had ended then, the 2-8 Giants would be picking second. Just seven weeks ago, the 4-6 Commanders were facing tough competition from four other four-win teams to hang on to 10th place in the draft order.
Few Commanders’ fans realized at the time that the team had just started what would become the longest active losing streak in the second half of the season. Since Week 10, the Cardinals, Giants, Patriots and even the Panthers have won more games than Washington.
As agonizing as that has been for fans to endure, there is a consolation prize. If the Commanders can hang onto second place for one more week, they will find themselves in position to take a shot at drafting a game-changing talent, or in possession of a draft pick that other teams will covet enough to give away a treasure trove of draft capital to boost the next regime’s rebuild into overdrive.
Eyes on the Prize
With just one more game to go, the Commanders have climbed to second place, which is the highest they can go in the draft order. If through some miracle (catastrophe?) they win their season finale against the Cowboys, who are playing for the division title, the latest they could end up picking is seventh. In most likely scenarios, one more win drops them from second or third to somewhere between fifth and seventh.
Based on the most recent Hogs Haven polling, the main options that readers would like the new GM to exercise with the Commanders’ first round pick are: stay put and draft an offensive tackle, stay put and draft a quarterback, or trade back to get more draft picks. To see what a difference 1 more win could make, lets have a look at the past ten drafts to see how teams have done with each of those when holding the second through fourth picks vs the fifth through seventh.
In the past decade, only two OTs have been taken in the top four picks: Andrew Thomas (Giants 2020 #4) and Greg Robinson (St Louis Rams 2014 #2). It does not appear that NFL teams have been valuing OTs in recent drafts as highly as some Commanders’ fans appear to think. Of the two, Thomas is developing into a top-tier franchise left tackle while Robinson failed to live up to expectations. That gives an apparent hit rate of 50%, but the sample size is too small for that to be meaningful.
In the same period, seven OTs have been taken at the fifth through seventh picks: Paris Johnson (Arizona 2023 #6), Ikem Ekwonu (Carolina 2022 #6), Evan Neal (2022 Giants #7), Penei Sewell (Detroit 2021 #7), Ronnie Stanley (Ravens 2016 #6), Brandon Scherff (Redskins 2015 #5), Jake Matthews (Falcons 2014 #6). Of those seven players, three have established themselves as high end starting OTs (Sewell, Stanley, Matthews). Scherff became a franchise player at guard, not OT. Ekwonu and Neal have struggled in their first two years, and appear to be poised to join Scherff inside at guard. Paris Johnson struggled in his first year with the Cardinals, which is normal for OTs and is still too young to judge.
If Johnson comes good, the hit rate for OTs in this draft range would be 57%, but if he doesn’t it would drop to 42.9%. There is no obvious difference between OTs drafted at picks 2 to 4 vs 5 to 7, except that more OTs are drafted in the later range.
Furthermore, in the past 10 drafts, the first OT off the board has only turned out to be best in class twice (2021 Penei Sewell #7; 2020 Andrew Thomas #4). Over that same period, the best OT in class was drafted after the first two were off the board five times (2015 RT Rob Havenstein #57/LT Trent Brown #244; 2018 LT/RT Orlando Brown #83; 2019 RT Kaleb McGary #31; 2022 LT Charles Cross #9/LT Braxton Jones #168, 2023 RT Dawand Jones #111 in early returns).
My takeaway is that picking anywhere in the top seven should put the Commanders in position to pick a franchise OT. I can’t see much evidence that dropping from second to seventh has made much difference to previous teams’ chances of landing a franchise player when OT was the target. The real challenge is picking the best NFL player, because it is seldom the most highly rated OT draft prospect or the first one off the board. If the Commanders chose to trade back in the first round for more picks, they should still be in position to draft a quality OT, provided their scouts know how to pick them.
Picking in the 2 to 4 range vs 5 to 7 might not make a world of difference for OTs, but quarterbacks are another matter. Given how highly QBs are valued in today’s league, it’s got to be critical to pick as early as possible to have a chance at one of the top-rated prospects, right? Let’s have a look at the last 10 drafts.
From 2014 to 2023, eight QBs were drafted from picks 2 through 4: C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson, Zack Wilson, Trey Lance, Mitch Trubisky, Carson Wentz, Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles. If C.J. Stroud goes on to become a franchise QB, rather than being a flash in the pan like Trubisky or Wentz, that would bring the hit rate from this group up from 0 to 12.5%. It’s anyone’s guess what will become of Anthony Richardson, but if he comes good that brings it to 25%.
The QBs drafted from picks 5 through 7 during this period are: Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold and Josh Allen. Three of the five (Tua, Herbert, Allen) are among the league’s best QBs. Daniel Jones played well enough to earn a long-term extension from the Giants. Darnold is the only true bust in this group. The hit rate for picking franchise QBs in this range is 80%.
Believe it or not, in the past decade it hasn’t proved that critical to pick in the top four vs 5 to 7 if the target is QB, either.
While it hasn’t seemed to make a huge difference in recent drafts to pick in the top 4 vs the top 7 if the object is to stay put and pick an OT or QB, what if the goal is to trade back in the first round to acquire more draft picks?
In the 10 drafts from 2014 through 2023, there have been 6 trades targeting picks in the range from 2 through 4 vs just three trades targeting picks from 5 through 7. So the chance of receiving trade offers worth taking would appear to be double if the Commanders can avoid beating the Cowboys.
As for trade values, four of six trades involving top-four picks (67%) netted the team trading down an additional first round pick as well as other draft picks (2023 Houston/Arizona trade for Edge Will Anderson; 2021 SF/Miami trade for Trey Lance; 2016 PHI/CLE trade for Carson Wentz; 2014 BUF/CLE trade for WR Sammy Watkins). In the largest of these trades, Miami moved back from pick #3 to #12 and gained San Francisco’s 2022 first and third round picks and 2023 first round pick. The 49ers used pick #3 to draft QB Trey Lance who is currently backing up Dak Prescott in Dallas.
In the two trades that did not net additional first round picks, the teams trading back moved no further than three places back, staying in the top six, and each gained three additional Day 2 picks in the process.
Of the three trades for picks 5 through 7, only one (33%) netted the team trading back an additional 1st round pick (2021 PHI/MIA trade for WR Jalen Waddle). The other two involved trades back from picks #6 or #7 to #12 and netted the team trading back either one (2023 AZ/DET trade for OT Paris Johnson) or two (2018 BUF/TB trade for QB Josh Allen) additional second round picks, with an extra fifth round pick as a deal sweetener in Arizona’s trade to pick Paris Johnson.
Such trades could be helpful to the new GM’s franchise building effort, but are not on a par with the blockbuster trades for top four picks which have netted additional first round picks plus multiple Day 2 picks.
If the Commanders hope to get a trade offer big enough to jumpstart the rebuild, their chances will be greatly diminished if they beat Dallas and drop out of the top four.
Week 18 Draft Position Watch
Thanks to the Cardinals’ upset of the Eagles, combined with favorable outcomes to maintain Washington’s SoS advantage, the Commanders and Patriots have moved up to second and third place in Tankathon’s projection, if the season ended today.
The other major development in Week 17 was that the Panthers clinched the first overall position with a loss to the Jaguars. This means that Commanders can’t rise any further in the draft order. Their challenge for the final week is to defend their second-place position against a challenge from New England. The other four-win team, Arizona, is so far behind the front-runners in the battle of the SoS tiebreak that they are no longer a concern.
Of course, all of Washington’s hard work and near-miraculous streak of good luck to get to second place could be undone if they beat Dallas to finish the season with a 5-12 record. In that case, they would almost certainly fall back in the draft order, unless both New England and Arizona also win their last games. In the most likely scenario here, involving Washington and New England wins, but not Arizona, they would drop to third or fourth. But if they didn’t get help from the Patriots or Cardinals, they would fall to at least fifth, and potentially as far back as seventh. How far they fall back if they win another game depends on how the outcomes of Week 18 games affect the Patriots and their five-win challengers Giants, Chargers and Titans.
Depending on what the new front office decides to do with the first round pick, a drop of three to five places in the draft order might not actually be the catastrophe that many fans fear, as I have outlined above. It would almost certainly diminish their chances of doing a franchise transforming trade for draft picks, if that is their preferred option. A drop in the draft order also impacts the players available at each of their subsequent original picks. Sticking with the conventional wisdom, for now, that picking as early as possible gives the Commanders the best chance to make the best choices for the future of the franchise, let’s see what it would take to defend their current draft position.
Keys to Defending Second Place
First and foremost, we must avoid a repeat of last year’s season finale, in which the Commanders, starting rookies and backups with nothing to play for but game tape and pride, shocked a listless Cowboys team with playoff seeding still on the line. If they do upset the heavily favored Cowboys (-13.0), they will likely pick somewhere between fifth and seventh, depending on other game outcomes.
Fortunately for Commanders’ fans, the Cardinals’ shock upset of the Eagles last week had the added benefit of tying Philadelphia’s record with Dallas at 11-5. As a result, the Cowboys will be playing for the division lead and seeding advantage in the playoffs. Hopefully, they will do better than last year.
If the Commanders can keep up what they’ve been doing for the past seven games and lose to Dallas, then their only real competition for the second overall pick is the challenge from New England. According to Tankathon’s current projection, the Commanders currently enjoy a 0.003 SoS advantage over the Patriots. That three parts in 1,000 lead could easily vanish if just one game played between other teams does not go as expected.
If the Commanders take care of business against Dallas, the most surefire path to hanging onto second place is a Patriots (-1.5) win over the Jets at home in Foxborough. If the Patriots win and Washington loses, then Washington will not need any help from other teams to stay in second place.
If the Commanders and Patriots both lose then the battle for second place will be decided by the SoS tiebreak. The Commanders’ and Patriots’ SoS is so close, that this will come down to outcomes of Week 18 games involving the two teams’ schedule opponents. The most critical teams to root for to maintain Washington’s SoS advantage are the Saints, Raiders, Steelers, Colts, and Packers, as detailed in the Week 18 Rooting guide, below.
If the Commanders do beat Dallas and the Patriots lose to the Jets, then they will find themselves in a battle for fifth place with any current five-win teams (Giants, Chargers, Titans) that lose their last game. If any of the five-win teams wins their final game, it eliminates them as a competitor and reduces the number of places the Commanders could slide by one. Cheer for all the five-win teams to win this weekend. As unlikely as this scenario is, it could also be helpful to root for outcomes which raise those teams’ SoS as insurance against falling to sixth or seventh place.
Week 18 Rooting Guide
As a service to Commanders’ fans, here is a handy guide to help you cheer for game outcomes which will help the Commanders retain their draft position.
Most Important Games
Cowboys (11-5) @ Commanders (4-12), Sunday late
If the Commanders upset the Cowboys, who are playing for the NFC East division title, and the Cardinals lose as expected, then they will drop back at least one place in the draft order, and potentially as far back as seventh, depending on other Week 18 game outcomes. Hold your nose, it’s important
Jets (6-10) @ Patriots (4-12), Sunday early
If the Commanders lose and the Patriots win, we are locked in at second in the draft order. Do your job, Pats!
Falcons (7-9) @ Saints (8-8), Sunday early
The Falcons are a Commanders opponent and the Saints are a Patriots opponent. A Saints win, therefore, raises the Patriots’ SoS while lowering the Commanders’, providing a double assist in our most important tiebreak. Who dat?
Broncos (8-8) @ Raiders (7-9), Sunday late
The Broncos are a Commanders opponent and the Raiders are a Patriots opponent. This game is just like Falcons vs Saints. A Raiders win helps the Commanders and hurts the Patriots. Just win baby!
Steelers (9-7) @ Ravens (13-3), Saturday early
The Steelers are a Patriots opponent, so a win helps the Commanders in their most important tiebreak. The Ravens are opponents of potential rivals Chargers and Titans. But that only becomes important if we beat Dallas. The Steelers helped us get to second place by losing an upset to the Pats in Week 14. Can they help us stay there with an upset win of their own? Wave your terrible towel!
Texans (9-7) @ Colts (9-7), Saturday late
The Colts are a Patriots opponent, so an Indianapolis win helps us win a tiebreak to stay ahead of our main competitor. For the shoe!
Bears (7-9) @ Packers (8-8), Sunday late
A Bears’ loss lowers the Commanders’ SoS, assisting tiebreaks with the Patriots and potentially the Giants and Titans if we beat Dallas. Go Pack!
Possibly Important Games
Buccaneers (8-8) @ Panthers (2-14), Sunday early
Neither team played the Commanders or Patriots this season. But the Panthers played the Titans, so a Panthers win could help Washington win a tiebreak if they beat the Cowboys. Keep pounding!
Seahawks (8-8) @ Cardinals (4-12), Sunday late
Both teams are Commanders’ opponents so the outcome doesn’t affect Washington’s SoS. The Seahawks also played the Titans, so a Seattle win could help with a tiebreak if the Commanders beat the Cowboys. Be the twelfth man!
Jaguars (9-7) @ Titans (5-11), Sunday early
The Titans are one of the teams the Commanders could have to face in a tiebreak if they beat Dallas. A Titans win eliminates them as a potential competitor, which would mean the farthest back the Commanders could fall is sixth place. A Titans win also helps the Commanders in a potential tiebreak with the five-win Chargers. Titan up!
Chiefs (10-6) @ Chargers (5-11), Sunday late
A Chargers win eliminates them as a potential competitor, limiting Washington’s slide if they beat Dallas. Bolt up!
Eagles (11-5) @ Giants (5-11), Sunday late
Both teams are NFC East division rivals and played the Patriots this season. The outcome of this game does not affect Washington’s SoS or tiebreak with the Pats. The Giants are sitting at five wins, so a loss eliminates them as a competitor if Washington beats the Cowboys. Go G-men!
Bills (10-6) @ Dolphins (11-5), Sunday Night Football
Both teams are divisional rivals of the Patriots and played Washington this season. So the outcome does not affect Washington’s SoS or tiebreaks with the Patriots. The one difference is that the Dolphins played the Titans, so a Miami win could help us win a tiebreak if we beat the Cowboys. Fins up!
Browns @ Bengals
Vikings @ Lions
Rams @ 49ers
Week 18 Commanders’ Draft Position Projection: 2nd Place
As bad as the second half of the season has gone for Ron Rivera and the Commanders, it has been a dream run for the tank for draft position. In addition to the team’s commendable effort to finish the season on a league-leading seven-game losing streak, the Commanders’ tank has also benefitted from more help from other teams than could have possibly been imagined.
This includes, but is not limited to the Week 14 Patriots upset of the Steelers followed by their Week 16 upset of the Broncos to close the gap with the Commanders, the Cardinals’ shocking Week 17 upset of the Philadelphia Eagles to move Washington into second place, and the amazing coincidence of six favorable upsets in Week 14 (including Pats/Steelers) to neutralize competitors and solidify Commanders’ position in the top 4.
The Commanders have two viable paths to hang onto second place, either by a Patriots win, or by winning a SoS tiebreak, if both teams lose their final games. If the Commanders lose to Dallas, as expected, the latest they could reasonably expect to pick is third. But with the Patriots now favored to win what will most likely be Bill Belichick’s last home game at Foxborough, it is not even likely to come to that.
Would you rather beat Dallas and pick 6th in the draft or lose at home and pick 2nd?
This poll is closed
Beat Dallas at all costs
Take the L and build a monster
Out of Caleb Williams, Drake May, Jayden Daniels, Michael Penix, JJ McCarthy and Bo Nix, how many will become long term starters?
This poll is closed
Don’t care, first pick must be OT