Commanders’ Draft Class Fills Several Needs, Features Plenty of Value

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 8, 2023; Landover, Maryland, USA; Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell (14) scores a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys at FedExField.

The Washington Commanders had just turned in their fifth-round draft selection Saturday afternoon when, some 40 miles southeast of team headquarters, their quarterback arrived to a throng of fans, many chanting his name and even more requesting his autograph.

“Sammy boy!” one yelled as Sam Howell wove his way through the crowd, took a seat on the stage and fluffed his hair.

“Yeah, Q-B!” another screamed.

As Commanders executives finalized their draft class in Ashburn, one of the larger fan turnouts in recent history – more than 26,000 RSVP’d, according to a team spokesperson – took over National Harbor in Fort Washington for a draft party that seemed to celebrate much more than the rookies. The prospect of new ownership and the arrival of a new offense led by a new quarterback seemed to renew hope for fans.

“I think it’s awesome just to see the fans so excited about the team,” said wide receiver Jahan Dotson, last year’s top Commanders draft pick. “I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction. . . . I keep using the word exciting, but that’s truly what it’s going to be. We got the pieces, we got the coaches that are going to put us in the right [places] to succeed.”

Those pieces include a seven-player draft class that checked off many of the team’s needs.

The Commanders believe they found a defensive playmaker in cornerback Emmanuel Forbes Jr., their first-round pick out of Mississippi State. They found another versatile safety in second-round pick Quan Martin, bolstered the offensive line with Arkansas center Ricky Stromberg (third round) and Utah tackle Braeden Daniels (fourth), then traded up to select Clemson edge rusher KJ Henry in the fifth. Washington rounded out its class with Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. in the sixth round and Louisiana Lafayette linebacker Andre Jones in the seventh.

“We continue to add depth and guys that have played a lot of football, and hopefully that’ll transition into them being the kind of pros that we hope for,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “And then we finished up with some guys that we felt would add some more depth with the positions we’re looking at.”

Added General Manager Martin Mayhew: “It’s about value, and we feel we got really good value today with the players we ended up getting.”

Notably absent from the group was a quarterback, confirming the team’s confidence in Howell, a fifth-round pick last year, and Jacoby Brissett, whom it signed in March. Rivera has said since the start of the offseason that the job is essentially Howell’s to lose; he will get every chance to be the starter, but he still must prove he’s ready at training camp.

“He’s been pretty honest with me the whole time about how I’m going to have a chance to be the starter this year,” Howell said Saturday. “Obviously I still have to go earn that job, and I’m going to try to do everything I can to do that. It’s a great opportunity. I’m just ready to go to work.”

Howell said his hope for camp is to “show a command of the offense,” which has been revamped under new coordinator Eric Bieniemy. The Commanders will soon start the second phase of offseason workouts, and in between Howell said he plans to hold throwing sessions with some of his receivers and other playmakers.

“I always try to do stuff like that and get our timing down,” Howell said. “We had a couple throwing sessions, and I’m sure we’ll have some more.”

Position flexibility is a theme of this draft class. Since Rivera took over in 2020, the Commanders have sought players who can play two (or more) positions. The projected starting secondary is now composed entirely of players this staff has drafted, many of whom are versatile enough to move around.

Martin, a safety and nickelback, can play inside as Washington’s “Buffalo nickel” in its packages with five defensive backs but also can move outside to cornerback, fall back as a deep safety or move down in the box.

Stromberg has played guard and center but will compete at the latter with free agent addition Nick Gates.

Daniels has played all five positions on the offensive line. At Utah, he started 17 games at left guard, 14 at left tackle and 12 at right tackle. In Washington, he will develop and add depth, probably at tackle.

Washington wanted to add to its running backs room after releasing J.D. McKissic, its third-down back. The team had a third-round grade on Rodriguez, according to two people familiar with the matter, but was able to get the 6-foot, 217-pounder in the sixth.

Forbes is the prize of the group, and though his weight (166 pounds) warranted scrutiny, his ball skills and production at Mississippi State made him a target early in the scouting process. Forbes played almost exclusively outside at cornerback, and, as a first-round pick, will probably slide into a starting role.

“We were looking for a playmaker, and I think Emmanuel does that for us,” Rivera said.

Henry adds depth that was sorely needed on the defensive line. He had 122 tackles, 13.5 sacks and 11 batted passes in his five-year college career but didn’t become a full-time starter until 2022.

“I think KJ was overlooked [at Clemson],” Rivera said. “The tape that you watch and you repeatedly watch, he’s there making plays, so he’s a guy that we wanted to have. . . . And Andre Jones is just an explosive player. We’ve got to find a role for him.”

Following the draft, Mayhew and the Commanders’ personnel staff worked the phones to get more talent from the pool of undrafted free agents.

“We still aren’t done,” Rivera said. “Everything we do is continuing to make our roster better. We’re going to look at the development of our players on our roster, the development of these young guys that we have and what’s still out there. There’s still a lot to come, and we want to put the best group out there that we can come September.”