There are a handful of NFL trades that are universally loved or hated right away. When the Houston Texans gave away DeAndre Hopkins, everyone laughed. That's rare. Even the ultimately awful Trent Richardson trade, when the Indianapolis Colts sent a first-round pick to the Cleveland Browns, was debated at the time it was made.
Everyone seemed to hate the Carson Wentz trade to the Washington Commanders. Immediately.
The few Commanders fans who haven't given up on the team through decades of Daniel Snyder ruination will talk themselves into Wentz. But even the most optimistic person has to wonder what Washington was thinking.
Washington traded a 2022 second-round pick, 2022 third-round pick and a conditional 2023 third-round pick to the Indianapolis Colts for Wentz as well as a 2022 second-round pick and a 2022 seventh-round pick. The conditional 2023 third turns into a second if Wentz plays 70 percent of the snaps in 2022. That's a lot for a quarterback who was discarded by the Philadelphia Eagles and then, under the guidance of his old coordinator and reported mentor Frank Reich, failed with the Colts.
That's what Washington signed up for. And they paid in draft picks and all $28 million Wentz is owed in 2022. Washington reportedly made an offer for Russell Wilson, who was traded to Denver instead, leaving the Commanders scrambling. It's never good to shop for a quarterback when you're desperate.
And yet, Washington is still better off at quarterback. That's not saying much. Since Kirk Cousins left, Washington's starting quarterbacks have been Alex Smith, Josh Johnson, Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez, Case Keenum, Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen, Taylor Heinicke, Garrett Gilbert and Ryan Fitzpatrick. If you had to suffer through that for four seasons, you might overpay for a known mediocre option too.
Wentz is better than what Washington has had. He just hasn't been good for many years. Whatever magic he had in 2017, when he was an MVP frontrunner, is long gone. If he couldn't do it with the Colts, it probably wasn't going to happen. He's just 29 years old and has flashes of being good, so maybe there's something to mine. Probably not, though.
That Washington would invest heavily in a quarterback who the Colts openly disliked and the NFL mocked is pretty telling of what the Commanders franchise has become. They might have a new name but the same owner, who can't dodge any scandals or field a winner. Yes, Wentz is better than what the Commanders have had. He's also unlikely to be an exciting short- or long-term answer. That's the Commanders, making moves without much of a clear purpose.
There was some hope before last season. Washington overcame poor quarterback play to win the NFC East in 2020, with the foundation of a good defense in place. That defense entirely disappeared in 2021. Defensive excellence is often not sticky from one season to the next, but Washington going from No. 3 in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA in 2020 to No. 27 last season was startling.
Chase Young was having a surprisingly quiet season before a torn ACL ended it, and there were other injuries as well, but that doesn't fully explain the collapse. Washington still has a very good defensive line and perhaps can have a big rebound.
The offense has some pieces. Terry McLaurin is a great receiver being held back by poor quarterback play. Washington has some good running backs, led by Antonio Gibson. The offensive line is solid, even after losing five-time Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff. Wentz isn't in a terrible situation.
It just seems underwhelming. The best Washington can probably hope for is Wentz playing well enough to make the Commanders a middle-of-the-road team, and maybe Snyder can avoid further embarrassing the franchise off the field. The former seems a lot more likely than the latter.
The Commanders overpaid for Carson Wentz. It would be a more palatable deal if they just took him off the Colts' hands for little draft capital or if Indianapolis was forced to pay a lot of Wentz's salary. That didn't happen. That was the key addition. Washington lost guard Brandon Scherff on a three-year, $49.5 million deal to the Jacksonville Jaguars and then replaced him with former Jaguar Andrew Norwell for $10 million over two years. Guard Trai Turner was also added. Re-signing valuable pass-catching running back J.D. McKissic after he was all but locked up by Buffalo was a good move. They lost edge rusher Matt Ioannidis and defensive tackle Tim Settle, which erodes a strength of the team. First-round pick Jahan Dotson, a sure-handed receiver, was seen as a reach. So was second-round pick Phidarian Mathis, a defensive tackle. Unless you love the Wentz move, it's hard to get too excited about the offseason.
If Carson Wentz plays well, the Commanders will look smart. What if he doesn't? Would the Commanders be willing to admit that sending two second-round picks and a third was a mistake and move on right away? If Wentz fails again in 2022, no other team is trading for him. Wentz has salary cap hits of a little more than $26 million and $27 million the next two seasons, according to Spotrac, and that's a lot for a player who has struggled like Wentz recently. However, there's no dead cap hit if he's cut after this season because none of his future money is guaranteed. Washington could move on after one season and not feel it on the salary cap, but it would be at the cost of valuable picks for one presumably bad year. It gets more complicated if fifth-round pick Sam Howell, considered a possible first-round prospect before the 2021 college season started, shows something in training camp, preseason and any possible regular-season action. On one hand you can frame the Wentz trade as not being too risky because Washington can get out of the contract after a season, but that still seems less than ideal.
Washington's win total at BetMGM is 7.5, which shows the market isn't out on the Commanders after a disappointing season. Washington has finished with exactly seven wins in four of the last five seasons. Maybe the Commanders get the over. I'm more likely to bet Washington to make the playoffs at +195, with a much softer schedule this season and a weak NFC, given the better odds. Some mediocre team is going to get a wild-card spot in the NFC. Maybe two of them will.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Much like D.J. Moore in Carolina, Terry McLaurin is a star-level receiver who’s been held back by his quarterbacks. McLaurin is 10th in receiver catches and yards over the last two cumulative years, but he’s scored just nine times — that ranks 33rd at the position.
"Maybe Carson Wentz represents an upgrade over Washington’s recent quarterbacks, but it’s unlikely to be a major improvement. Although Wentz was surrounded by key pieces in Indianapolis last year — a star running back, a plus offensive line, a coaching staff that knows his game well — the Colts couldn’t wait to move on from him after the year.
"McLaurin also faces more competition for the ball this year, with Curtis Samuel coming off an injury and rookie Jahan Dotson impressing in early workouts. A key to fantasy managing is mining the gap between real-life talent and expected fantasy production; McLaurin presents one of those situations. He’s a better actual receiver than fantasy one, and as much as I admire his game, I will not draft him proactively unless he gets past the Top 50 overall."
Last season, coming off a first-place finish, Washington had the toughest schedule in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. This season Washington has the sixth-easiest schedule according to Warren Sharp, who uses betting win totals to project strength of schedule. (Washington had the easiest schedule by that method earlier this offseason before some win total shifts.) It's rare to see a difference like that from one year to the next. Washington still went 7-10 with injury issues and the NFL's toughest schedule. Maybe a much easier schedule is an underrated boost for the 2022 Commanders.
Can the defensive line bounce back?
The enduring moment from the Washington Football Team's 2021 season came in a truly humiliating 56-14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. During the blowout, defensive linemen Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen got heated and fought each other on the sideline. To use a cliched line, that was more fight than the line showed for much of the season.
Injuries to Chase Young and Montez Sweat didn't help, but that doesn't totally excuse the subpar play of the defensive line most of the season. Washington was tied for 17th in the NFL in sacks. The line's big step backward, along with disappointing play from free-agent addition William Jackson III at cornerback and first-round linebacker Jamin Davis, contributed to a big plunge. The improvement has to start with the line. Young blossoming into a superstar after a fantastic rookie season is the key to that.
“Everybody’s expectations across the board — players, mine, coaches, fans, everybody — was probably a little bit out of whack,” Rivera said about the defensive line, via the Washington Post. “One of the biggest things that we tried to do was we tried to show what we were capable of and who we are instead of trying to just go out and play football the way we were supposed to. … There were some things that we were doing when we weren’t supposed to do; we were popping gaps when we were trying to make plays instead of staying home. Just knowing the play doesn’t care who makes it.”
If you want, you can view Washington as a team that went 7-10 despite the toughest schedule in the NFL and key injuries, and just upgraded at quarterback regardless of the cost. The defensive line could still be one of the five best in football, and if that happens maybe Washington is closer to a top-10 defense than the embarrassment it was at times last season. The schedule is among the easiest in the NFL. It's hard to see Washington winning the NFC East, but a wild-card spot isn't too much to ask.
The 2021 Colts were a more talented team than the 2022 Commanders. The Colts missed the playoffs, in part because of Carson Wentz's mistakes. He has turned off two teams in two years, and perhaps he's just not a good enough leader or player to be a regular NFL starting quarterback. The 2017 version of Wentz, who was in line to win NFL MVP, probably isn't coming back. It's possible Wentz has another rough season and Washington does too. Then Washington admits to a mistake, cuts Wentz and laments wasting those draft picks. It's possible Washington's defense doesn't bounce back, disappointing 2021 additions like receiver Curtis Samuel never pan out, and the Commanders look like they're back in a rebuild by the 2023 offseason.
It's possible this ranking is a little too harsh on the Commanders. They were disappointing but not too far from a playoff spot last season. They beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as part of a four-game winning streak. Carson Wentz, warts and all, is a better quarterback than what they've had the past few years. The defense has some good pieces, and if they can find better linebacker play and get more out of cornerback William Jackson III, it could be a difference-making unit. Still, it's hard to trust Wentz. The Eagles were so sick of Wentz they took on a then-record $33.8 million to trade him. The Colts didn't hide their contempt after one season. That's hard to ignore, in addition to Wentz's turnovers that we all see. Washington will probably be what it has been for a few years, a team with about seven wins and no real long-term answer at quarterback.