* With the 2020 season in the books and free agency less than one month away, NBC Sports Washington's Ethan Cadeaux and Ryan Homler grade the Washington Football Team's position groups before the 2021 signing period begins. First up: Quarterback.
Quarterbacks signed: Taylor Heinicke, Alex Smith
Quarterbacks hitting free agency: Kyle Allen (exclusive rights)
There were several positives to take from Ron Rivera's first year as head coach in Washington. Play at the quarterback position -- for the most part -- was not one of them. Washington started four different signal-callers in 2020, a recipe that no team can follow and expect to be successful on an annual basis.
The best way to describe Washington's revolving door at quarterback in 2020 is to start chronologically.
In late August, 2019 first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins was named Washington's starting quarterback and a team captain. Haskins edged out newcomer Kyle Allen and a recovering Alex Smith in what was a truncated training camp due to COVID-19, one that prevented Rivera from having the true quarterback competition he wanted.
Haskins started the first four games of the season for Washington. After leading the Burgundy and Gold to a 17-point comeback victory over Philadelphia in Week 1, Haskins struggled to show much growth over the next three weeks with Washington losing each one of those games by double-digits.
Ahead of Week 5, Rivera relegated Haskins to third string and promoted Allen to starter with Smith serving as the backup. In Allen's first start against the Los Angeles Rams, he injured his shoulder late in the second quarter. Smith came on for the injured Allen, marking his first live action since his gruesome leg injury in November of 2018. Smith didn't impress much, but he was also faced with a treacherous downpour and facing the NFL's No. 1 defense.
Many thought Smith would be the team's starter moving forward, but Rivera quickly backed Allen as the team's QB1 as long as he was healthy. Allen would start the next three games for Washington, including a blowout win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7 before the bye week.
In Week 9, Allen suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the first half against the New York Giants. Smith once again took over, and while a trio of interceptions prevented Washington from coming back to win, the quarterback finished with a whopping 321 passing yards in the narrow defeat. Any thought that Smith couldn't still play vanished that day.
Smith would start the next five games with the Football Team winning four of them, including impressive victories over the previously undefeated Steelers and reigning NFC champion 49ers, catapulting themselves into playoff contention.
Then, in Week 14, 36-year-old Smith was forced to leave Washington's win over San Francisco early with a calf injury, paving the way for Haskins to re-enter the lineup. Haskins would start the next two games for Washington, the first a 20-15 loss to Seattle. In Week 16, just seven days after being caught partying maskless, Haskins delivered another dud before getting benched for Taylor Heinicke in a loss to Carolina. Haskins was released one day later.
Smith returned to the starting lineup in Week 17 in a must-win versus Philadelphia. Although Washington won (and thus clinched the division), Smith was far from his normal self in the game. The leg was clearly bothering him still, putting his health for the playoffs in doubt.
One day before Washington's NFC Wild Card clash against Tampa Bay, Smith was ruled out, clearing the way for Heinicke to make his first playoff start. Washington would lose to Tampa Bay, 31-23, but Heinicke was quite impressive that night, finishing with 306 passing yards, 46 rushing yards and two touchdowns, almost single-handedly keeping Washington in the game. One month later, his efforts earned him a two-year contract extension with Washington.
Trade/Free Agency Options
In the weeks since the season ended, Washington has been linked to almost every quarterback that's been reportedly available. Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, Matt Stafford, Jared Goff, Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz, you name it, Washington has been attached in some way.
None of that is any secret. While Washington does have Heinicke and Smith under contract for next season, the franchise has made a clear effort to upgrade at the sport's most important position.
In free agency, there aren't many options that Washington could view as a long-term solution. Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor and Jacoby Brissett all could be stop-gap quarterbacks for the club, but none project to be long-term starters.
The only true solution for Washington to find a franchise quarterback via free agency would be if the Cowboys let Dak Prescott hit the open market. You could make the case for Jameis Winston, too, but he's been inconsistent throughout his career and there's a solid chance he remains in New Orleans, anyway.
If Washington wants to upgrade its quarterback position significantly, it almost certainly will need to come via trade. Watson still wants out, and Washington shouldn't be afraid to make a big offer to get him.
Pre-Free Agency QB Grade
As of now, Washington has one of the least talented quarterback rooms moving forward. That's why currently, the group receives a D+ grade.
Heinicke showed promise in his lone start, but his durability and longevity also remain question marks. Smith played at a high level at points during last season, but his nagging leg injury to end this season showed the harsh reality that Washington can't count on the soon-to-be 37-year-old QB for a full season in the future. Plus, with his $24 million cap hit, it's hard to imagine he'll be back at that price next season.
After Rivera said that figuring out the quarterback position was an offseason priority, it's difficult to see Washington being done making moves at the position. But, if Washington does enter the season with a trio of Heinicke, Smith and Allen, an increase in production from 2020 doesn't seem likely.