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STEVE DeSHAZO: Drafting Howell helps Riverboat Ron hedge his bets

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NFL Combine Football

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell runs a drill during the NFL football scouting combine, Thursday, March 3, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Even the most brazen of gamblers has to hedge his bets sometimes.

For the first time in his 28 months in command of Washington’s NFL franchise, “Riverboat Ron” Rivera appears to be going all in—at least for 2022. After two losing seasons there’s internal and external pressure to win for a coach who said he didn’t believe in rebuilding schedules.

Rivera, who calls most of the personnel shots, made a huge wager on Carson Wentz, a quarterback with a history of injuries and a recent resume of losing must-win late-season games.

Acquiring Wentz from the Indianapolis Colts (who tired of him after just one season) cost the Commanders most of the 2022 salary cap space and forced them to part with productive veterans like Landon Collins, Tim Settle and Matt Ioannidis.

All of which made this past weekend’s draft all the more important, because it served as Washington’s only real chance to fill some of its other glaring needs.

Choosing Penn State receiver Jahan Dotson in the first round, Alabama defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis in the second and Louisiana safety Percy Butler in the fourth gives Rivera more options, albeit with players who weren’t rated as the best at their respective positions.

Third-round pick Brian Robinson joins a deep running back stable that may not be quite as effective after losing former All-Pro Brandon Scherff to Jacksonville in free agency. Washington didn’t choose an offensive lineman until the seventh round.

Still, the headline from this Commanders’ draft is clearly Sam Howell.

A year ago, many observers thought the North Carolina quarterback might be the first player chosen in 2022—in the first round, not the fifth. Howell suffered through a sporadic senior season after losing a ton of playmakers (including current Commanders receiver Dyami Brown) from the Tar Heels’ record-setting 2020 offense.

Howell was languishing in the draft’s bargain bin when the Commanders plucked him at No. 144 overall. If he pans out, he could be Wentz’s heir apparent—and sooner than later, if need be.

Howell’s skill set is similar to that of Taylor Heinicke, who wasn’t consistent enough to keep Washington in the playoff hunt last fall. Neither has prototypical NFL size—Howell is 6-1—but both have strong arms and are good runners. (Besides passing for 3,056 yards in 2021 Howell ran for 822 and 11 touchdowns.) An Howell’s specialty is the deep ball, which has been missing in D.C. ever since DeSean Jackson left.

Howell’s skill set actually fits the offensive game plan that Rivera and coordinator Scott Turner set up for Cam Newton in Carolina better than does Wentz’s abilities. Don’t be surprised if Rivera faces calls to play Howell if Wentz struggles early while playing for his third team in three years.

And let’s be honest. Rivera needs to show some serious progress in his third season in D.C.

He has suffered through three straight losing seasons (getting fired before the end of a disastrous 5-11 2019 campaign in Carolina, then winning seven games with each of his first two years in D.C.). Like every previous coach employed by Dan Snyder, he has lost more than a bit of his luster.

Which brings us to the franchise itself, which desperately needs something to distract from multiple scandals (allegations of sexual and financial misconduct), five straight losing seasons and a disgruntled, shrinking fan base.

Howell certainly isn’t going to save this team on his own. The odds of him succeeding with a franchise that circulates through quarterbacks faster than political leaks are pretty long. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 14 plays in 2021 barely would fill up a TikTok post.

But by choosing Howell—even much later than projected—Rivera acknowledged that he’s not putting all his eggs in Wentz’s basket. And that seems to be a wise bet.

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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