Commanders players clean out lockers and await an offseason of uncertainty

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Taylor Heinicke carefully packed a box of nearly a dozen Washington ball caps and folded signed jerseys from teammates. A framed photo of him embracing defensive tackle Jonathan Allen following the team’s win over the Green Bay Packers in October will leave his perch in the adjoining locker and probably go to Heinicke’s mother.

“She may want that,” Heinicke said with a smile.

With bags and boxes scattered across the floor, Commanders players cleaned out their lockers Monday morning. They turned in their tablets and playbooks, participated in a final team meeting and visited with coaches and coordinators.

For some — including Heinicke, a soon-to-be free agent — it may have been their last trip to Ashburn. For others, it was simply the last trip to the facility before the franchise faces months of uncertainty with ownership, coaching, personnel and more.

As they headed out, players spoke on a variety of topics, including their health, the team’s performance and more.

‘Consistency … would help everyone’

Heinicke was still waiting on a signed jersey from wide receiver Terry McLaurin to add to his collection. Mementos of his two-plus years in Washington have meant more to Heinicke this year because his run may be over. Once the team’s emergency quarterback during the coronavirus pandemic, Heinicke revived his career as Washington’s fill-in starter and, later, a true starter who helped the Commanders turn around their season in 2022.

“I love every guy in this locker room,” Heinicke said Monday. “…I would love to come back and be with these guys, but free agency is a crazy deal. We’ll see what happens, but Washington definitely is my first choice.”

Heinicke’s place in Washington could depend on the team’s view of rookie Sam Howell, who impressed in his NFL debut, against the Dallas Cowboys. Coach Ron Rivera almost assured an offseason search for a potential long-term starting quarterback and declined to say after the win over the Cowboys where Howell fits into the mix.

As Commanders eye the future, Sam Howell makes a case to be part of it

Howell said Monday he was glad to get some reps on tape to review in the offseason, and he expressed confidence in being able to build on his early success.

“Yeah, I definitely can,” he said. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I played one game. They still have to make the decisions, and whatever decision they make, I’ll be ready for it.”

Since Rivera was hired in 2020, Washington has had eight starting quarterbacks. To have just one starter in a season would be a significant upgrade.

“That would give a sense of comfort and consistency, when you have that guy you can trust [who] is going to be in there, game in and game out, is going to be able to work through the growing pains, and there won’t necessarily be changes,” McLaurin said. “And you have a guy you can grow and develop with. That’s extremely important, not just for myself but the cohesiveness of our entire group. All the quarterbacks that we’ve had this year did different things great, but having a consistency there would help everyone.”

A potential ownership change

The potential sale of the Commanders has created uncertainty on all fronts. Will Rivera have the leeway to make the moves he sees fit for the franchise? How soon could a new owner come in? And might that owner look to make wholesale changes in his or her first season?

Ownership uncertainty complicates a critical offseason for Commanders

On Monday, cornerback Kendall Fuller said he’ll need a teammate to keep him up to date on news about a potential new owner.

“I don’t pay attention to anything,” Fuller said. “I’m off social media and stuff like that. I told [Jeremy] Reaves last night that he’ll probably end up having to text me if anything happens.”

Any ownership change will probably have an immediate ripple effect, much like when a coach brings in his own assistants. McLaurin has made a career of thriving amid change, be it coaches or quarterbacks, and he knows what looms may be no different from his previous experiences with him.

“It’s a business, and when new people come in, they don’t really have allegiance to you,” he said. “That goes for me as well. I truly feel like I try to come in here every year and earn my respect and prove why I should be on this team and be a leader. If you don’t come in with that mind-set of earning it, then things will pass you by, and the attrition will probably happen a little faster.”

Several notable Commanders are slated to hit free agency this offseason, including Heinicke, Reaves, linebacker Cole Holcomb, defensive tackle Daron Payne and interior offensive lineman Wes Schweitzer.

The biggest question is Payne. He could command a multiyear contract worth an average of more than $19 million per year, and it may be difficult for the Commanders to keep him, considering how much they have already invested in the line. Placing an exclusive franchise tag on Payne for next season is projected to cost $18,139 million.

“My agent, he gets paid good. One of the best in the business, and he’s going to do his job,” Payne said. “I got faith in him. I’m just going to relax and get to training.”

Do you think you’ll be back?

“Who knows?” he said.

The markets for Holcomb, Reaves and Schweitzer are murkier. Each has expressed an interest in returning to the Commanders but also an understanding that it might not work out.

“I love this organization. I love the guys in the locker room. I’d love to get something done,” Holcomb said. “But I also understand the business side of this league.”

Running back Antonio Gibson (knee/foot) arrived on crutches, and Holcomb (foot) wheeled in with his right foot up on a cart. They returned to the locker room with media for the first time since they landed on season-ending injured reserve, as did running back JD McKissic (neck) and defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis (knee).

Gibson, who played through a left foot fracture for about two months, had surgery last week. He said doctors gave him a three-month recovery timetable but “that’s all up in the air [depending on] how my body reacts to it.” He said he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to train again.

“Right now, no time soon,” he said. “My toe is fat as hell.”

Svrluga: New quarterback? Probably. New owner? Hopefully.

Holcomb, who underwent foot surgery in early December, said he hopes his recovery will be “just a couple months.”

“I’ll be 100 percent ready to go for [the] season,” he said.

Mathis, the rookie second-round pick, tore the meniscus in his left knee in the season opener Sept. 11. Two weeks ago, he said, he started jogging and doing movement drills.

“I’m probably 75 to 80 percent,” he said. “We headed in a great direction.”

McKissic, who declined to speak to reporters, seems to be facing a serious situation. This was his second season-ending neck injury in a row, and Rivera said last week McKissic may have to think hard about whether he wants to play football again.

“That’ll be a decision that he’ll have to make, if he gets the all-clear from the doctors,” Rivera said.

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