After Jayden Daniels and Drake Maye’s pro days, the Commanders may hold the keys to the NFL Draft

ORLANDO, Fla. — If you want confirmation on where the 2024 NFL Draft really starts, just ask New England Patriots head coach Jerod Mayo.

“I think everyone knows what Chicago is going to do at 1,” Mayo said Monday from the league’s annual meeting. “But the rest is up in the air.”

Mayo and the Patriots are, well, fairly high up in that air with the third overall pick. But before the Patriots make it to the clock, the Washington Commanders precede them at 2. And it is there, after the Bears’ presumptive pick of USC quarterback Caleb Williams, that mystery abounds.

“I don’t think anyone in here really knows what Washington’s going to do,” Mayo said. “And when you see these other teams making moves, acquiring pieces to move, we could sit here and say Washington today, [then] that could be someone else on draft day.”

So let the speculation rage on, the Vegas odds continue to rise and fall, and the evaluation work inch closer for the Commanders.

Because with four weeks until the draft kicks off, Washington — in head coach Dan Quinn’s exact words — is “not there yet.” Their decision is not finalized because their work toward executing a best-informed decision is not finalized.

“That’s actually a really fun part of this: to make sure that we don’t rush it,” Quinn said Tuesday from the league meeting in Orlando.

Trusting the process is far from new for sports teams in general and especially sports teams owned by Josh Harris. But more interesting than simply acknowledging that the Commanders want to trust the process is the exploration of what that process actually looks like.

There were several interested onlookers when North Carolina QB Drake Maye performed at UNC's pro day on Thursday, including Washington Commanders decision makers. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

This week could have introduced a pivot point toward the Commanders swaying to one prospect or the next. Because after Quinn and general manager Adam Peters left Orlando, they flew straight to Louisiana for LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels’ pro day on Wednesday. By Thursday, they were in Chapel Hill standing just behind UNC quarterback Drake Maye as he unleashed 70 throws.

“The most important is the tape,” Quinn said. “But I do love going to their school for a pro day or a visit and just spending time with them and asking them questions. How are they learning? What does it look like? ‘Tell me about your system.’

“So it's the discussions more than anything else.”

What Commanders could have learned at pro days

In Baton Rouge on Wednesday, discussions could have centered around what Daniels was telling the receivers who flanked either side of him during a mid-workout huddle as he pointed back and forth between his script and various spots on the field.

The Commanders could have asked Daniels about the way he sought to demonstrate both on- and off-platform throws; about the deep out route he and receiver Brian Thomas Jr. didn’t connect on, and how Daniels ultimately stayed collected enough to rebound from a deep miss on either side of the field to both finish 52 of 56, per NFL Network, and to complete his run of deep balls that fell closer to the end of his workout.

Washington could have asked Daniels what the perfectionist was doing at the LSU facility until midnight the night before his pro day, and what makes him the best choice for their franchise to select.

“My versatility,” Daniels said in an NFL Network interview after his throwing session. “Explosive plays are the name of the game of football. Defenses try to limit explosive plays and explosive players. So my resumé speaks for myself on what I do in that category.”

The reigning Heisman Trophy winner completed 72.2% of passes last season for 3,812 yards and 40 touchdowns to just four interceptions. That’s in addition to rushing for 1,134 yards and 10 touchdowns. While his four prior seasons (three at Arizona State, one at LSU) were less productive, Daniels’ 55 college games give evaluators a deep sample size of Daniels’ strengths, weaknesses and growth trajectory.

Maye traveled a different route to his pro day. The redshirt sophomore played just two full seasons, seeing time in 31 total college games and peaking in the middle of his career rather than at the end. Maye’s 6-foot-4, 223-pound frame will assuage some teams more than Daniels’ slighter 6-3, 210-pound stature. Maye's arm talent, too, is considered closer to prototypical. But he knew entering Thursday that evaluators would wonder: How seamless will his transition from shotgun to under center be?

Maye threw 70 balls — short, intermediate, deep and red-zone work — to demonstrate his mechanics, timing and rhythm from five- and seven-step drops under center, he said on ACC Network.

“To show the teams that I’m comfortable under center and it’s not something new for me,” Maye said. “More just something that I’m practicing.”

And he’ll continue to practice, as he did after he missed receiver Tez Walker on an intermediate route outside the number and sent Walker back to re-run the same route. Maye nailed Walker on a toe-dragging dime on the second chance, also hitting his own chest a couple times as he took accountability and confirmed to Walker the mistake was on the quarterback.

“A few I wish I could get back, but [it] was a fun day overall,” Maye said on NFL Network. “Knock on wood, I can throw for days and throw it as deep, as many as you want. So, that's the Lord willing to keep my arm healthy, kind of my approach.

“Just throw it and keep going.”

What will drive Commanders’ decision at No. 2?

Pro days and in-house prospect visits will help the Commanders contextualize what they saw on that all-important film.

Evaluators like Quinn, who was coaching the Dallas Cowboys' defense during the fall rather than attending college games, can get a new feel and lens into a quarterback’s frame and motions from watching it live.

The Commanders consider hand size, frame durability, shoulder flexibility and rotation. They ask themselves: Which quarterbacks can withstand the weather that outdoor FedEx Field will bring as the season rolls on?

Beyond the physical tools, does the quarterback they covet have the instincts and football IQ to mitigate muddy reads and busted protections?

LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels runs through passing drills during LSU's NCAA football pro day in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, March 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels was impressive at his pro day, much like he was on the field during his Heisman-winning 2023 season. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Quinn considers whether a quarterback made the right decision and also how quickly he processed and decided. Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who has more familiarity with college offensive schemes from more than a dozen years coaching college offenses, lends insight on what the likely “right” answer was on a given play.

“More than anything, it’s the ability from the neck up,” Quinn said. “[The right quarterback] is not specific or cookie-cutter for us. I think that's probably changed the last 20 years, hasn't it, from where we were in the NFL?”

Without that cookie-cutter model, the decision becomes more difficult. Williams will likely be off the board before Washington decides. But as they sift through Maye, Daniels and perhaps even Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy if the smoke precedes fire, they’ll need to determine how they weigh arm talent against athleticism; how much a rebuilding franchise leans on experience and how much it instead prioritizes potential.

Daniels and Maye each emphasized this week how they’ll focus more on the work they need to perform once with a franchise than where that work is set to be performed.

“Whoever drafts me [is] just an organization that believe in me and thinks I could lead them to Super Bowls,” Daniels said. “It’s out of my control. So I don’t stress on stuff like that.”