Charles Leno Jr.'s release provides clues about Commanders' rebuild

Adam Peters is not messing around...

Charles Leno Jr.
Charles Leno Jr. / Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Has releasing offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. provided some clues about the Washington Commanders' upcoming rebuild?

The Washington Commanders have decided to release veteran left tackle Charles Leno Jr.  He was scheduled to make $11 million in the final year of the contract he signed before the 2022 season. Though not completely unexpected, the early decision to part ways with the blindside presence does begin to clarify the way new general manager Adam Peters intends to rebuild.

This move leaves the Commanders with one player currently under contract with any starting experience at left tackle. Journeyman Trent Scott - who has started 22 games over his six-year career - would be penciled into the depth chart as the starter on the left side.

The Commanders also have guard Sam Cosmi, who played tackle in college, along with 2023 fourth-round pick Braeden Daniels, who spent his rookie year on the injured reserve list, theoretically capable of playing left tackle. They also have two notable undrafted free agents from last year - Mason Brooks and Alex Akingbulu - on the roster.

Commanders must find a new long-term left tackle this offseason

Cornelius Lucas, who manned the left guard spot for Washington during the second half of 2020 and served as swing tackle in subsequent years, is scheduled to become a free agent in a few weeks. So is Saahdiq Charles, who also played left tackle in college. He has not yet shown an ability to handle playing outside in the NFL. Lucas has been effective in a limited role.

The bottom line is that Washington does not have an obvious replacement ready to step into Leno’s shoes. Free agency this season offers several options, though none come without risk. Jonah Williams has been a steady performer for the Cincinnati Bengals over the past five years, almost exclusively lining up on the right side. Washington already has Andrew Wylie, for what it's worth.

The Commanders signed Wylie away from the Kansas City Chiefs last offseason. Donovan Smith, who played left tackle for the Super Bowl champions in 2023, is scheduled to be available during the upcoming free agency cycle. But he turns 31 years old this summer and his production has dropped off over the past few campaigns. The same applies to Isaiah Wynn, who has played mostly at guard of late.

The best pure left tackle available is Tyron Smith, who has played his entire 13-year career with the Dallas Cowboys. As such, he should be very well-known to new coach Dan Quinn. He is 33 years old. But when healthy, the All-Pro is still capable of being a dominant player. That said, injuries have been a major concern over the last four seasons.

If the Commanders do not pursue a starting-caliber left tackle through free agency, the upcoming draft offers several intriguing options. Drafting at No. 2 overall, Washington will have its pick of elite prospects like Joe Alt, Olu Fashanu, or JC Latham. All would be ready to play from Day 1, but picking one of those elite players would require eschewing a quarterback in the first round.

Might the release of Leno signal that Peters is at least considering not taking a quarterback with the second pick?

If he wants one of those tackles, he could trade back with a team that is quarterback-hungry - such as the Atlanta Falcons at No. 8 - and come away with a king's ransom in return. However, this year’s draft class is deep at the offensive tackle position. Peters could be eying a player like Graham Barton, Tyler Guyton, or Jordan Morgan. One or more of those left tackles should be available when Washington picks early in Round No. 2.

Leno filled a huge need in Washington during his three seasons. He was signed in 2021 after being released by the Chicago Bears and immediately stabilized the crucial left tackle spot. He was never among the best in the league, but he was steady, reliable, and an excellent leader. He was also a valued community presence en route to being the team's nominee for Walter Payton Man-of-the-Year in 2022.

His departure leaves a new hole which immediately becomes Peter’s second biggest roster decision. After settling on the quarterback, the new left tackle will be tasked with protecting. The front-office leader must get both choices right.