Daniels talk [608x342]
Daniels talk [608x342] (Credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

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ASHBURN, Va., -- One of Jayden Daniels' worst throws this spring occurred in front of the largest crowd he has encountered since becoming a member of the Washington Commanders. And afterward, all he could do was smile.

Throwing out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game earlier this month, the Commanders' latest great hope at quarterback pulled his effort into the left-handed batter's box.

It was not awful. But it was not a strike.

"It's a good thing he's throwing here and not down at the ballpark," Commanders coach Dan Quinn said, smiling.

The errant pitch was one of the few times Daniels has left observers unimpressed this spring. Otherwise, the No. 2 pick in the 2024 draft has left a favorable early imprint on his teammates and coaches. They know more steps remain. He has yet to face a live pass rush, an opposing defense or anyone in pads. Teammates and coaches have pointed that out; they also acknowledge there will be both good and bad days ahead as Daniels develops. But after getting a first glimpse of the hours he puts in at the facility, his ability to call, make and direct plays on the field and his engaging personality -- they cannot wait to see how he progresses.

"Dude can sling it man," right tackle Andrew Wylie said. "He makes it look easy. Something about his game is just special."

Before Daniels, Washington had drafted five other quarterbacks in the first round from 1994 to 2019: Heath Shuler, Patrick Ramsey, Jason Campbell, Robert Griffin III and Dwayne Haskins. They combined to go 51-86 as starters for Washington, with one Pro Bowl selection (Griffin). Only Campbell served as the primary starter for four years; he is also the only one who started 12 or more games in three different seasons.

Now comes Daniels, the Heisman Trophy winner who became a No. 2 pick -- just like Griffin in 2012 - who the Commanders are hoping can finally bring stability to the position.

"He's a rookie," one member of the organization said of Daniels. "There's still a lot to learn. At the same time, he's on course."

THIS SPRING, TEAMMATE after teammate mentioned how early Daniels arrived at the Commanders' facility.

"He always beats me here, so I think that's pretty cool," said defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, who arrives at 6:45 a.m.

"You start to doubt yourself a little bit," said guard Nick Allegretti, who arrives at 6:30 a.m. "You think you're one of the early guys and then he looks like he'd been here for a minute. He is bright eyed. I'm dragging in at 6:30 so I'm going to work on it, maybe get here at six."

Daniels clocks in around 5:45 a.m.

It is what he did at LSU, too. Rookie receiver Luke McCaffrey has been joining Daniels in Washington.

The two players watch film, then head to the practice bubble to walk through plays.

"I'm still learning the playbook and trying to grasp everything," Daniels said. "So just being comfortable for a day and being ready to go out there and go out and compete."

The result: A young quarterback who teammates and coaches say is ahead of schedule in learning the offense and particularly the protections.

"His football IQ is really high," offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said. "[With] protections, I've been really impressed by that. A lot of guys coming into the league, that's not an area that they major in in college. They don't have a lot of time. But he's well-versed in protections and works at it."

As a result, Daniels rarely makes mistakes when calling plays in the huddle and rarely needs coaches to repeat one, according to Quinn, who listens in on the headset.

"He's further along than you probably should be," Quinn said.

"He's a student of [the game]," quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard said, "but he just loves it. He loves talking about it, loves watching it, loves playing it, loves practicing it."

DANIELS HAS GOTTEN attention for his play on the field, too.

One play, Daniels scrambled outside of the pocket and lofted a perfect pass downfield, over the arms of a defender. On another, one team staffer recalled, when as a receiver was about to cross behind a linebacker, Daniels released the ball -- anticipating his target getting open -- for a completion.

"After the second or third crosser that he threw, I started telling receivers, 'Hey, you got to get your head around,'" receiver Terry McLaurin said. "A lot of quarterbacks may like to see you cross the ball and get into that open zone. Or if it's man [coverage] they like to see you get open for him. He can make those throws and give you a chance to catch and run."

On another play, the defense tried to confuse him with pre-snap movement. Daniels paused, signaled to players on both sides of the formation; used a hard count to get the defense to reveal its intentions -- one coach called it a veteran move -- took the snap and connected with tight end Ben Sinnott on a quick hitch against a blitz.

"Our quarterbacks have a lot of freedom to get to things that they're able to attack a defense based on what they're seeing," Pritchard said. "You're seeing him applying those things that he's learned in the meeting room."

After misfires, Daniels often talks to one of his teammates. Tight end Zach Ertz usually can be seen with him after a series, motioning with his hands as if discussing a route. McLaurin and running back Austin Ekeler have said Daniels asked them to stay after practice so he can work on throwing to a particular route.

"I don't think I've had a young quarterback that really has come in and within the first week he's like, 'Hey, can we get this rep after practice?'" said McLaurin, who has played with 10 different starting quarterbacks since joining the organization in 2019. "It makes the growth part a lot quicker."

Not only his play, but Daniels' patience and poise in the pocket has also stood out.

"A lot of guys panic and try to force the throw or just run but he's comfortable back there and he's looking to make a play down the field," Allegretti said. "A lot of rookies just put their head down and run. That's been the biggest thing that's jumped out."

DANIELS SMILES ALL the time when he is not taking snaps. Even when engaged in friendly trash talk with fellow rookie quarterback Sam Hartman during a pre-practice drill, the smile never left his face.

"He's very charismatic," McLaurin said. "He's really personable when he walks into the building, very approachable."

One staffer said he sees Daniels eating breakfast at a different table, with different players, nearly every day.

When Daniels met special teams standout/backup safety Jeremy Reaves for the first time, the rookie approached him and said, "Hey, what's up Reavo?"

"That speaks volumes about the guy, that he's taking the time to know everybody," Reaves said.

"We've sat and talked, we've talked ball. On the first day [of practice] I had a pick against him, and I told [him], 'Hey, if you leave this ball more behind him, it makes it harder for me out of the post to come make this play.' He's open to constructive criticism and that's what you want. With franchise guys like that, what matters most is who they are off the field, how they are in the locker room with the guys."

Daniels said he likes talking to as many teammates as possible, especially on the field, to help him learn.

"You're trying to soak up as much as possible and you got guys like Bobby [Wagner] that've been playing at a high level for a very long time, so as much as I could be around them and pick their brain, I'm willing to do that," Daniels said.

QUINN HAD A plan to divide first-team reps among his quarterbacks this spring. Before last week's mandatory minicamp, Marcus Mariota took the majority of the first-team snaps. Once minicamp began, that share went to Daniels, along with snaps from projected starting center Tyler Biadasz during pre-practice drills.

That is why, Quinn said, no declaration has been made on if Daniels will enter training camp as the starter.

"There's no doubt that Jayden's making unbelievable progress here," Quinn said. "It was really clear that he's put in the work.

"He's got a swagger to him. He really has a very firm handle on the things that we're doing, but he also has the humility of a young player ... knowing he has a lot to prove."

But there is much more to learn and more situations for Daniels to endure. He still must face defenses designed to fool him; he still must prove he can consistently make the necessary tight-window throws, particularly in the red zone. And how will he handle an NFL pass rush once the pads go on?

During one hurry-up series last week, Daniels missed on multiple passes as the pocket tightened. He overthrew tight end Cole Turner down the field on a deep crosser. On the next play, Daniels attempted a checkdown to Ekeler, but the ball landed at his feet.

Daniels said he will work out this summer in Southern California with his quarterback coaches and possibly some of the Commanders' receivers. He will continue to study the playbook and, as he said, "get ready for the season."

He knows he still must prove what he can do in the fall. It is part of the growth process for any rookie quarterback, even those who have made such a strong first impression.

"I ain't a star quarterback yet," Daniels acknowledged last week. "I've got a long way to go."

Ekeler, who played his first seven NFL seasons with the Chargers, has played with a longtime starting quarterback in Philip Rivers as well as a rookie in Justin Herbert. He knows that while the spring was a key step for Daniels, it is just one of many.

"It's hard to tell anything until you get to the preseason to see how it's playing out," Ekeler said. "But I'm proud of the strides he's made so far."