Jayden Daniels is processing the Commanders' playbook ahead of schedule, head coach Dan Quinn said. (Grant Thomas/Yahoo Sports)

Commanders aren’t rushing to name Jayden Daniels the starter. That doesn’t mean Daniels hasn’t already started working like one

ASHBURN, Va. — Jayden Daniels watched as head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Adam Peters approached him.

Quinn opened his palm and told the Washington Commanders rookie quarterback: “We’ve got something for you.”

Inside Quinn’s palm weren’t yet the proverbial keys to the franchise.

Rather, Quinn handed Daniels a key to access … well, the Commanders’ facilities. All day. Every day.

“Twenty-four hours,” Quinn told Daniels. The quarterback smiled.

Daniels knew Quinn’s decision to hand-deliver exactly one key fob spoke to more than a rounded piece of black plastic. This fob symbolized the work ethic — the process — that catapulted Daniels from a good college player to the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 overall selection of the 2024 NFL Draft.


This key hearkened to the 8, 9, even 10 p.m. throwing sessions Daniels had organized with LSU receivers last spring, their meetups prompting LSU’s coaching staff to overhaul the standard fingerprint access that wasn’t designed for around-the-clock entry.

Late nights soon became early mornings, Daniels consistently entering the film room at 5 a.m. to study his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, and his own; to consider how he should attack and how he should anticipate being attacked.

Daniels’ completion percentage ticked up from 68.6% in 2022 to 72.2%, his production exploding from 17 touchdowns and three interceptions to 40 and four.

Early mornings worked for Daniels. Why stop now?


“Going through that experience and coming out the other end with more success probably ignited something in him that proved that hard work is worth it,” Quinn told Yahoo Sports during a recent sit-down. “Jayden found out, in his own way, [that] there’s a whole other place he can go to.”

Residents across D.C., Maryland and Virginia hope Daniels is about to lead the Commanders to a place that, for more than three decades, they have not been. Washington last won a playoff game 19 seasons ago; the franchise last won a Super Bowl eight years and 11 months before the 23-year-old Daniels was born.

Daniels has yet to be anointed starter or, officially, anything other than the No. 2 overall selection of the 2024 NFL Draft. But his work ethic, famous morning routine, knack for playmaking and approachability have the franchise buzzing.

“Jayden wants to win and everybody around him sees that, just by the way he goes to work and goes about his business,” rookie tight end Ben Sinnott told Yahoo Sports. “The vets immediately see it. The rookies immediately see it and have somebody to follow.

“That’s the culture that we’re building.”

As OTAs kicked off, Commanders center Tyler Biadasz heard Daniels was arriving to work early. Biadasz thought: Maybe if I arrive early, we can get extra snaps in.


Biadasz learned the hard way: “His schedule was so tight, even at 6 in the morning.”

Within a month of the draft, Daniels began waking up at 5 to arrive between 5:30 and 5:45 each morning. He would walk through the playbook on the Commanders’ indoor practice field, wide receiver Luke McCaffrey joining daily. Then Daniels grabbed breakfast, lifted or worked out as needed, showered and prepared for film study. By 7 a.m., he would cross four action items off his to-do list.

“I’m always an early guy,” Daniels said at minicamp. “I learned that when I was at LSU and now I took it here and still trying to tweak it a little bit.”

The routine has helped him individually, as he digests a new playbook and logs extra reps timing his drops with the concepts. But it’s also spilled over to accelerate the foundation he’s building with teammates — even those who pull into the Joe Gibbs Drive parking lot hours later than he does.

As Daniels metabolizes the playbook at a rate Quinn says is ahead of schedule, he’s proven confident enough to flip protections in the huddle and throw a hot route successfully on the blitz, teammates and coaches say. Daniels alerted Sinnott during rookie minicamp when the tight end took just two steps on a three-step out route, and he has kept receivers after practices to repeat passes he didn’t complete. When did Daniels want them turning their eyes? Where along the route should they expect the ball? He initiated the conversations.


“I don’t think I’ve had a young quarterback who has come in, and within the first week, said, ‘Hey can we get [this] rep after practice?’” sixth-year receiver Terry McLaurin said. “He has no problem, whether you’re an offensive lineman, receiver or running back, communicating what is the objective of this play is or what he’s seeing, what he’s thinking.

“That open form of communication from a rookie is very rare.”

Spring wins didn’t center on completing every pass or thwarting every defensive look. Daniels also impressed his coaches as he arrived at meetings seeking an antidote to the tricky coverage he’d identified in 11-on-11 drills; they marveled at the speed with which he anticipated the second read in his progression on one play and intuited where a receiver would be on a crossing route during another.

“For a rookie quarterback to come in like that where guys are gravitating to him and he’s not afraid to be who he is, that’s dope,” McLaurin said. “I think it speaks to the confidence that he knows who he is but he’s also not afraid to say when he’s wrong and knows he needs to improve.”

Improvement is, and long has been, Daniels’ focus. That’s why he threw an extra 20 back-shoulder fades after each LSU practice, the throw quickly becoming a strength in his repertoire. That’s why he committed to hours of virtual reality film study atop his early morning traditional film sessions, and why Daniels worked with quarterbacks coach Taylor Kelly in California and Louisiana alike to identify his drop and stance preferences. The ample time on task translated, in moments like his shaky first half against Arkansas last season. Daniels opened the game leaning too heavily on his front foot in drops, completing 56.3% of pass attempts for a touchdown and interception in the first half, even with his 49-yard touchdown to Brian Thomas Jr. with 30 seconds to play before halftime.

Intentionally homed self-awareness enabled him to recognize the technical error in real time and adjust in the second half rather than the following week. Daniels rebounded to complete 84.6% of second-half throws for three touchdowns and no picks. The Tigers, down 13-3 entering the final minute of the first half, triumphed 34-31.


LSU knew before then that Daniels played with resilience.

Daniels’ LSU colleagues speak almost reverentially of his 277-yard, three-touchdowns-from-scrimmage performance in a 32-31 overtime win against then-No. 6 Alabama in 2022. It wasn’t just that Daniels produced but also how. He had gaudier numbers in other contests but in this close matchup of top-10 teams, Daniels took over to close out. Down 24-21 with 3:45 to play, Daniels capitalized on a flashing lane, escaping the pocket on third-and-5 to zig-zag 31 yards upfield on a drive he’d ultimately end with a touchdown.

After Alabama executed a seven-play, 25-yard scoring drive in overtime, Daniels took the field to answer. LSU director of player retention Sherman Wilson says Daniels told head coach Brian Kelly entering overtime: “If [Dallas Turner] takes a step inside, I’m taking it. I’m not throwing it.” The Alabama star linebacker did just that.

So Daniels pulled up and raced to his right, eluding Turner’s grasp and more as he raced to a 25-yard touchdown on the first play. A 2-point conversion later, LSU upset Alabama.

“It’s that moment — that killer instinct moment,” Wilson told Yahoo Sports. “There’s the bully, and then there’s the person that bullies the bully. He thrives on that.”


During pre-draft evaluations, the Commanders agreed. Peters saw a player whose athleticism could “take your soul as a defense.” Quinn thought of the math problem that dual-threat quarterbacks have increasingly imposed on defensive minds like his in recent years.

“Those [are] daggers that he can put onto somebody,” Quinn said. “I would imagine the more third-down plays that he has, the less unique coverages you see because you better have eyes to him.

“If your back's turned and he sees it, he can make you pay.”

As Daniels’ command of the playbook and huddle grew during OTAs, so too did his opportunities.

Veteran Marcus Mariota received a larger share of first-team snaps to begin OTAs; by mandatory minicamp, the lion’s share belonged to Daniels. That was intentional, Quinn said.


“We set it up as we did to have Marcus have some and Jayden have some,” Quinn said during minicamp. “No great declarations other than being true to who we are as competitors. There’s no doubt that Jayden’s making unbelievable progress and we’ll have a really fun camp.

“He’s earned that opportunity to go compete. We wouldn’t have given him those spaces, those times and those reps if he hadn’t.”

The Commanders are working to learn still more about Daniels as Daniels learns about them. Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury emphasized to players that he wanted the system to reflect his first year in Washington rather than a continuation of the system he ran as Arizona Cardinals head coach; Kingsbury wants to accentuate his players’ strengths and has already begun integrating passing concepts that Daniels excelled at in college, Quinn said.

Expect Daniels’ mobility to factor heavily into plans, sometimes to extend a play and other times on designed runs. The Commanders know Daniels has encountered durability questions, though one AFC scout told Yahoo Sports they believed Daniels was more available in college than conversations surrounding his lean frame suggest. The 6-foot-3 quarterback has bulked up from 175 pounds as an Arizona State freshman in 2019 to 210 pounds as a pro. Quinn said conversations about sliding to protect Daniels will continue. Quinn and Kingsbury are also in conversation about designed runs playing off space and leverage rather than targeting inside gaps and risking linebackers’ hard hits.


The Commanders consider Daniels a dual-threat player but a passer first. They want to tap into the field vision and decision-making that helped him decipher a wide range of defensive looks in five college years, giving him freedom to attack a defense as he sees fit.

For now, Daniels is attacking his acclimation to the Commanders via scheme and team camaraderie alike. He alternates between lightheartedness off the field, and consistent imperatives to “lock in” on it, teammates say. Daniels’ smile seems to carry across both realms, his swagger and calm intact as they fuel his tireless work.

ASHBURN, VA - MAY 10: Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury of the Washington Commanders instructs Jayden Daniels #5 during Washington Commanders Rookie Minicamp at OrthoVirginia Training Center on May 10, 2024 in Ashburn, Virginia. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Jayden Daniels works with offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury in rookie minicamp in May. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

The 5 a.m. wakeups will continue, the route trees and film sessions canvassing his summer plans at home in California until Daniels and fellow rookies report back to the Commanders on July 18.

Daniels knows that even when he arrives back to the facility then, no matter how early in the morning, he will not yet truly have arrived.


“I’m focused on learning,” Daniels said. “I’m focused on going out here and keep competing every day, having fun and bringing that energy and that joy and that competitiveness to the team.

“I ain’t a star quarterback yet. I’ve got a long way to go.”

With each swipe of his black fob key, he works to get closer.