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Updates from Week 4
The preseason finale against the Ravens was a non-event for most of the roster, but Sam Howell put on another stirring performance. It will be impossible for the Commanders to try to stash him on the practice squad; they’ll have to keep him on the 53-man roster along with starter Carson Wentz and backup Taylor Heinicke. Howell completed 24-of-35 passes for 280 yards, one touchdown, and ran for 62 yards on eight carries. He did all this despite playing behind an awful backup offensive line that allowed the Ravens to pressure him more than a dozen times. “He has a bright future,” said Coach Rivera. “He still has some growing to do. He was exciting to watch.”
In a stunning reminder of how the game of football is not as important as we sometimes make it out, Brian Robinson Jr was tragically shot twice on Sunday, August 28. We don’t have many details yet, but he appears to be in stable condition. While his well-being is of paramount importance, we don’t know whether the injuries will impact his on-field status and for how long. But assume, for now, that he’ll miss regular season time.
Robinson’s situation clouds one of the most compelling camp situations in the NFC. The rookie had earned a significant role and outperformed incumbent Antonio Gibson. Gibson ran with the backups the last few practices, took snaps at kick returner last week, and is now the favorite to open the season as the returner. Per coach Rivera: “Antonio was getting more and more comfortable. When you watch it on tape, you see him circling the ball, getting under it, making a good catch and you know, it’s something he did well in college, and we’re pretty excited having him do it. I think you still need to see some more stuff, but you know, I think he is. I do. I think he’s done a nice job.” Does Robinson’s injury give Gibson an unexpected reprieve? Will the coaches feel compelled to give him the workhorse role he had last year, or are the concerns too severe to commit to him?
The front office may opt to sign a veteran free agent once 53-man roster cuts are made around the league, or Jaret Patterson and Jonathan Williams could go from practice-squad fodder to roster members. Be mindful of how fluid this situation is and will be until we have clarity on Robinson’s outlook.
The receiving corps is largely set, and there weren’t many mysteries to unfold during camp. Terry McLaurin is the unquestioned No. 1, and he’s a happy camper after signing a massive extension. Rookie Jahan Dotson has been as good as hoped and cemented the starting spot alongside McLaurin. In typical fashion, Curtis Samuel missed a chunk of the summer but finished on a high note and should be on the field a lot in 3-receiver sets. There’s a material dropoff in talent, but Cam Sims, Dyami Brown, and Dax Milne bring enough to the table – on offense and special teams – to stick. The only mystery is whether Alex Erickson sticks on the roster as a seventh receiver.
After a woeful, injury-riddled August, things are looking up at the tight end position. Logan Thomas missed most of the offseason but was activated off the PUP list late last week. While he’s unlikely to be 100% for Week 1, having him come off PUP with two weeks left of the preseason is a significant step forward. No. 2 John Bates is expected to return to practice this week, and rookie Cole Turner isn’t far behind, per the coaches. A week ago, it looked like the team may have to play two undrafted rookies in the season opener, but now Armani Rogers and Curtis Hodges are more likely headed for the practice squad.
Chase Young will miss at least the first four weeks of the season, leaving the Commanders with questions on the defensive edge. Montez Sweat only had five sacks last year but must be a disruptive force week in, week out. James Smith-Williams will start in Young’s stead, but he only has three sacks in two seasons. On the interior, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen are stalwarts. The linebacking corps is problematic. Cole Holcomb and Jamin Davis are the presumptive starters, but it’s damning that Davis played in the preseason finale when most Week 1 starters got the night off.
In the past, Antonio Gibson was generally too busy on offense to see much time on special teams. But after rookie Brian Robinson Jr earned the job as the starting runner, Gibson was announced as the team’s primary kickoff returner. Breaking news that Robinson was shot twice Sunday night in an attempted carjacking leaves Gibson’s role for 2022 in question again and could open the door for whoever makes the roster between Alex Erickson and Dax Milne to field kickoffs as well as punts.
Updates from Week 3
Carson Wentz started against the Chiefs but didn’t do much. He completed 6-of-9 passes for 64 yards, but all three of his drives ended with punts. Taylor Heinicke had a much-needed bounce-back, completing 9-of-12 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown pass to Cam Sims. Sam Howell couldn’t sustain last week’s preseason heroics into the Chiefs game. The rookie completed just 10-of-18 passes for 122 yards and an interception. Head coach Ron Rivera made the obvious post-game observation that points matter. "I thought offensively, we showed we could move the ball. We got the ball to the 40s. Carson got the ball to the 40 a couple of times and inside the 40, and we didn't get points out of it because we made a negative play. We had a third-and-5, ended up in a third-and-10, and then we take a sack. We can't do that to ourselves.”
After fumbling in the preseason opener and getting benched for rookie Brian Robinson Jr, Antonio Gibson was given reps with the third-string offense and on special teams in practices last week. While he also rotated with the starters, it’s nearly unheard of for an established, productive veteran to work on special teams. When asked about the situation, offensive coordinator Scott Turner didn’t mince words. “One of the first things we talk about when we get together as an offense when training camp started is protect the football,” Turner said. “We can’t waste possessions. If you fumble the ball, that’s a waste of possession. That’s a ball carrier’s first job. To protect the ball. We can’t have that. Antonio knows that. I’m not saying anything to you guys that hasn’t already been said to Antonio.” Brian Robinson Jr started against the Chiefs, further cementing the idea that the rookie has earned a major role, at least on first and second down. Gibson played with the first-team offense, too, but remained in the game with the backups while Robinson was rested along with other key starters. J.D. McKissic missed the game but remains the primary passing-down back, making it hard to see how Gibson matches last season’s heavy workload.
Rookie Jahan Dotson has looked like a starter since camp's earliest days, but the Chiefs preseason game should cement his starting role. Dotson joined Terry McLaurin in the starting lineup, and both played 18 of 19 snaps with Carson Wentz. Each ran ten routes, was targeted twice, and caught two receptions for 23 yards. Knowing Dotson will play in 2-receiver sets is meaningful. Curtis Samuel only caught two of four targets for 10 yards but having him healthy and out there with the starters (for 12 of 19 snaps) is a step in the right direction.
With Logan Thomas (PUP), John Bates, and Cole Turner again inactive, the tight end duties fell to undrafted rookie Armani Rogers and journeyman Eli Wolf. Rogers started against the Chiefs and caught a 15-yard reception. Wolf, playing for his fourth team in the last 12 months, was in on two tight-end sets. The Commanders hope neither makes the 53-man roster, but that all comes down to whether the top trio gets healthy by Week 1.
Could defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio be on the outs? Last year’s defensive performance was troubling, and then Del Rio was fined a boatload by Coach Rivera for inappropriate comments earlier this year. Since that embarrassment, Rivera has fired the defensive line coach and continues to criticize the state of his defense at every turn publicly. He was particularly frustrated with the defensive line’s lack of discipline on third downs against the Chiefs. Linebacker and on-field leader Cole Holcomb couldn’t hide his frustration with how poorly the first-team defense performed. “We have to put it all together,” Holcomb said. “You can’t have a rush without coverage, and you can’t cover without a rush. We have to learn how to play off each other.”
Interior injuries are starting to pile up in Washington, as Trai Turner (quad) has yet to practice, and Andrew Norwell (undisclosed) and Wes Schweitzer (hip) picked up minor injuries. Still, the starters of Turner and Norwell should be ready for Week 1. The team is grateful to have center Chase Roullier back after last year's broken leg. Casual fans underrate the tackles of Charles Leno and Sam Cosmi. Cosmi especially has made a step forward in his second year. This group can be above average, assuming the lineup stays intact.
Updates from Week 2
NFL Network correspondent Ken Rosenthal singled out Carson Wentz’s erratic accuracy in his training camp debrief last week. “The Commanders have struggled to get quality work accomplished because the offensive line is completely overwhelmed by injuries. Furthermore, wide receiver Curtis Samuel has been in and out of practice, while Carson Wentz's erratic accuracy has been a daily story.” One preseason game doesn’t erase three weeks of inconsistency, but Wentz’s performance against the Panthers was encouraging. He played three series, completing 10-of-13 passes for 74 yards (5.7 yards per attempt). While those aren’t eye-popping numbers, given Wentz’s historical propensity to force throws downfield, it was good to see him take what the Panthers' defense was giving. Taylor Heinicke struggled (4-of-9, 21 yards, 1 interception) in limited work, but his hold on the No. 2 role isn’t in jeopardy yet. The real story of the weekend was rookie Sam Howell’s stunning play in the second half. He completed 9-of-16 passes for 145 yards (9.1 yards per attempt) and scored two rushing touchdowns. Howell has a long way to go before gaining regular-season relevance, but it all starts by executing on his preseason opportunities.
Uh, oh. Last week, we highlighted Antonio Gibson’s continued fumbling issues in practice, and his penchant for turnovers continued against the Panthers. Gibson lost a fumble on the second drive and was replaced by rookie Brian Robinson Jr, who looked great. He ran for 26 yards (4.3 yards per rush) and scored a touchdown. More encouragingly, he caught two passes for 15 yards, which belies his reputation as a between-the-tackles power specialist. The coaches put Gibson back in the game with the No. 2 offense, perhaps to send a message. “Very frustrating. Can’t have it,” Gibson said of his turnover. “It’s a big-time, big-game league, and you can’t have that happen. I can’t do nothing about it but move on to the next play, correct what I need to correct and keep moving.” He ended the night with just two yards on four carries. Coach Rivera was understandably pleased with Robinson’s play. “I thought Brian kind of showed us why we drafted him. That’s that downhill, physical presence on the inside. He runs with a good lean; he moves the pile. It’s one of those things that can create energy. I was pretty excited about what we got.”
Curtis Samuel endured criticism about his conditioning at the start of camp and was slowly integrated into practices over the last week. Given his injury history, it’s hard to trust his availability, but Samuel assured beat writers that all is going according to plan. “Everybody, don’t worry about anything,” Samuel said. “We have a plan, and it’s working. I feel good, I’m confident, the coaches are confident, we got a plan, and we’re sticking to it. I will be out there Week 1.” Well, it didn’t take until Week 1 as Samuel was active against the Panthers and caught two passes for 14 yards. McLaurin also played against Carolina, catching a 16-yarder. Wentz also targeted his star receiver for a deep downfield pass that just couldn’t quite connect. Rookie Jahan Dotson was active but not targeted.
Logan Thomas remains on the PUP list, but that hasn’t stopped the Commanders from listing him atop the depth chart, which speaks to how uninspiring the rest of the group looks. John Bates was also hurt for a chunk of camp but returned this week. Neither Bates nor rookie Cole Turner suited up against the Panthers, which allowed rookies Armani Rogers and Curtis Hodges to play a lot. Rogers caught three consecutive passes from Carson Wentz early in the game, but it still sounds like the undrafted free agents are long shots to make the 53-man roster. “We’ll see what we get from Bates and Turner on Monday,” Rivera said. “I do hope at some point we do get to see them in the preseason before we start heading to the regular season.”
Coach Rivera shockingly fired defensive line coach Sam Mills last week, citing a “difference in philosophy.” Mills had worked with Rivera for over a decade, joining his staff with the Panthers back in 2011. Assistant line coach Jeff Zgonina has been promoted. Rivera offered a bit of insight into why he made the change. “What I'm looking for is that constant push, pressure and growth,” he said. “I want [the coaching] to be more demonstrative. I want it to be more in their face, at them, stuff like that. And that's pretty much what we've accomplished.” The Panthers converted 11 of 18 third-down attempts, which was particularly disappointing given how poorly Washington fared on third down in 2021 (31st out of 32 teams). Rivera, who fined coordinator Jack Del Rio $100,000 earlier in the summer for inappropriate comments, was clearly frustrated with the defense’s performance in the preseason tilt. “You've got to keep it second-and-long. Too many third-and-mediums to short. That was one of the things that defensive coordinator Jack [Del Rio] and I talked about. And we talked about it directly. It was obvious, you get to second-and-long or third-and-three, third-and-four. We can't do that, that's too hard. We've got to be better and that's one of the things that we talked about."
Given the choice, head coach Ron Rivera would prefer to have a single specialist fielding both punts and kickoffs, saying, "It takes some pressure off you trying to find another guy. It helps you also when you’ve got to have your 48-guy list for game day." With over 250 career returns, veteran free agent Alex Erickson would seem to be the best fit for that bill, although Dax Milne has been challenging for the role. Top rookie Jahan Dotson was a standout punt returner in college. Still, Rivera was cautious about involving him on special teams, saying, "we’ve got to be very, very, very diligent, very smart about [how we use him] as we go through this process."
Updates from Week 1
Carson Wentz is, on paper, the best quarterback in D.C. since Kirk Cousins left. But anyone who’s watched Wentz understands that no player’s box score is less representative of their on-field value. Through a week-plus of his first Commanders camp, the red flags persist. The Athletic’s Ben Standig cited Wentz as one of the disappointments through ten practices. “Inaccuracy concerns dogged Wentz in Philadelphia and Indianapolis, and that fret traveled to Washington with an assortment pack of misfires. High and low, wide and inside — it’s all been on display, with Saturday’s showing in front of thousands of fans the most public display yet. Quarterbacks throwing to receivers against air (with no defense) is the football equivalent of a layup line. Yet, Wentz routinely bricked passes in various directions. Overthrowing or firing too far out front has been the most common issue.” Coach Ron Rivera is putting a positive spin on things after an encouraging practice on Saturday. “I simply see the progression; again, keep working timing, and he’s understanding the concepts,” Rivera said. “It’s a different offense he’s played in, and he’s getting used to different players, different characteristics in terms of types of wide receivers he’s throwing too. He’s developing within the program.”
Antonio Gibson is enigmatic. He was mainly a receiver in college at Memphis and came into the league with little understanding of the running back position, particularly blitz pickups. Despite his inexperience, Gibson carried the ball 428 times for 1,832 yards (4.3 per carry) with 18 rushing touchdowns in two seasons. In an era of running back committees, those are workhorse numbers. Despite his productivity, many analysts worry his workload already peaked, and the Commanders will eventually ratchet him back to a complementary piece. He missed the first week of training camp with a minor hamstring injury and was up and down since returning. While his blitz pickup skills have markedly improved, he’s fumbled multiple times in recent practices – which was a significant problem for him in 2021. J.D. McKissic almost signed with the Buffalo Bills in free agency but changed his mind when the Commanders offered to match the contract. He’s entrenched as the de facto No. 2, but he’s mainly a receiver out of the backfield. Rookie Brian Robinson Jr is more likely to handle early downs if Gibson gets hurt. Coach Rivera initially described the rookie as a "big, strong, physical, downhill runner" but now believes Robinson can do more. "That's one of the exciting things about a big guy like him out in space," Rivera said. "You get on one-on-one, you make a cut, and the next thing you know, you're into the second level."
Terry McLaurin avoided a hold in after signing a three-year, $71 million contract extension last month, and he’s had a quiet first two weeks of camp. Undoubtedly, he’s the team’s best offensive player and emerging as an off-the-field leader in his fourth season. While Carson Wentz’s struggles are notable, McLaurin put up near elite statistics with a revolving door of subpar signal callers. McLaurin expressed confidence in his new passer and said the improvement from Week 1 to Week 2 was encouraging. Rookie Jahan Dotson got out of the gates quickly and is making a case to start opposite McLaurin, regardless of Curtis Samuel’s status. Standig notes Dotson as one of the standouts, at any position, through the first ten days of training camp. Coach Rivera and offensive coordinator Turner have been exceedingly patient with Samuel, as both coached him while they were in Carolina. But one must wonder how long Samuel’s window for re-emerging as an offensive contributor will remain open. He's been called out for his conditioning and was on the sidelines working with trainers in three of four recent practices.
The tight end situation is dire. Logan Thomas is still weeks away from a return from last year’s season-ending ACL tear. John Bates didn’t practice for the past week, and promising rookie Cole Turner hurt his hamstring on Friday. Veteran backup Sammis Reyes also got hurt last week. That leaves a pair of undrafted rookies – Curtis Hodges and Armani Rogers – as the only options at the position.
The linebacking corps remains a question mark, but Cole Holcomb and Jamin Davis are secure in the starting roles. Veteran David Mayo carved out a role in the team’s jumbo group when the team goes with five defensive linemen on the field, but it’s unlikely Mayo will push Davis for base snaps. Defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis earned the No. 3 spot behind stalwarts Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen, but the coaches are still searching for the fourth rotational tackle.