This article was inspired by a comment from Atticus17, who listed ten backup players he was interested in following closely in this year’s training camp. I shortened his list to seven players, then added my thoughts about why I think these seven guys are critical to this season and beyond, despite the fact that most of them are unlikely to win starting jobs this season. Several are rookies; some are returning from injury. One entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent. Each should be a fascinating player to watch in training camp and the three preseason games.
Saahdiq Charles, OT/G
Saahdiq Charles was drafted a year ago out of LSU, where he had played left tackle for the national champion Tigers. There were high expectations for Charles as a rookie. Some expected him to compete for the starting left tackle job; Ron Rivera said that he’d be given a chance to compete for that role and that the coaches would also look at him at left guard. Basically, his role on the team was wide open — he would be used wherever he fit the best.
Unfortunately, Charles’ rookie season was marred by multiple injuries. He missed the bulk of the preseason and training camp, and wasn’t active for a regular season game until Week 6, when he started at left guard.
Charles played his only two snaps of the season in that game and was injured again; he had a dislocated kneecap that required season-ending surgery.
In 2021, Charles is back and it feels like a 2020 redux. He will likely fill a backup OL role this season, but it’s unclear whether he will play guard, tackle, or both, or whether he is more likely to play on the left or right side. Of course, nothing precludes him from earning a starting job except the quality of his competition.
The addition of 2nd round draft pick, OT Sam Cosmi, the signing of veteran free agent LT Charles Leno, and the trade for veteran guard Ereck Flowers have improved the offensive line depth versus a year ago. The fact that the team released both of last year’s Week 1 starting tackles — longtime starting right tackle Morgan Moses and last year’s Week 1 starting LT Geron Christian — indicates that the coaches feel good about the overall depth of the unit, which has a very different makeup than it had in 2020.
Charles is getting a “do over” in 2021. His success will be the team’s success. If he can stay healthy and fulfill some of the potential that the team saw in him when they drafted him in the 4th round a year ago, that will go a long way towards helping the Football Team repeat as NFC East champions and carry a core of young talented players into future seasons.
Benjamin St-Juste, CB
St-Juste was selected in the 3rd round of this year’s draft. He was something of an unknown to most fans, but as the Washington faithful have gotten to know more about him, it has become clear that he is part of what appears to be a more aggressive defensive philosophy in 2021.
When Washington signed veteran free agent William Jackson III in March, many observers were puzzled. He didn’t really seem to fit the scheme in Washington. Jackson is best known as a press-man corner, and Washington primarily ran zone coverage in 2020. Comments from Coach Rivera after the signing made it clear that Jackson’s addition would allow the Washington defense to play differently and be more attacking.
It seemed as if there was a plan afoot to play more press man coverage, but the team still didn’t seem to have the personnel to pull it off. Then they drafted Benjamin St-Juste.
KS4GM wrote this about St-Juste in a recent article:
[L]ike Jackson, St. Juste is a “press man coverage” specialist: A big, boundary corner who is physical enough to neutralize his man at the line of scrimmage, and to provide effective disruption of the short, quick passing game.
His addition also has an additive benefit; it brings Kendall Fuller in from the boundary and allows him to play where he’s most effective - in the slot.
St-Juste looks like the missing piece that will give Jack Del Rio the horses he needs to change instantly from zone or off-man to press man coverage, keeping opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks in a state of uncertainty.
Shaka Toney, DE/LB
Shaka Toney was drafted in the 7th round out of Penn State. He is a slightly undersized defensive end who will probably see the field as a situational pass rusher, likely picking up some of the snaps that went to Ryan Kerrigan last year.
But, as Mark Tyler and KS4GM have argued repeatedly, Toney has the athletic profile of an off-the-ball linebacker, and Jack Del Rio has already confirmed that Toney will get cross-trained with snaps at that position.
This kind of versatility is important in the NFL, where the number of active players on game day is limited. If Shaka Toney is able to see snaps at two different positions on game day, that opens up a roster spot that can be used at a different position, or to carry a developmental player that the team doesn’t want to expose to waivers in an attempt to get him to the practice squad.
Toney has the opportunity to provide a huge return on his 7th round draft status. If he can play even a half dozen snaps at each position (linebacker & situational pass rushing DE) plus a dozen snaps per game on special teams, he will play an integral role in any success the team has in 2021, and will likely become a core part of the roster moving into 2022 and beyond.
Jaret Patterson, RB
Patterson is a small but powerful running back who was signed out of Buffalo as an undrafted free agent. Early reports from OTAs over the past two weeks have been overwhelmingly positive, and more than one OTA observer has predicted that Patterson will play himself into a job during the preseason.
Jaret Patterson is going to play himself right into the RB2 role.— Ryan Fowler (@FowlerRyan1) June 4, 2021
Versatile athlete, explodes to and through contact, excellent vision and footwork through bodies... he’s had himself a nice spring.
Last year, Antonio Gibson had an impressive rookie season, and third-down back JD McKissic was second in the NFL in receiving yards for a running back. But when Gibson missed a few games with a turf toe injury, it was apparent that Washington lacked the ability to use the run game in the same attacking fashion as when he was healthy. Gibson never fully recovered from his injury down the stretch, and the lack of an explosive and talented backup hurt Scott Turner’s offense.
Initially, I expected that veteran Lamar Miller was likely to take the role of Gibson’s backup in 2021 with Patterson headed to the practice squad, but now I believe that the younger Patterson, with more upside potential, is the odds-on favorite to win the backup job behind Antonio Gibson. In fact, the rookie could well be a core member of the Washington Football Team for years to come.
Kelvin Harmon, WR
Kelvin Harmon’s story is another tale of return from injury.
Drafted in 2019, in the same draft as Terry McLaurin, as a 6th round pick, Harmon was seen by many as a draft “steal”. While he lacks the straight-line speed of players like Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel, Harmon is cut from the same cloth as some other very successful NFL receivers who are not possessed of great speed. Here’s what Mark Tyler wrote about Harmon some time ago:
Two current NFL comparisons I have made to Harmon are Chargers receiver Keenan Allen and Saints stud Michael Thomas. Both entered the league with below average deep speed - Allen was in the low 4.7 in his 40, while Thomas ran a 4.57 at the combine. Both have become successful in the NFL largely due to the work they do out of the slot.
Harmon is smart and tough. Though he lost his 2020 season to an ACL tear suffered in June last year, he was productive as a rookie in 2019 when he saw 482 offensive snaps. His role in the offense grew throughout the ‘19 season; he had five games with 50 snaps or more, all coming in the final seven weeks of his rookie year.
Harmon showed his flexibility; per PFF, Harmon lined up as a wideout 331 times, split about equally left and right, while playing out of the slot on 126 snaps, and even lining up as the tight end 25 times in 2019.
The Washington Football Team has better top end talent at receiver than it did in 2019, and more experience at the backup position. As a result, I am surprised to hear myself say that Harmon isn’t a roster lock, and that, depending on what happens during the preseason, his position could possibly be in jeopardy.
However, that’s not how I think it will play out.
I think three receivers are roster locks — Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and 3rd round draft pick out of North Carolina, Dyami Brown. While Brown is primarily a speed receiver to stretch the field, Samuel can play wide, but was most productive a year ago from the slot. McLaurin, meanwhile, is actually capable of lining up at all three positions.
I think Harmon, assuming he is fully recovered from his ACL tear, is the natural 4th receiver in the group due to his experience and flexibility. Of course, with only two or three backup positions available at the WR position, special teams will be a key element of deciding which players make the roster. Fortunately for Harmon, he is also a versatile special teams player who was on the field for punts, kickoffs, kick returns and field goals in every game of his rookie season.
Harmon looks to be a core member of the Football Team as he enters his third season in the league but only his second healthy season on the field.
James Smith-Williams, DE
The depth at defensive end is hugely different this season following the departures of Ryan Kerrigan and Ryan Anderson in free agency. Washington still has two of the best defensive ends in the league in Montez Sweat and Chase Young, but those two can’t play every down. When they are off the field, who will come in to spell them?
The first choice of backup at the DE position right now looks to be Smith-Williams, who got defensive snaps in 14 games during his rookie season, when he was primarily a special team player. With Kerrigan gone to Philadelphia and Ryan Anderson and Nate Orchard likewise no longer on the roster, James Smith-Williams, a 7th round draft pick in 2020, should see a huge increase in his defensive snap counts.
If he is able to come onto the field in place of Sweat or Young without a big drop off in defensive effectiveness, that will be critical to Washington’s defense being among the best in the league again in 2021. If he proves himself this year, then Smith-Williams should be a core backup and special teams player on this roster for the next half decade or longer.
John Bates, TE
I absolutely loved the selection of John Bates, a tight end drafted out of Boise State, in the 4th round of this year’s draft!
Bates didn’t catch many passes at Boise State, leaving many people with the impression that he can’t catch passes. That’s not true. Watching his film, it becomes obvious that, while he can catch passes, his role in the Boise State offense was primarily as a blocker, which will be valuable for the Football Team, who have been plagued by an amazing lack of blocking ability at the TE position for a number of years.
The problem with having a tight end who can’t catch is that is signals to the defense the intent to run. As I said, though, the fact that Boise State didn’t throw to Bates often doesn’t mean he can’t catch the ball. In fact, when they did throw to him, he proved to have very good hands, the ability to get some yards after catch, and the ability to take a hit without dropping or fumbling the ball. What Bates lacks coming out of college is blocking technique and route running skills, both of which can be taught.
I think NFL scouts were sleeping on John Bates, and that he will be an ideal TE2 behind Logan Thomas. He has all of Thomas’ pass catching skills as well as his size and toughness.
I expect Bates to both back up Thomas and give Scott Turner options for 2-tight end sets in 2021, but over the coming few seasons, I believe that the young tight end will develop the skills needed take over the starting role from Thomas (or play as a high-end TE2 alongside another skilled player at the position) and excel as a successful NFL tight end with all round skills for years to come.