With less than a week to go until the beginning of training camp, most of the end of the roster players already profiled, and the Terry McLaurin extension settled, this may be the most difficult part of the year to muster original content. Given those material constraints, it seems like as good a time as any to engage in a thought exercise: What, within the bounds of some semblance of reality, is the best we can expect from the Washington Commanders during the upcoming season? Buckle up for a flight of fancy below.
In his third year as Offensive Coordinator, Scott Turner has a real opportunity to prove that he has the chops to inherit his father’s legacy as a high-end NFL offensive mind. Turner has had very little to work with at the QB position over the past two years, and its shown. In 2020, Washington’s offense was third worst in the league. Last year, it improved, but it was still in the bottom third of the NFL.
Carson Wentz is - by a fairly wide margin - the most talented QB Turner has had to work with in his time in DC, and there’s good reason to believe that Turner’s Air Coryell-based offense should be a good fit for Wentz’s skill set. Under ideal circumstances, Wentz stays healthy all season, exploits what defenses give him deep, and learns to take what they give him in the short game, as opposed to playing hero ball. Statistically, he passes for around 4,250 yards, throws for 32 TDs and 8 INTs, and adds around 275 yards on the ground with another couple TDs.
With Wentz’s health, Taylor Heinicke is only called upon to serve in very limited late game roles a couple of times during the year, but his reputation as a dependable back-up with a good locker room presence grows. He signs a $5M free agent contract in the offseason elsewhere, and nets the team a potential 6th round compensatory pick in the 2024 draft.
Sam Howell spends the entire year on the practice squad or inactive on the 53-man roster, but develops into a capable back-up, where he will serve behind Wentz for the foreseeable future.
I’ve said it elsewhere on the board, but I believe that the drafting of Brian Robinson allows Scott Turner to optimize - rather than maximize - the use of Antonio Gibson in his offense. Last year, Gibson averaged over 16 rushing attempts and 3 reception targets per game. In my opinion, that’s far too much utilization for a guy who basically hadn’t played running back until coming to the NFL. I’d far prefer to see him utilized like Cordarelle Patterson was last year, averaging about 10 carries and 4 targets per game. If that results in Gibson netting a couple hundred less yards from scrimmage over the season, so be it.
I would expect the bulk of the difference to be made up by Robinson, who might get 6-7 carries per game, and over the course of the season accumulate 500 or so yards on the ground. JD McKissic continues to be a steady presence, collecting 3-4 receptions per game in a role exclusively as a third-down back.
In an ideal situation, Logan Thomas is able to return to the field very early in the season from his knee injury - potentially by the opener - as TE1. At that point, he collects 5 to 6 targets per game as a safety value for Wentz, being spelled occasionally by the still developing John Bates who continues to excel as a run blocker and receives 1 to 2 targets per game of his own. Cumulatively, Thomas and Bates collect around 600 to 700 yards through the air.
Cole Turner makes a few appearances later in the season as a big WR, but spends most of the season sharpening his blocking skills with the back-ups.
As is the case with Gibson, the addition of offensive weapons in the WR room should allow Scott Turner to use Terry McLaurin in a way that results in him being more effective, even if his stats are less impressive at the end of the season.
With Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson, and Dyami Brown all healthy and ready to go, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Terry’s total receiving yardage fall below 1,000 yards this season - on a much better offense.
It’s important to remember that Washington’s WR2 last year was........Adam Humphries, with 383 yards and 0 TDs. I expect Terry to be firmly in the 800-900 yard range, with a healthy Samuel collecting over 600 yards, and Dotson and Brown each in the 300 to 500 yard range. Cam Sims also adds a couple hundred yards as well.
Washington’s offensive line play has been very solid for the past couple of years, though it often fails to get the respect it deserves. The loss of guards Ereck Flowers and Brandon Scherff presents a challenge, but that duo was replaced with two very solid players that offensive line coach John Matsko knows extremely well. Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell end up being the likely starting guards, backed up by starting caliber talent in Wes Schweitzer.
Both Chase Roullier and Sam Cosmi come back healthy and ready to continue their ascents as two relatively unheralded, but effective, young rising stars on the offensive line. The recently extended Charles Leno continues to lock down the left tackle position, backed by capable swing man Cornelius Lucas.
The line ends up a top five unit in the league, and Wentz doesn’t abuse their generous protection by overthinking his receiving options, instead using the time to tuck and run, creating havoc for the defense with his feet, like he did earlier in his career.
In contrast to the offense, where I believe we can see a “value added” from Scott Turner’s contribution to the game plan, I have no such expectation from Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio.
It’s not that I necessarily think Del Rio is a terrible DC, it’s just that I think he’s a fairly boring one, and that he doesn’t necessarily make the best use of his talent. The situation with the Commanders at this point, however, is that he’s been provided a substantial amount of talent. And, he essentially just has to point that talent in the right direction. Let’s hope he can.
You would be hard pressed to find a more talented starting defensive front in the NFL than Chase Young, Jon Allen, Daron Payne, and Montez Sweat. This is a best case scenario, so we’re going to assume that group is largely healthy and ready to go by the beginning of the season. If not, expect James Smith-Williams or Efe Obada to fill in for Chase Young for a couple of weeks until his knee is completely ready to go.
Allen is firmly ensconced as the quiet leader of the group, and I expect him to match, or slightly exceed, his career high 9 sacks, registered last season. Daron Payne is entering a contract year, and should have a strong interest in playing for a healthy, second contract. I strongly doubt it will be in DC, but 2022 will be Payne’s opportunity to showcase his talents for the league, and I expect that he will, while collecting a career high 6-7 sacks.
Chastened by 2021’s debacle of a season, Young and Sweat sublimate their freelancing desires and decide to focus on gap integrity instead. It pays off for the duo, with each putting up 8-9 sacks of their own.
Phidarian Mathis becomes a valuable part of the DL rotation, particularly helping to stuff the run, and Obada, in particular, rises to the occasion, as part of the EDGE platoon, collecting 3 to 4 sacks of his own.
For all the hand wringing about Washington’s linebackers, the addition of a veteran back-up to Cole Holcomb and Jamin Davis in late July does wonders for dampening fan anxiety (I’ll put in my vote for Alexander Johnson here).
In 2022, Holcomb continues to improve, becoming one of the top 15 linebackers in the game, and it ends up being a wise decision to have extended his contract just before training camp.
Davis, with far less on his plate, is able to play more instinctively, and though he makes several errors throughout the season - not uncommon for a second year player - he makes enough highlight reel plays to dampen down discussion that he was a “bust” as a first round pick.
Shaka Toney shines in part time work at WILL when given the chance at the new role, much to the joy of Hogs Haven regulars.
Kendall Fuller quietly has another season as one of the better cornerbacks in the league, while William Jackson III is benefited greatly by more consistent use in a “handsier” press man scheme, suited to his skillset.
Meanwhile, Ben St-Juste is shifted into the slot, where his size and short area quickness are a good match for disrupting receivers over the middle sufficiently long enough for his defensive linemen to get home.
With Landon Collins gone, and apparently not re-signing with the team - though I wish he would - the Commanders try out a variety of players, including Kam Curl, Percy Butler, Khaleke Hudson, Tre Walker, and Ferrod Gardner, at Buffalo Nickel. None of them are ideally situated for the role, and several of them end up being too small for it, but somewhat surprisingly, Hudson ends up seizing the role solidly about halfway through the season.
Khaleke Hudson is a weird projection for the NFL due to his “viper” role status. But he’s athletic, can blitz, can play up in the box, and has natural coverage skills. Projection is the issue, but his talent certainly is not. He’s impressive. pic.twitter.com/ySg4dLVZ7q— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) June 8, 2019
Kam Curl posts yet another impressive season as the team’s strong safety, putting pressure on the Commanders to execute an extension during the 2023 offseason. Overall, he plays well enough to be included in potential Pro Bowl selection discussions.
Bobby McCain starts the season at free safety, with Percy Butler shouldering most of the load at the position by the end of the season, as his superior size and speed make it clear he’s a higher ceiling option at the position.
With Wentz healthy and playing well, and an ability to avoid - or at least minimize - other key injuries, I think the Commanders can be an 11-6 team in 2022. While most naive, outside observers will expect the strength of the team to be the defense, I actually think it’s the offense that ends up surprising, but in a way that is well-balanced and relatively absent any “super stars.”
Scott Turner’s scheming, finally assisted by a competent cast of players, attracts league notice, and quiet discussions begin about whether he might be Ron Rivera’s heir apparent once Ron is ready to turn over the reigns.
The Commanders get into the playoffs as the NFC East Division champ and win their first playoff game in over 15 years. They play well in their second playoff game, but the team’s most notable weakness - its secondary - isn’t quite capable of stopping the high powered passing attack of their superior opponent, and they fall in the divisional round.
But, 2023 looks bright, with Wentz appearing to be a longer term solution at QB, and relatively few tough contract decisions for the coming year. The draft and a fairly healthy cap situation leave the team well-positioned to fill its few remaining holes for a deeper playoff run.
How realistic do you think this scenario is?
I give it 50/50 odds
Put down the crack pipe, Mayor.
Would you be interested in seeing a companion "worst case scenario" piece?
Please, god, no.