I’ve been holding off on writing this article because I’ve been waiting for at least one announcement that the team has signed some veteran defensive help at the linebacker or defensive back positions. Unfortunately, with players reporting on Tuesday and training camp workouts beginning on Wednesday, it’s time to take to the keyboard without having received such news.
There is, of course, still time for a last-minute announcement before training camp starts, and even after that, there’s nothing to stop the organization from adding players during July or August. However, absent a last-minute addition announced today or tomorrow, the most likely time to add veteran help would seem to be after the final preseason game and roster cutdowns, when the Commanders could sign a veteran who can provide depth here after being cut by another team, or snatch a younger player off waivers that another team was trying to sneak onto the practice squad (or when that team is simply trying to open a temporary Week 1 roster spot for another player who is destined for IR or something similar).
But enough of that! We have 91 guys (Washington gets a roster exemption for defensive lineman David Bada, who came via the International Player Pathway Program) who should be showing up this week to don the burgundy and gold at the first-ever Washington Commanders training camp, to be held in Ashburn.
We will get updated by the team after players arrive and undergo physicals on Tuesday, but it seems all but certain that at least two players will start training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list: DE Chase Young and TE Logan Thomas. Both suffered pretty severe injuries in 2021.
Chase Young... and Logan Thomas...essentially admitted the same thing this offseason: Their injuries were more severe than initially thought.
Thomas, for instance, said doctors didn’t understand the full extent of his left knee injury — that he not only tore his ACL, but also his MCL and both meniscuses — until they cut it open for surgery.
Young revealed that the surgery for his right torn ACL differed from the traditional repair. He told reporters that famous surgeon Dr. James Andrews had to open up his healthy left knee and take a graft from his patellar tendon to reconstruct the other side.
Reports this offseason on both have varied, with suggestions at different times that either player or both players could, variously, return by Week 1, miss a couple of games, or start the season on the PUP list. The latter option seems most likely for both players, so here is a high-level summary of what that means:
If a player starts training camp on the PUP list (likely for both Young and Thomas) then that player can participate in meetings and rehabilitation, but cannot practice with the team. He can be activated at any time during training camp/preseason if he is medically cleared.
When roster cuts roll around after the final preseason game:
(i) if a player isn’t medically cleared; and
(ii) if he was on the Active/PUP list during training camp,
then he can be transferred to the Reserve/PUP, which prevents that player from playing and practicing during the first four weeks of the season (prior to this year’s rule change, players could not be reinstated from the PUP list until six weeks had passed).
Center Chase Roullier is another player who suffered a significant injury last year.
Roullier said there were “some pretty serious things” that happened to his ankle in addition to fracturing his left fibula last October. Washington’s starting center kept the details vague, but added that there was “a lot of stuff to recover from.”
Our own Mark Tyler has reported several times that Roullier’s rehab and recovery have progressed well and that he should be ready for the start of the season. We should find out tomorrow whether or not he’ll be ready for the start of training camp.
UPDATE - 28 July 2022: Roullier was activated from the PUP list!
Position battles or uncertainties
The most significant position battle seems likely to be at right guard, where Trai Turner, who played for Ron Rivera and OL coach John Matsko in Carolina, was signed as a veteran free agent this offseason. Prior to that signing, the presumed starter seemed to be Wes Schweitzer, who has put together back-to-back good seasons for Washington.
Personally, I tend to give Schweitzer the nod as the starter over Turner, and that’s how I had it on the depth chart until minicamp, but the reports from a number of people have indicated that Turner may be the favorite to start despite being new to the team and being paid less than Schweitzer. Interestingly, one argument in favor of this arrangement is Schweitzer’s versatility; he not only can play both guard positions, but he is a very reliable center as well, so he can plug in at 3 different OL spots as a backup. The current depth chart in this article identifies both players as starter-quality, but Turner is listed ahead of Schweitzer.
Assuming Chase Young starts out the season on PUP, who lines up opposite Montez Sweat on the first defensive play of the season? Recent history says it is probably James Smith-Williams, but Efe Obada was signed as a veteran free agent this offseason, and he may be able to give JSW a run for his money in the competition for that spot during the preseason. Casey Toohill also seems to keep his name in the conversation. As long as Young is on PUP at the start of the season, there will be an ‘extra’ roster spot for a DE; the competition for that final, albeit temporary, roster spot should be fierce and should involve several players.
Slot and Buffalo Nickel
The nickel defense gets its name from the fact that the defense removes a linebacker and brings in a 5th defensive back - the nickel refers to the number 5. The logic breaks down with “dime” coverage, which is when a 6th DB comes onto the field.
In traditional nickel coverage, the 5th DB was a cornerback — usually one whose primary attributes were twitchiness and good short area quickness that allowed him to match up with typical slot receivers like Julian Edelman or Cole Beasley.
Offensive coordinators began to try to exploit nickel coverage and create mismatches with the slot corner by lining up bigger receivers, running backs or tight ends against the small, quick defenders. These receivers created a size mismatch.
The response from defensive coordinators was a “big nickel” package, where a safety, typically a bit bigger and with better tackling skills, lined up as the slot defender.
When Ron Rivera arrived in Washington, he dubbed his ‘big nickel’ defense the “Buffalo nickel”, and at the start of the 2020 season, often lined up rookie Kam Curl as the ‘Buffalo’ slot defender. The young safety was a converted cornerback with good coverage skills, but was also a fierce tackler. Of course, last season, the coaches leaned towards using Landon Collins in that position, with Curl typically lining up in the more traditional safety alignment.
Ron Rivera said immediately after this year’s draft that Percy Butler would fill that role, though he seemed to walk back on those comments a bit during OTAs and minicamp. Some people have suggested that Butler is too slight for the role, but the team website lists him at 191 pounds, just 7 pounds lighter than Curl, so maybe his size is not a problem.
Interestingly, the coaches were using the very tall Benjamin St-Juste as the slot corner in offseason workouts, and praised him in that position when talking to reporters.
In any event, whether it’s the traditional slot defender or the Buffalo nickel defender, the team has a lot of options. Free safety Bobby McCain is a converted cornerback who can play in the slot; Kendall Fuller initially made his mark in the NFL as a slot corner, and there’s still time to add a veteran free agent slot defender.
Khaleke Hudson was a candidate for the Buffalo Nickel spot at this time last year. Though he is a linebacker for Washington, he is the lightest LB on the roster, and was a LB/S hybrid defender in college, so he seems well-suited to the role. Darrick Forrest, who seemed to struggle to find a niche in the defense as a rookie may also have the tools and, at 200 pounds, the size for the position.
As with Chase Young on defense, there’s really no question about who the starting tight end is; it’s Logan Thomas. There is a question, however, about his health, and that begs the question of who gets the nod as the Week 1 starter if Thomas opens the season on IR.
The choices are limited at this point. Aside from Thomas, the only tight end on the roster who has caught a pass as a tight end in a regular season NFL game is 2nd year player John Bates, who has 20 career receptions.
Of course, Cole Turner was drafted in the 5th round. At 6’6”, he converted from WR to TE in college, and appears to have very limited blocking skills. I think he’ll have to prove his ability to block before the coaches would put him on the field ahead of Bates in 11-personnel, but in 2-TE sets, he seems like a natural choice on passing downs.
UPDATE - 28 July 2022: Head Coach Ron Rivera announced today that Antonio Gandy-Golden has decided to retire from the NFL and return to school.
A dark horse in this competition is Antonio Gandy-Golden. The 3rd year player was drafted by Ron Rivera in 2020 as a receiver, but he has found it difficult to establish himself on the roster, and has spent the last several months bulking up, working on his blocking, and learning the skills he’ll need to play tight end. AGG has only one career reception on 11 targets in his short NFL career. He needs to learn the position and develop his blocking skills, and doesn’t seem to be a strong candidate for the #3 TE in Week 1.
That’s because the Commanders seem likely to go into the season with just 3 healthy tight ends, so the #3 guy needs to be ready to play the position if there is an injury to Bates or Turner, who seem destined to be the top two on the depth chart behind the recovering Thomas.
So, who would be the 3rd if Thomas is on PUP in Week 1?
If it isn’t Gandy-Golden, then one possibility is Curtis Hodges out of Arizona State, who signed with Washington as a UDFA right after the draft. Here’s what Lance Zierlein had to say about Hodges in a pre-draft profile:
Pass-catching tight end with intriguing blend of length and athleticism. Hodges’ failure to live up to his potential at Arizona State was partially due to a slew of nagging injuries that kept him off the field. He’s a legitimate seam threat with open-field separation speed and an expansive catch radius, but he will need to improve as a route-runner and blocker to be viewed as an NFL tight end. Hodges’ injury history will be a concern, but his athletic traits and size could make him a candidate for a practice squad.
Typically, Hodges would be a practice squad candidate, but the situation at the TE position in Washington could give him a shot at the final roster spot while Thomas is recovering. However, that’s not where I’m putting my money.
One name that no one is talking about is Alex Armah, but he is my blue-light special for anyone who wants to bet $10 on a surprise player to make the Week 1 53-man roster.
I have Armah listed as a fullback on the depth chart, but he is also capable of playing tight end, he plays all 4 phases of special teams, and he spent 4 seasons with the Panthers — 3 of them with Ron Rivera.
Armah has 9 career receptions on 13 targets - not much, but more than AGG as a tight end or Hodges as an NFL player. He also has 26 career rushes. He has 528 career offensive snaps and 993 career special teams snaps. In short, he is an experienced veteran who could help a very young TE room.
Rivera said position flex played a role in signing Armah. They knew that if they were in a tight spot, he could play running back, tight end and fullback.— Zach Selby (@ZachSelbyWC) December 19, 2021
In a tight end group that, absent Logan Thomas, would be extremely thin on NFL experience, the 6’1”, 255 pound 6th-year player could be just the kind of Swiss-Army knife that Rivera needs to get through the first quarter of the season. If the coaches opt to keep AGG or Curtis Hodges on the practice squad, having Armah on the 53-man roster as the #3 ‘emergency’ tight end/fullback/special teams player could be a sensible option for a head coach who values versatility and veteran leaderhip. Bookmark this one and we can revisit it when the Week 1 roster is announced.
I don’t think there’s any real mystery about who will be on the 53-man roster at the RB position in Week 1; absent any injuries, it will be Antonio Gibson, Brian Robinson, and JD McKissic. There is the possibility that Jaret Patterson makes the team as a 4th running back, but I think it’s more likely that the team goes into the season with Patterson or Jonathan Williams on the practice squad.
The two questions seem to be:
- What will be the relative usage of Gibson and Robinson? How much will that be affected by tactical and strategic planning, or by Gibson’s ball security?
- Will McKissic get the same volume of targets with Carson Wentz at QB as he did with Alex Smith and Taylor Heinicke behind center? Commander Carson isn’t known for taking the checkdown, but then, neither was Taylor Heinicke before last season.
Outside of the right guard spot, the two key injured starters at DE and TE, and some question about the lead back role, there isn’t a lot of drama about who the starters will be for the 2022 Washington Commanders. The intrigue will be at the backup spots — the 5th & 6th receivers; the 11th DB; the 10th offensive lineman...that’s where the action will be over the next 6 weeks.
A word about wide receivers
Some teams have a very clear x, y, z structure for their top 3 wide receivers. That’s not necessarily the case in Washington. Scott Turner has a lot of flexibility in his offensive alignments. Curtis Samuel can play both slot and out wide. In his best season as a pro (in Carolina), he was used primarily in the slot, but that was in 2020, when Ron Rivera and Scott Turner were coaching in Washington.
Jahan Dotson spend OTAs and minicamp lined up on the outside, but that was in practices without Terry McLaurin. Dotson has the speed to stretch the field, but also has the attributes of a slot receiver.
Interestingly, McLaurin, who mostly lines up wide, has been very productive in his limited snaps as a slot receiver.
Both Gibson and McKissic have the ability to line up as receivers — usually in the slot, and Scott Turner likes to use tight ends in motion in both the running and passing game, and he frequently aligns TEs as slot receivers.
Personally, I believe that, assuming good health for everyone, Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson will each be a threat to line up as slot receivers or outside the numbers on any given play, depending on scheme and personnel. I think they will have a roughly equal number of snaps from the slot over the course of 17 games, and that they will be the two Commanders Commanders players with the most snaps from the slot in 2022.
UPDATED from training camp on 28 July:
Training camp Day 1 team observations: The Commanders are definitely rotating who they’re using in the slot between Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson. Really depends on the formation, but that’s good versatility to have. Three main wideouts have been McLaurin, Samuel and Dotson.— Matthew Paras (@Matthew_Paras) July 27, 2022
Not everyone agrees with this thought, but the depth chart below reflects the idea that Terry, Jahan and Curtis are the top-3 receivers, and that the alignments will be flexible. As always, I will pay attention to what happens during training camp and make adjustments to my assessment as more information comes in.
The numbers that appear beside some players’ names are 2022 cap hits per Over the Cap.
Please note that assigned positions and color coding are my own personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent the thinking of Washington’s coaches or front office, nor are they necessarily consistent with fan consensus. This chart represents my interpretation, and may not reflect the thoughts of other writers on Hogs Haven. Finally, when it comes to backup players, I don’t put much effort into making sure that they are on the right or left or behind the specific player that they backup. I mostly just try to fit everyone on the chart efficiently.
Training camp will run from July 27 through August 18; it features a free practice event at FedExField, and a series of practices at Ashburn.
Anchoring the experience for fans, the Commanders will host a practice event at FedExField on Saturday August 6 from 6:45 p.m. - 9:00 p.m., with gates opening at 4:30 p.m. This free event will be open to the public, and fans can visit Ticketmaster HERE to claim tickets to sit in the lower bowl on a first-come, first-serve basis.
In case you were curious about where the organization based its summer camps in the years before using the team training facility in Ashburn, you can check out some of those various locales in Commanders’ training camp history — via Pro Football Reference — below.
- 2022 – Washington Commanders Training Facility – Ashburn, Virginia
- 2021– Bon Secours Training Center – Richmond, Virginia
- 2020 – Washington Commanders Training Facility – Ashburn, Virginia
- 2013 – 2019 – Bon Secours Training Center – Richmond, Virginia
- 2003 – 2012 – Redskins Park – Ashburn, Virginia
- 2001 – 2002 – Dickinson College – Carlisle, Pennsylvania
- 2000 – Redskins Park – Ashburn, Virginia
- 1995 – 1999 – Frostburg State – Frostburg, Maryland