A few weeks ago, I tried something different. Rather than my usual tendency to counter the hype building behind the Commanders’ roster hopefuls with statistical reality, I decided to run with it. And now that I have got a taste, it’s kind of addictive.
In the coming weeks, I will continue as usual to provide statistically-based benchmark data to help readers set rational expectations for the Commanders’ new players and the coming season. But I will also indulge my irrational inner old-school Redskins fan by providing weekly updates on the state of the preseason hype. This is the essential duality of a scientist who was raised as a football fan.
As so often happens, the first preseason game saw some preseason hype stories gain momentum. Some narratives had plot twists, and a few new stories emerged. Here is a recap of some the key story lines heading into the second week of preseason.
Tight End Competition – Curtis Hodges, Armani Rogers
Perhaps the most hyped rookie through training camp has been tight end Cole Turner, who took advantage of the injury absences of starters Logan Thomas and John Bates to make a strong case for playing time as a joker tight end. Turner himself succumbed to injury last week, providing an opening for 6’8” UDFA tight end Curtis Hodges to make an impression, which he seemed to be doing through the last week of practices.
Another name that also started to come up in practice was Armani Rogers, an undrafted free agent who played QB for the Ohio Bobcats and converted to tight end this offseason. Armani seized the opportunity playing with the first team offense in Saturday’s preseason opener, and was targeted by Carson Wentz on four consecutive passes, catching three for 12 yards. Hodges responded with three receptions of his own for 11 yards.
The tight end battle is on! Before OTAs, TE depth was a major concern. Now it looks like we will be cutting players who might compete for TE2 positions on other teams. Cole Turner might have a fight on his hands to reclaim the TE3 position when he returns from his hamstring injury. If they can learn how to block, one of these guys might push John Bates for the TE2 position and starting duty while Logan Thomas returns from injury.
Running Back – Antonio Gibson, Brian Robinson
People scoffed when I suggested that 3rd round draft pick Brian Robinson would take the lead back role from Antonio Gibson. After all, Gibson was the 6th leading rusher in the league last season, with 1,037 rushing yards, but he also led the league in fumbles. The ball security issues caught up with Gibson on Saturday, when he coughed up the ball on a first-and-ten run in Washington’s second drive. Gibson was yanked from the game and didn’t return until the starters had left the field.
Robinson didn’t waste time setting a tone with his downhill, between-the-tackles rushing style. He rushed for 26 yards and a touchdown on six carriers and caught two passes for 15 yards in his brief, but energizing appearance with the first-team offense. Ron Rivera seemed to be pleased with his new back. Hopefully Scott Turner will be able to scheme to Gibson’s strengths to provide the lightning to go with Robinson’s thunder. At any rate, it didn’t take long for the RB competition to get a new leader.
WR – Alex Erickson, Dax Milne
If the hype leader heading into Saturday’s game was not Cole Turner, it would have to have been 1st round pick Jahan Dotson, who emerged as Carson Wentz’s favorite WR target in camp. Some would argue that a WR picked 16th overall standing out in camp is not really hype, but just par for the course. That was until Dotson seemingly disappeared on Saturday.
Taking his place was the unlikely duo of Alex Erickson and Dax Milne. Erickson was the Commanders’ leading receiver, with two receptions for 56 yards, including the longest play of the day, a 40 yard strike from Sam Howell. Milne impressed with two catches on three targets for 30 yards, and added a 12-yard punt return on his only attempt.
I’m not saying that Erickson and Milne are pushing for Dotson’s starting job… yet. But both made a case for the 6th WR spot. Whoever takes it will likely get over the line by demonstrating their value in the return game. If that’s true, then based on Rivera’s postgame comments the competition for the last WR spot is still wide open.
The dark horse to watch at WR is UDFA Kyric McGowan. While his catch rate (one reception on four targets) could have been better, he flashed in one series in the fourth quarter with a nine-yard run, followed four plays later by a 27-yard reception from Sam Howell. If he can put together plays like that more consistently, and return kicks past the 20-yard line, he might be able to push one of the players ahead of him, or convince the Commanders to keep seven WRs.
QB – Carson Wentz, Sam Howell
It is fair to say that Carson Wentz came to Washington with some questions about his play on the field and his leadership in the locker room. There has been no evidence to date of any leadership issues in Wentz’s time in Washington. There have been lingering concerns through training camp about Wentz’s accuracy as a passer, as well as his tendency to hang onto the ball too long, while looking downfield at the expense of underneath options.
Wentz put those on-field concerns to bed on Saturday, as he appeared in complete control of the offense, distributing passes to multiple targets as he worked through progressions efficiently and avoided taking any unnecessary risks. The work he has put in with Washington’s coaching staff to restrain the hero-ball tendencies was on full display. Expect a new Carson Wentz this season.
The battle I was most intent on watching on Saturday was not Wentz vs. Mayfield, but rather Sam Howell vs. Matt Corral. I made no secret about the fact that I wanted the Commanders to pick Corral in the first round in the leadup to April’s draft. The Commander’s rookie QB did make it to my 2022 Little Board as an option for the second round, but I felt he was a consolation prize if we missed out on Corral. Suffice it to say, the QB draft didn’t go quite as I expected.
Both Corral and Howell were expected to be developmental projects who would take some time to transition to NFL offenses, coming from simple college systems. In his first NFL game, Howell demonstrated that he is well ahead of those expectations, completing nine of 16 attempts for 145 yards with no turnovers and adding 19 yards and two touchdowns on three carries. Corral, by comparison, looked like a rookie QB struggling to make the transition to an NFL offense. I am pleased that the Commanders’ front office didn’t follow my advice. Sometimes I wonder if they even read my articles at all.
More to the point, not only was Howell’s performance far superior to that of his more highly acclaimed QB classmate, it was also not very far behind that of the Commanders’ starting QB, and well ahead of first-string backup Taylor Heinicke, who threw four completions on nine attempts for 21 yards and an interception. While Howell’s 56% completion rate was well below Wentz at 77%, he threw for about twice as many yards with laser strikes for long completions to Alex Erickson and Kyric McGown. Howell finished the game with a Passer Rating of 86.7, just a fraction behind Wentz at 89.9. Howell’s running ability, on full display Saturday, provides the dual threat capability favored by modern offenses, which gives him a potential advantage over his competition.
Keep in mind that this was just Howell’s first NFL appearance. If he can keep improving at his present rate, by mid-season we could easily find ourselves with a QB controversy, if not sooner. At least one commenter on the HH board used Howell’s name in the same sentence as Russell Wilson and Matt Flynn. I’m not ready to go there quite yet. I’m saving that level of hype for Week 3.
Unfortunately, the first preseason game didn’t provide many hype-worthy stories on the defensive side of the ball. Nobody stepped forward to make a claim on the Buffalo Nickel position, and situation at linebacker behind the two starters, or one and a half starters, remains as murky as it has been. In fact, there was just one emerging story line that was worthy of inclusion in this update.
Safety – Steven Parker
Heading into the preseason opener, there were questions about the Commanders’ depth at safety. This is pretty important, because the defensive scheme makes frequent use of three safeties. Following the draft, and fueled by strong performances in training camp, hype has been building around 4th round pick Percy Butler, whom some analysts consider to be the best pure free safety in the draft class. Long term end-of-roster stalwart Jeremy Reaves has also been making a case for a roster spot with some strong showings, even if interspersed with the occasional unnecessary roughness infraction.
The safety who really came to play on Saturday was neither of those players (aside from Reaves’ great sack against the fourth team). Instead, it was Commanders’ safety Steven Parker who was laying the wood and getting Doc Walker excited. On his first splash play, I had to look him up, because I had no idea who he was. I must have missed the announcement that he signed with the team last week. Parker is originally a UDFA, who signed with Miami in 2019, then spent 2020 with Dallas and 2021 with the Giants. Against Carolina, Parker led the defense with two passes defended, and added two tackles and one assist in bone-jarring fashion.
If Parker keeps playing with the aggression he demonstrated in the preseason opener, we could have a competition on our hands for the safety positions behind starters Kam Curl and Bobby McCain. At 6’1” and 210 lbs, Parker also has the size to compete for the open Buffalo Nickel position.
The competition for kick and punt return duties remains wide open. Ron Rivera was not impressed with the return efforts against Carolina. But rest assured, dear readers, in the next two weeks, someone will make a play and claim the primary return duties. Will it be Dax Milne, Alex Erickson, Matt Cole, Jaret Patterson, or someone who’s not on the roster yet? Or perhaps returning kicks will be Jahan Dotson’s path back to relevance. Your guess is as good as mine.
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