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Things Ron Rivera talked about on Thursday

Cole Turner, DE depth and the impact of international players

Thursday was a low-intensity day for the Commanders, with no padded practices — only walkthroughs in the bubble and NFL officials arriving to start helping with more than skills development.

At the media session, Ron Rivera was talkative and had a lot to say about a lot of things.

Let’s take a look at a few topics that he addressed.

DE Depth

With the coach having already announced that Chase Young will not be ready to play in Week 1, the attention of fans and reporters is on who will step up during his absence and play opposite Montez Sweat. On Thursday, Ron was asked about James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill, but he took the opportunity to mention every DE (except Sweat) by name and say a few words about each.

James [Smith-Williams] is more of a six technique type player. He’s got a good body, good physical style player. He’s gonna get a little bit more push, more so than he’s gonna get more of the finesse on the outside on the edge.

Casey [Toohill] has been a true physical try-hard guy that gets up field use relies on his initial quickness, and then goes from there.

Efe Obada is a very by the numbers guy. I mean, he’s learned the game. He’s still learning the game to be honest with you, but he’s got some good natural skill sets that really fit well for a pass rusher. He’s just gotta learn to continue to develop who he is as a pass rusher.

{William] Bradley-King, he’s been very interesting to watch; he’s done some really good things. He’s got a little bit to him. He’s got heavy hands. He does a nice job on the edge. If he can get his pad level down, I think he’ll win even, even more.

Probably the guy that gives you a little bit something that’s a situational pass rusher is Shaka Toney. He’s a guy that’s got great anticipation gets off the ball, has a nice dip and can lean and make that turn on the edge. He’s a guy that’s intriguing for us, a guy that we’re watching and paying attention to. So, just really like what he’s bringing to the table.

I’ve always been a believer in paying attention to the order in which a coach talks about players in a position group. More often than not, it seems to me that coaches go in descending order through the depth chart — it’s human nature.

Before listening to this answer from the coach, I thought Efe Obada was probably slightly ahead of Casey Toohill, but then Ron talked about Toohill first. It’s a bit hard to judge, because he was answering a question that was asked specifically about JSW and Toohill, and those were the first two mentioned. I guess it’s fair to say that I see them as being close to equal on the depth chart behind James Smith-Williams.

It does seem to indicate, however, that Bradley-King and Shaka Toney are on the outside looking in once Chase Young is healthy and ready to play. I’ve always been skeptical of hearing a player described as “interesting”, which is what Rivera says about WBK here. “Interesting” is what I say when my girlfriend’s mother asks me what I thought of the squid, pumpkin & pineapple lasagna she cooked for dinner.

Also, the description of Toney as a “situational pass rusher” is a problem when you start counting roster spots. Toney had only 1 game in 2021 in which he got more than 12 defensive snaps. He has to be able to expand his role on the team if he wants to secure a roster spot and hold onto it after Chase Young returns.

Washington opened the ‘21 season with Young, Sweat, Smith-Williams, Toohill and Toney. With Obada added to the mix this season, I can see Toney making the initial 53-man roster again, but he could be the odd-man-out when Chase Young is ready to play again.

Cole Turner

It feels like Cole Turner may be getting more ‘buzz’ than anyone else in training camp. While the rookie clearly has some limitations, with Logan Thomas and John Bates both unable to practice, Turner has been getting a ton of snaps, and because of his size and receiving skills, he’s attracted a lot of attention.

Turner actually spoke to the Washington media this week (for the first time, I think).

Having seen a lot of pictures of him and a lot of on-field video clips, I had formed an impression of Turner in my mind. His demeanor during his press conference was very much the opposite of my mental image.

Turner was shuffling his feet; his hands were behind his back and he was a bit ‘hunched over’. If he’d been a student in one of the professional presentations classes that I teach, I would have been asking him to make a lot of changes in his posture — physically, his body language screamed that he was uncomfortable and self-conscious.

He also came across as surprisingly soft-spoken and diffident. Not really what I’d expected from this 6’6” behemoth.

Asked about his own development in training camp, this is what Cole Turner had to say for himself on Wednesday:

I think I’ve done okay. You know, I’ve done pretty well with not making too many mental errors. That was my main goal coming from such a simple offense I had in college to this was I really wanted to focus on understanding the playbook and doing my assignment right. Every time I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement. But luckily, I’ve had a lot of guys who have helped me out like Logan Thomas and John Bates and Sammis [Reyes] and Alex [Armah] as well. They’ve all taken me under their wing a little bit and helped me out. So, I’ve been lucky to have those group of guys around me.

That humbleness (humility?) is at odds with what I’d expected from Turner.

Asked about his blocking and the hardest part of developing his blocking skills, Turner replied:

I’ve spent a lot of time during OTAs...with [Tight Ends] Coach [Juan] Castillo, extra time watching film working on just the basics of blocking. I think it’s something that it’s a little different blocking at this level — you know, where guys are a little bigger. But, at the end of the day, technique will save you.

I would just say [the hardest part is] always using the right footwork because...when you get to this level, we have every single zone scheme, [and] almost every single gap scheme in. So remembering which footwork to take on which play, which guy you’re going to, that’s the hardest part. But once you get past that, you can start playing fast and you know, blocking, half of it’s just the mentality of wanting to do it and wanting to be good at it.

It seems as if the 3 months or so since the draft have been a time of learning for Cole Turner.

But one area where he should have an advantage is as a route-runner and pass catcher. Cole is a converted wide receiver and a long-armed player with a huge catch radius.

I think [my size] helps because I kind of present a bigger target for Carson; it’s kind of hard to miss me sometimes when I’m running out there. That’s what he tells me at least.

I think he can kind of put the ball in places where only I can go get it. So I think that’s where it kind of helps him out. Obviously, the high balls, but even out in front and behind me — I think there’s a lot of balls I can get to that might be challenging for somebody else.

None of this is really any surprise. Turner is a big guy with a big catch radius, but he probably needs to develop his understanding and skills as an NFL blocker.

Let’s see what Ron Rivera had to say on Thursday about Turner’s developing blocking skills:

I think [he’s developing his] understanding — you know, what it means for him when we talk about leverage, knowing that, ‘Hey, the runner’s going this way. I gotta make sure I’m positioned in this spot.’

It’s when he’s coming around an edge that the the offensive line, the better angle I’m gonna create for myself. Understanding those angles to cut guys off with [and] hand placement [are things] I think he can improve a lot on.

[Also] body posture in terms of bending at the knees, bending at the hips, you know, so that I am explosive when I go to block. [So], the biggest thing really is just understanding his hand placements and where to put his hands on people and again, how to create that leverage.

Rivera is only summarizing, but he is focusing on the technical aspects of playing the position. My takeaway from these comments is that Turner has a long way to go as a blocking TE in the NFL.

Clearly, he has ball catching skills and the size to exploit mismatches with the defense, but — a bit like Shaka Toney — without more in his toolbox, that probably limits the number of snaps that Turner can get.

I think of Turner and Sammis Reyes a bit like two halves of a complete tight end; Reyes took to blocking rather well as a rookie, but looked uncomfortable on the few occasions when the ball was thrown to him. We’ve heard that Sammis bought himself a JUGS machine to help improve that aspect of his game. Turner is a good pass-catching weapon, which will probably be most valuable in the red zone, but is probably not yet comfortable enough to trust as a blocker. I wonder if he has space in his living room for a blocking sled?

International players

The Commanders have 3 international players (more if you count the Canadians), though only one of them came through the international player pathway program. The team also has players like Alex Akingbulu, whose parents are from Nigeria, who add to the multiculturalism of the team.

On Thursday, Ron Rivera was asked to comment on the impact of those international players.

The international players have a different flair about them in terms of their work ethic. There’s not a lot of bad habits, so you’re trying to create good habits for them, and trying to get them to understand exactly what it takes to be successful.

One thing I will say [is that] we’re very fortunate because the three international guys we have...are all tremendous athletes, and we’re very fortunate to have those guys.

One of the benefits of having an international player like a guy like David [Bada], who’s still in the learning process is that he’s here, he’s a practice squad guy — he’s a bonus guy who doesn’t count against our numbers. You have time to watch him develop and grow. Usually it’s a two, two and a half year process before you see it, in my opinion, and David’s getting real close to that spot.

Good habits are important, and so is hard work. I mentioned Alex Akingbulu, whose parents are Nigerian immigrants. He spoke in an interview about what that meant for him.

My parents coming from Nigeria here, of course, you come into a different country and continent, first thing you have to do is work hard. They landed here, that’s the first thing they did, and that’s the main thing that they preached is just being able to work hard. In America, there’s definitely a lot of room to grow, and a lot of room to up your status in this economy, so just knowing that your future’s in your hands, and if you work hard enough for it, then everything else will pay off.

From what I can tell, the international players on the team are all hard workers; of course, no successful NFL player is a stranger to hard work, but without having grown up with the game, the international players start at a disadvantage and have a lot of ground to make up.

Montez Sweat had a few comments about the international players when he spoke to the media on Thursday:

It gives a different flavor to the D-Line room. I mean, Efe is from London, but he’s Nigerian. He has that London accent, but he has that African.

[David] Bada being Ghana, but from Germany, he gives a different perspective too. It’s great.

They go about life in a different way. They apply those things to life. So it’s great.

As the NFL tries to spread its influence globally, we can expect more an more international players. One side benefit to adding a player from a foreign country is the propensity for citizens of that country to then adopt and support the team he plays for. Goodness knows, the Commanders need all the new supporters we can get.