A few days ago, Hogs Haven published a poll asking its readers to predict the 2022 NFC East division champion, and to identify which young player (from a list of six) would be most impactful in the coming season.
Well, Hogs Haven is a Commanders fan site, and the fans didn’t disappoint, with more than half of those responding to the poll picking the good guys to win the division.
This clearly runs counter to conventional wisdom among NFL pundits & fans. A quick check of the betting odds on a few popular sites shows that the oddsmakers are using last year’s order of finish as the guide, with the Cowboys favored to repeat, followed by the Eagles, Commanders and Giants in descending order.
Of course, betting odds are driven by the behavior of the bettors; and Dallas fans have always been irrationally optimistic, leading the Vegas bookmakers to make the Cowboys the odds-on favorites annually. However, among the talking heads (including TV, radio and print media), the Eagles have been a popular pick since the draft as the most likely winner. Outside of the Washington fan base and a couple of lone wolves like NFL Network analyst Robert Turbin, not many people believe in Ron Rivera and Carson Wentz. Meanwhile, another free thinker, Dan Orlovsky, is picking Philly to win the division in ‘22.
The one thing that EVERYONE seems to agree on is that the Washington Commanders’ success is tied very directly to Carson Wentz’s success.
Wentz has had three seminal seasons: 2017, 2020, and 2021.
If Wentz plays like he did in his worst season — the outlier of 2020 that spelled the end of his tenure in Philadelphia — then the Commanders could well be picking at the top of the draft in 2023.
If he can catch lightning in a bottle like he did in his sophomore campaign of 2017, when Carson was considered by most to be the leading candidate for league MVP until he tore his ACL, then there really is no limit to how far the Commanders can go this season.
If, however, Wentz has the kind of season that he had in Indianapolis a year ago, that’s likely going to get the Commanders a lot further than most non-Washington fans expect. Fans of the burgundy & gold remember that Taylor Heinicke was not the plan at quarterback last season; like any NFL team that is forced to start a backup for 16 games, the team struggled. Commanders fans know that the team had the toughest strength of schedule in the NFL last season, and that this year’s draw puts them among the weakest strength of schedule teams based on last year’s win-loss records. Non-Commanders fans point out that the team lost Brandon Scherff, but we know how often he was injured, and how solid the depth of the Washington offensive line group is. We also know what Carson Wentz had as a supporting cast in Philly and Indy, and that the group of offensive playmakers that #11 will have at his disposal this season is certainly the best in his career. Finally, NFL fans and analysts from around the country repeatedly point out how much Carson Wentz relied on Jonathan Taylor last season, which gave the signal caller a lot of protection in a conservative run-based offense. Without Taylor, they say, Wentz will be exposed, and he will revert to his aberrant 2020 form.
That last point fails to recognize that Washington’s 3-headed monster probably presents as many challenges for defenses in ‘22 as Taylor did in ‘21.
This is reflected in the expectations Commanders fans have for this year’s 3rd round pick, running back Brian Robinson out of Alabama.
Given the choice of 6 young players (RB Brian Robinson, TE Cole Turner, LB Jamin Davis, WR Dyami Brown, and defensive backs Darrick Forrest and Percy Butler), over a third of those surveyed said that Brian Robinson would have the most impact in the 2022 season.
Robinson was used sparingly during his first three seasons at Alabama, but emerged as lead back in 2021, posting a 271-1,343-14 rushing line in 14 games, adding 35-296-2 as a receiver. Because he had to wait his turn at Alabama behind Najee Harris, thus putting up big stats only in his senior season, Robinson is overlooked by many football fans.
But at 6’1” and 228 pounds, Robinson is a bruising back who led the SEC last year with 79 forced missed tackles, using a combination of tight leaps early in the runs, and a buzzsaw running style that allowed to him to glide through arm tackles and shoulder through most first contact in the open field.
Check out what he did as a runner at Alabama in this fast-paced highlight video:
Brian Robinson was smart in finding his holes when playing for the Crimson Tide, typically making a cut and booming through the hole with his shoulder engaged for contact. Once he breaks outside, it’s tough to bring him down as he just gets faster the more he hits his stride downhill as you can see again and again in the highlight film above.
Robinson was also a reliable pass-catcher out of the backfield, hauling in 35 receptions last season, and using that same physical playing style to break tackles and make yards after the catch.
In an often-overlooked requirement for early success in the NFL, Robinson is also one of the best pass protectors in this year’s running back class, a trait that will help him get on the field in any situation to help the Commanders offense.
The combination of Gibson, McKissic and Robinson is intriguing because of the overlap in their skills, but there are also clear differences in their styles and experience. Gibson and McKissic are both converted receivers; all three backs can catch passes, though McKissic has the best hands and most open field explosion. All three can run between the tackles, though Robinson has the most body mass and is the most powerful and instinctual runner of the three. Gibson has a running back’s build but more experience as a receiver, so he has the ability to bang inside or to do damage if he gets the ball in space. While Robinson proved to be a good pass protector in college, the smaller McKissic is highly skilled and has proven himself as an effective pass blocker in the NFL.
When you take into account the positional flexibility (at least the two veterans can line up either in the backfield or split out as a receiver) and range of skills, it should be clear that the team will be fielding 3 talented running backs who can legitimately play all three downs. They can even play together, offering tons of challenging schematic opportunities for offensive coordinator Scott Turner. Together, they may give Carson Wentz as much, or even more protection than he got from Jonathan Taylor a year ago.
It’s worth noting that two other players got a lot of votes for 2022 impactfulness in our survey.
Rookie 5th round selection, tight end Cole Turner, is a 6’6”, 240 pound converted wide receiver who has gotten tons of snaps in training camp due to injuries to tight ends ahead of him on the depth chart, and his play has been impressive. Turner has a huge catch radius, and, playing with a quarterback in Carson Wentz who has a history of throwing a lot to big tight ends. The expectation is that Turner will be able to do a lot with the opportunity afforded him by Logan Thomas’ recovery from last year’s knee injury, which could drag into the first part of the regular season.
The 21% of fans voting for Jamin Davis may have been using the same logic for the defensive player that so many people have used with Carson Wentz. Davis had a very disappointing rookie season, failing to live up to the expectations for a mid-first-round draft pick. I think the “impactfulness” that fans expect is that if Davis improves and plays at the level that his draft position would indicate he is capable of, then that will lead to a huge improvement in the performance of the entire defense. On the other hand, if he plays like he did last year, the roster options are quite limited, and the coaching staff may find it difficult to field the player they need to make the defense successful.
With Ron Rivera entering his 3rd season with a remade roster and a quarterback of his choosing, expectations among the Washington fan base are high, even if those expectations do not mirror the expectations of other fans across the NFL.
The three preseason games to be played on the next three Saturdays (13th, 20th and 27th) will give us a first look at the new offense bolstered by the addition of Carson Wentz, Jahan Dotson, Brian Robinson, and Cole Turner along with a re-tooled and healthy offensive line. There’s every reason to expect the offense to show a dramatic improvement from the moribund low-scoring iterations of recent years.
The defense, on the other hand, returns most of the key players from last season, with the top-8 players in terms of 2021 defensive snap counts returning. Really, Landon Collins is the only starter from last year’s defense that is no longer with the team, and 2nd round DT Phidarian Mathis is the only new face likely to play a major role on the defensive side of the ball early in the season (unless Percy Butler somehow wins the competition for Buffalo nickel). The hope for improvement against last year’s atrocious defensive performance is basically the continuity that this season will bring, and the idea that last season’s group got off to a rocky start because of the challenges that COVID brought to the training camp.
The regular season kicks off at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars on September 11th. It should be an fun season, with a lot of exciting new players and another year of hope and expectations for fans.
Let’s hope that Hogs Haven readers are smarter than the Las Vegas bookmakers — it would be great to hit 11 wins and hang a new banner at the end of the year.