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How it’s going for the 2022 Washington Commanders

A two-part look at the NFL’s Washington franchise; how it started, how it’s going. This is Part 2.

I think most people are aware of the “How it started; how it’s going” meme that has been popular on social media for a while now, but for those who don’t spend much time on Facebook and Twitter, and therefore may be unfamiliar with it, let me introduce the meme by way of examples. I think the pattern will be quickly obvious.

This article is the second of a two-part ‘series’ that looks at Washington’s NFL team through the lens of this popular meme.

So, let’s look at how it’s going.


Click here to read Part 1


The Washington Commanders, August 2022

On-field expectations

Analysts such as Football Outsiders are not bullish on the Washington Commanders, and there seems to be one overriding reason for that: They hate Carson Wentz and believe that Ron Rivera made a sucker’s bet in trading for the seventh-year NFL veteran. Here’s what they have to say in the Football Outsiders 2022 Almanac about the Commanders and Carson Wentz:

Washington traded two third-round picks to Indianapolis for quarterback Carson Wentz and a swap of 2022 second-round picks. (One of those third-rounders could upgrade to a second next season if Wentz plays 70% or more of the snaps.) Wentz cost the Colts a playoff berth with two terrible performances at the end of the season, first falling to the Raiders in Week 17 after he missed a week of practice on the COVID reserve list because he was unvaccinated, then getting easily handled by the Jaguars to end the season. He was trashed out the door in Indianapolis in a way you don’t normally see teams trash a quarterback. (“I think the worst thing you can do is have a mistake and try to keep living with it going forward,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said. “For us, it was something we had to move away from as a franchise. It was very obvious.”) He also was given away by the Colts without any real plan at quarterback in a way that spoke to their desperation. Just one year after that same team gave up more than a first-round pick for him!

This grim assessment of the Commanders relies on one basic idea: That Carson Wentz, who had a pretty good year with the Colts, with a TD:INT ratio of 27:7 on the way to a winning season, will regress (for some unstated reason) to his 2020 form when, as the Eagles’ starting signal caller, Wentz had 16 TDs, 15 INTs and was sacked 50 times in just 12 games.

The question is, why would anyone expect Wentz to repeat the one year of his career that is a complete outlier? Let’s look at some of Carson’s basic stats from 2017 to 2021, and let’s see if we can spot the outlier:

Clearly, Carson Wentz’s worst season, in every measure, was 2020 — a season when the wheels came off in Philly.

By contrast, 2017 was his highest scoring rate; 2018 was his highest yardage rate, and 2021 was his most efficient season.

In 2019, Wentz started 16 games, and his stats were all kind of ‘in the middle’, neither the highest nor lowest of his career. It seems reasonable that 2019 — not 2020 — would be the benchmark for what can be expected from Carson Wentz as a Washington Commander.

If his 2022 season is like his 2019 season, then Commanders fans should be expecting a little more than 4,000 yards, 27 TDs, 7 INTs and around 35 sacks.

This would be a huge improvement on the 3,441 yards, 21 TDs and 15 INTs that Washington got from its quarterbacks in 2021, when the team won seven games.

The bigger question about the 2022 season seems to be the defense, which underperformed last season, and struggled during the early preseason games against the Panthers and Chiefs. If Jack Del Rio’s squad can’t stop anyone on third down, then the Commanders could find themselves in the NFL cellar for the coming 18 weeks. There was very little to cheer Commanders fans in this regard from the first two preseason games, when the starters played significant snaps. The defense didn’t look good.

When it comes to win projections for 2022, DraftKings has set the magic win total for the Commanders at 8.

Click here to access DraftKings.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

If I were to place a bet, I’d tend to bet the over. Last season, the Washington Football Team played 16.5 games with a backup quarterback, a poor defense, and off-the-field issues destroyed the last month of the ‘21 season. The team still finished with seven wins.

Upgrading to Carson Wentz, the addition of WR Jahan Dotson and RB Brian Robinson (currently on the NFI list), and a favorable third-place schedule in ‘22 all point to an improvement — and I’ve gotta believe that improvement will be more than one game. A nine or 10-win season seems much more likely than a season with six or seven wins. It’s hard for me to conceive of 2022 being worse than 2021.


The roster

Quarterback

Notable moves:

  • Traded for Carson Wentz (Colts)
  • Drafted Sam Howell in the fifth round (North Carolina)

Carson Wentz

Reports on Carson Wentz out of training camp were mixed, and an interesting division arose between those that were critical of him and those who feel the desire or need to adopt a “that’s my quarterback” stance. Interestingly, reports say that he was more consistent following the FedEx scrimmage the weekend before the first preseason game.

Peter Hailey of NBC Sports said, “Ever since that Saturday night practice at FedEx Field, Carson Wentz (to me) has looked smoother and better.” He followed up with this tweet and video “mash up” up Wentz:

With Carson Wentz becoming more and more comfortable in Scott Turner’s offense, there is much more reason to expect No. 11 to turn in a typical performance like the 2019 season than to suffer through another meltdown like the outlier season of 2020. Simply getting that level of play — 4,000+ yards and 27 TDs — from Wentz should be enough to lift the Commanders from the seven-win season they suffered through in 2021 to a double-digit winning season in ‘22, and would likely mean a return to the postseason, with their fourth playoff appearance since 2012, and their second in 3 seasons.

Still, confidence in No. 11 gets tested at times:

Sam Howell

Making his first-ever NFL appearance in the second half of the first preseason game against the Panthers, Howell looked very good, completing nine of 16 passes for 145 yards, and rushing three times for 19 yards and two touchdowns. His second TD capped a late fourth-quarter drive and set up the team to take the lead in the game when he completed a pass to slot receiver Alex Erickson for the two-point conversion.

Howell looked crisp, decisive and in command of the offense. I would say that he left fans hungry for more, and a number of people were suggesting after the game that Howell is ready to supplant Taylor Heinicke as the team’s backup.

That may put a bit too much stock in an early preseason performance, but Sam Howell clearly looked like he belonged on the field, and his performance was certainly encouraging. Every NFL journey begins somewhere, and this was a great first step for Sam Howell, who did everything asked of him in his initial NFL appearance.

His second outing against the Chiefs was less impressive, with Howell completing just 10 of 18 passes and throwing a bad interception on a late-fourth quarter drive that ended any hope of Washington getting the win. He did come back from that to lead a touchdown drive.

Howell played the entire game against the Ravens to close out the preseason. He completed 24 of 35 passes for 280 yards and a touchdown, adding eight carries for 62 yards. That performance left a pretty good impression with Washington fans, who seem more and more prepared to consider Howell the future of Washington’s QB position. It seems clear that Howell has a ton of raw passing skill, but needs to gain experience in the NFL before he’s ready to surpass Taylor Heinicke on the depth chart, though things could change by midseason.

Running back

Notable moves:

  • Drafted Brian Robinson (NFI list) in the third round (Alabama)
  • JD McKissic re-signed

Antonio Gibson

After leading all running backs in fumbles a year ago, Gibson ended the Commanders’ second offensive drive against the Panthers in the first preseason game with a bad fumble on his own 28-yard line on his second carry of the game.

After a short break and some encouragement and coaching, Gibson got a couple more carries in the second quarter, finishing with four carries for 2 yards.

Coach Ron Rivera was supportive of Gibson in his remarks after the game, but there should be no doubt — this fumble was a huge problem. After an entire offseason of fans saying that Gibson is a pretty good back as long as he holds onto the ball, this fumble had to have a negative impact on the confidence of the player and the fans. At this point, it feels as if Gibson is one fumble away from getting the Matt Jones treatment (another third-round pick with ball security issues).

That said, following the initial preseason game, in which none of the prospective return men impressed, Gibson started working as a kickoff returner — something he excelled in as a college player at Memphis — indicating that he is very much in the team’s plans going forward, albeit with a potentially reduced role as the first and second-down back.

Against the Chiefs in the second preseason game, it was obvious that the coaches had already moved on. Robinson got the start and all the between-the-tackles work, while Gibson was used on an outside zone run and in the passing game (on a day when third-down back J.D. McKissic was unavailable to play).

Of course, what happened to Brian Robinson on the streets of DC following the final preseason game changed the short-term outlook for Antonio Gibson pretty dramatically.

Brian Robinson

Robinson was the victim of an attempted carjacking in Washington DC the day after the final preseason game in Baltimore. He suffered two gunshot wounds — one in his knee and one in his backside — in the incident. Robinson underwent almost immediate surgery, and was released from the hospital within a day or so, and he’ll remain on the NFI list until he’s physically ready to return, a minimum of four games.

While there is no timeline for Robinson’s recovery, and while early reports are encouraging, it’s hard to imagine the rookie running back recovering from a pair of bullet wounds and being ready to play NFL football anytime real soon. The team kept Jonathan Williams on the roster to cover for any games missed by Robinson.

Robinson impressed in the preseason, winning the starting role over third-year veteran Antonio Gibson, who will likely now retain the lead back role until Robinson’s return.

Robinson was everything that Gibson was not in his NFL debut versus the Panthers. The rookie took over for Gibson and carried six times on the offense’s third drive, which straddled the first and second quarters. His stats for that single drive (which is all he played in the game) were:

  • rushing: 6 carries, 46 yards (4.3 per carry) and a TD
  • receiving: 2 receptions for 15 yards

The many fans who had spent the previous four months predicting that Robinson would supplant Gibson as Washington’s primary running back have plenty of “I told you so” evidence to point to now. If Robinson does take over as the lead back and between-the-tackles runner (a decision the coaches seemed to have already made before the carjacking attempt), that should free up Gibson to play more in outside zone and passing concepts, playing to his strength of running with the ball in space.

Robinson showed similar skills in his second NFL preseason appearance, seemingly sealing his role as the Commanders’ lead back going into the season:

When you add the return of the explosive third-down back, J.D. McKissic, who had the second-most receiving yards among running backs in 2020-21, you get a multitalented and explosive running back group that may actually give Carson Wentz more help than he got from Jonathan Taylor in Indianapolis a season ago.

Wide receiver

notable moves:

  • Drafted Jahan Dotson in the first round (Penn State)

Jahan Dotson

Dotson played 22 snaps in his first-ever competitive NFL game, lining up 15 times wide and seven times in the slot. He was targeted only once — a slight overthrow on a deep pass by Carson Wentz — but he was open on the route.

A keen observer would have also spotted Dotson blocking effectively on at least one play.

The rookie receiver added two catches on two targets for 23 yards a week later.

All in all, the early preseason games were inconclusive with respect to the rookie, but indications are that he was at home on an NFL field. Had Wentz’s only pass to Dotson in the first game been on target (the rookie receiver was open), then the current conversation would be much different.

Reports from training camp have been glowing, with some camp observers going so far as to suggest that Dotson looked like the best receiver on the team — high praise for a team that features Terry McLaurin. The early evidence suggests that the Commanders’ front office was right and the mock drafters were wrong in the assessment of Dotson’s NFL potential, and the team will need him to live up to that potential if they hope to exceed expectations in 2022.

Terry McLaurin

McLaurin is one of the best receivers in the NFL, despite having statistical production that does not look elite. NFL fans who judge players primarily on fantasy point scoring will overlook Terry’s leadership, toughness, character — and the fact that he put up over 3,000 yards in his first three seasons while catching passes from eight different starting quarterbacks: Case Keenum, Dwayne Haskins, Colt McCoy, Alex Smith, Kyle Allen, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Taylor Heinicke, and Garrett Gilbert. He also caught a pass from tight end Logan Thomas.

McLaurin just signed a three-year, $71m extension that will keep him in burgundy and gold through at least 2025. Talk to any Washington fan and you’ll find out that “the Captain” is worth every penny.

With a healthy Carson Wentz possessed of a very strong right arm and an aggressive passer’s mindset, McLaurin’s statistical production seems set to finally match his talent in 2022.

Curtis Samuel

Curtis Samuel was signed as a free agent ahead of the ‘21 season, but managed to get on the field for just a handful of snaps in the entire season, and had negligible statistical production.

In 2022, he has to prove that he can stay healthy enough to play and contribute. He played 17 snaps in the first preseason game against the Panthers (12 from the slot) and caught two passes on two targets for 14 yards. A week later, he caught two passes for 10 yards, and dropped a very tough catch that was well-defended on third down to end a first-half drive. The early preseason was not a showcase for Samuel, but then, he’s not a rookie; he showed what he is capable of in his four seasons in a Carolina uniform.

If Curtis can play and stay healthy through the preseason, then that would be a huge ‘win’ for the player and the team. We never got to see what he was capable of in 2021, but he proved himself to be an explosive and versatile offensive weapon in Carolina from 2017 through 2020. The WR lineup of McLaurin, Dotson and Curtis Samuel will comprise the most explosive set of receivers that Washington has fielded since Pierre Garçon and DeSean Jackson left in free agency, and the group is likely to be the most talented group of wideouts that Carson Wentz has played with in his professional career. The young and hungry WR room should do a lot to help Carson Wentz reignite his stalled career.

Tight ends

Notable moves:

  • Drafted Cole Turner in the fifth round (Nevada)
  • Signed Curtis Rogers as a UDFA (Arizona State)
  • Signed Armani Hodges as a UDFA (UNLV & Ohio)

The key word right now is “injured”. Logan Thomas continues to rehab from his Week 13 injury. Like most players returning from injury, Thomas claims to be ‘ahead of schedule,’ but aside from that, there’s been no confirmation that he’ll be ready to play against Jacksonville in Week 1. He was, however, cleared for contact ahead of the final preseason game, and has been very active in practices.

The next-men-up would be John Bates and rookie Cole Turner. Bates did a fine job stepping up after injuries to Ricky Seals-Jones and Logan Thomas last season, and reporters were raving about Cole Turner’s playmaking during the first two weeks of training camp. Unfortunately, both Bates(calf) and Turner(hamstring) suffered injuries during training camp, and neither was available to play in preseason. There has been no confirmation regarding their availability for the opening week game against the Jaguars, but both were on the practice field to kick off game week.

That opened the door for the next two in line, both undrafted free agents. Curtis Hodges and Armani Rogers both played essentially the entire game against the Panthers. Each was targeted five times and each made three receptions, though it was Rogers who was targeted early — on the second drive of the game — against Carolina’s top defensive players. He made three consecutive receptions to secure the first-ever first down for an offense playing competitive football in a Commanders uniform. Hodges, though, was trusted on a key play on second and goal on the team’s third drive, setting up a touchdown that came on the following third-down play. Hodges also caught a pass for a first down on Taylor Heinicke’s only multi-play drive of the game.

Amazingly, Hodges was out injured in the second preseason game. Rogers did well again, with a 15-yard reception, but was outshined by the No. 6 TE on the depth chart, Eli Wolf, who caught two passes for 25 yards.

The early and promising development of Rogers and Hodges means that the Commanders seem to go five-deep at a position that normally sees only three or four healthy players on the 53-man roster. Both players survived the final cutdowns to make the 53-man roster, though Hodges was moved to injured reserve and will miss at least 4 games to start the season. This is a position group that simply keeps getting stronger. With Carson Wentz’s history of relying on big pass-catching tight ends, several Washington players in the TE group could benefit statistically from playing with No. 11.

Offensive line

Notable moves:

  • Signed RG Andrew Norwell in free agency (Jacksonville)
  • Signed LG Trai Turner in free agency (Pittsburgh)
  • Re-signed swing tackle Cornelius Lucas

Return from injury will be significant for the offensive line unit. Chase Roullier was lost for the balance of the 2021 season due to a severe leg injury in Week 8, and then-rookie RT Sam Cosmi was in and out of the lineup with injury and illness last season. Both are expected to be healthy contributors this season, though Roullier was held out of the first preseason game. Their anticipated return to the starting lineup is good news for Commanders fans.

Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner were at one time considered the best pair of guards in the NFL when they played together for Ron Rivera and were coached by John Matsko in Carolina. Norwell has probably had the better career since the two split up in free agency, and is a much cheaper option at LG than Ereck Flowers, who was released as a cap casualty in March. Norwell seems to be as good as Flowers, and may be better.

Turner gives the team two options at LG — Wes Schweitzer is the second. I tend to want to give the edge to Schweitzer because he’s been here in Washington for the past two seasons, but with his flexibility (he can play both guard positions and is a very capable center), Schweitzer is likely to see significant playing time even as a backup. Trai Turner, though, has struggled to see the field during training camp with a lingering quad injury that may give the starting job to Schweitzer by default.

In short, while most NFL fans see the Commanders’ OL as having taken a step back with the loss of Brandon Scherff, I don’t agree. Scherff was expensive, often injured, and part of a unit that is always more (or less) than the sum of its parts. With Matsko coaching, the OL in Washington has done well two years in a row, and the current group has a clear top-seven and plenty of capable players beyond that to fill out a 9- or 10-man unit. The two new members of the group (veteran free agents Norwell and Turner) had their best years in the NFL under the tutelage of Matsko, so their integration into the Commanders offensive line should be pretty seamless.

I’m expecting another good year from another deep offensive line group coached by Matsko.

Special teams

There’s really no doubt about the three specialists, Cheeseman, Way and Slye. While Joey Slye raised some concerns with a missed his extra-point attempt in the first preseason game and a missed field goal attempt in his last, his performance in 2021 was rock solid and far outweighs a pair of preseason misses. The expectation is that Slye will kick like he did in 2021, and that punter Tress Way, the longest-tenured current Washington player, will continue to be one of the best in the league at his position.

The real special teams story is the search for a return man to replace DeAndre Carter. It appears from final cutdowns as if WR Dax Milne will handle punt return duties while Antonio Gibson may end up returning kicks, though no one really impressed in preseason. If no one steps up, the Commanders could end up regretting the decision to let DeAndre Carter leave the team in free agency.

Defensive line

Notable moves:

  • Drafted Phidarian Mathis in the second round (Alabama)
  • Signed Efe Obada in free agency (Buffalo)

Chase Young’s return from injury isn’t imminent; he is starting the season on the PUP list, so he can’t return until the Week 5 game against the Titans at the earliest.

James Smith-Williams will start in his place. The depth at DE is not great. Efe Obada was signed as a veteran free agent, while Casey Toohill and Shaka Toney were on the team last year and showed that they can play fairly well on an NFL field. The current entrenched starter at the position is former-first rounder Montez Sweat, who will lead the unit until Chase Young’s return. Overall, the Commanders’ DE depth behind Sweat and Young is no better than average for an NFL team.

On the interior, with the losses of Tim Settle and Matt Ioannidis, the play of rookie Mathis and the veteran Daniel Wise is important. Mathis seemed to play well early in the preseason, and the coaches clearly are expecting him to be able to carry a big load based on his draft status. I was impressed by Wise in the ‘21 preseason, and I believe his ability as an NFL backup is part of the reason why Ioannidis is not longer here. Wise registered one of Washington’s three sacks in the preseason opener against the Panthers, and added one or two more pressures.

Overall, the defensive line comprises four very good starters (with one currently injured) and what is probably NFL-average depth. If Coach Ron Rivera were satisfied with the progress of this unit however, it is likely that he would not have fired the DL coach, Sam Mills III, just days before the start of preseason. Hopefully, that decision is a sign that people are being held accountable, and that fans can look forward to improved production from this heralded group compared to what was on display during a disappointing 2021 campaign.

The results in early preseason were not promising, however, as the Commanders defense struggled to stop both the Panthers’ Baker Mayfield-led offense and the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes-led scoring attacks.

Linebackers & defensive backs

Notable moves:

  • (Cut Landon Collins post-June 1 designation)
  • Re-signed free safety Bobby McCain
  • Drafted Percy Butler in the fourth round (Louisiana)
  • Extended CB Corn Elder (who landed on the practice squad)

It’s getting hard to evaluate what the Commanders are doing with their linebackers, corners and safeties. It appears that the team may be treating a two-linebacker, three-safety look as its base defense, and Ron Rivera answered a reporter’s question during training camp by talking about the use of defensive schemes in the FedEx scrimmage that relied on a single linebacker on the field.

There seem to be more questions about these seven positions than there are about the rest of the team put together, and not much happened in the early preseason to answer those questions. In the opening game, the Panthers were limited to 288 yards passing for the game, but they threw for 11 first downs. The yards per pass and yards per rush both seemed to favor the Commanders defense, as Carolina put up numbers of 4.8 and 3.1, respectively.

CBs
The cornerback group is very much the same as it was a year ago. The primary question here is about the development of second-year player, Ben St-Juste, who the team seems to be relying on as the primary nickel corner, and scheme comfortability of William Jackson, who says that he understands his role much better now than he did in 2021. Jackson and Kendall Fuller are the clear starters, but I think there are a lot of questions with the backup CBs on the final 53-man roster. The team cut most of the depth players at the position, and, at the time of writing, seemed likely to be positioning themselves to bolster the roster by picking up DBs cut from other teams.

Safeties
I have been much more of a Bobby McCain believer than the average Commanders fan over the past year, and I think the move to bring him back was a good decision. Kam Curl is one of the better young safeties in the league, and the coaches regularly use him as a movable chess piece; as a third-year player, he may be poised for his best season yet.

Darrick Forrest seemed to struggle for much of his rookie season, but reports from camp have been good, and I thought he played well early in the preseason. With the addition of Percy Butler in the draft and the maturation of backup Jeremy Reaves, this looks like one of the stronger position groups on the Commanders roster.

Linebackers
I think Cole Holcomb has done enough over the past two seasons to win the confidence of both coaches and fans. The real question is whether second-year LB Jamin Davis can make a sophomore leap. If he does, the next question is whether the Commanders have the depth to survive significant injuries to starters in a two-LB, three-safety defense. I’m not sure they do.


Summary

Most NFL fans and too many NFL professional analysts bought into the narrative that Carson Wentz was a broken quarterback in 2021, and that somehow the Commanders will be subjected to a time machine that takes the QB back to his worst season as a pro — 2020 in Philadelphia.

Ron Rivera and the rest of the Commanders organization obviously believe in Wentz and recognize that he is no longer in Indy, not because he cost his team a playoff spot through poor play, but because Colts owner Jim Irsay simply didn’t like him.

Everyone at Carson’s new team loves him, and his addition to the offense, when combined with the addition of Alabama running back Brian Robinson and Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson, means that Washington is poised, when Robinson is fully recovered, to have its most explosive offense since the days of Kirk Cousins.

Meanwhile, a veteran and talented defensive roster seemed as if it should be better prepared to perform on the field than they were a year ago, but the on-field results during preseason promise more of the same, with opposing offenses too often looking like a warm knife cutting through butter.

It should all add up to a season in which a lot of questions need to be answered by the Commanders. If Wentz plays well and the defense performs, the team will likely be in contention for their fourth NFC East division championship in 11 years and a trip to the playoffs with a chance to change the national narrative. A poor season by Wentz or a repeat of 2021 by the defense, and the Commanders could be looking at a top-five draft pick in 2023.

Open Threads

All aTwitter: 27 September 2022

Poll: What should the Washington Commanders mascot be?

Open Threads

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