1. The Commanders’ leading rusher will be Brian Robinson.
I expect Robinson to rush for around 800 yards and 7 TDs in 13 games, after he returns from the NFI/Reserve list for the Week 5 game against the Titans and takes over early down rushing duties. Gibson’s rushing attempts will be reduced as a result, and I expect him to come in around 600 rushing yards, with about 260 of those in the games while Robinson is absent. Gibson will add around 500 yards receiving.
It will be a down year for rushing totals, as carries are spread between Robinson, Gibson, J.D. McKissic, and possibly even Curtis Samuel (200 rushing yards in 2020), and Scott Turner relies more on the passing game than in 2021.
2. The Commanders’ rookie of the year will be Brian Robinson.
Robinson will also get votes for NFL Comeback Player of the Year, but that award usually goes to a quarterback.
3. First-round pick, WR Jahan Dotson will exceed expectations.
I’m not really predicting a blockbuster rookie performance for Dotson here, but I expect him to play very well and become a reliable 2nd receiving option for Carson Wentz. How can a first-round draft pick exceed expectations, without having an All-Pro season, you ask? The trick is in determining what should be expected of a WR drafted 16th overall.
Toward the end of training camp, I published an article in which I set performance benchmarks for the Commanders’ 2022 draft class by calculating the average production of first-year players at their positions with comparable draft pedigrees. Dotson’s comparison cohorts (WRs picked 10th to 22nd overall and WRs picked 5th in their draft classes) averaged 627 yards and 4 TDs as rookies, mostly playing in 16 game seasons.
I expect Dotson to put up around 850 receiving yards and 5 TDs, which should have him ranked around 5th in the draft class and make him the Commanders’ second leading receiver after Terry McLaurin.
4. Terry McLaurin will exceed 1,400 receiving yards.
I believe that Terry McLaurin is a top-5 receiving talent, and the only things that have held him back to this point have been the talent of the QBs throwing to him and the lack of other receivers to keep defenses honest. In 2020, McLaurin registered 1,118 receiving yards while catching passes from Dwayne Haskins (QBR 24.8), Alex Smith (QBR 28.2) and Kyle Allen (QBR 68.2 - actually not too shabby). The second-ranked wide receiver on the team in terms of yardage was Cam Sims, with 477 receiving yards.
For the first time in his NFL career, McLaurin will be playing with a QB who is capable and willing to make all the throws, including stretching the field deep. In training camp, it seemed that Jahan Dotson was developing the strongest chemistry with Wentz of all the wideouts, but we didn’t see that come through very strongly in the preseason games. I expect that, once the season gets underway, McLaurin’s supreme talent will shine through and establish him as Wentz’s go-to receiving target.
1,400 receiving yards was my hype-prediction for McLaurin, but I actually believe the Wentz to McLaurin connection is capable of making it a reality.
5. Cole Turner will have a big rookie season.
I don’t expect Turner to unseat Logan Thomas to become the starter or even surpass John Bates on the depth chart. The two veterans ahead of him are complete tight ends, capable of playing the Y-alignment, which is what you need from a starter. Turner is still developing blocking skills and will need to do so before he can challenge those players.
Rather, I expect to see Scott Turner get a fair amount of use out of Cole as a joker tight end, as a big slot receiver and in two tight end sets, particularly in red-zone situations. Earlier in training camp, Turner seemed to be developing a strong connection with Carson Wentz, who has a well-known penchant for big receiving targets. Turner dropped off the radar in preseason games due to injury. Once he’s healthy, I expect to see that spark rekindled, resulting in around three targets per game, with a high proportion in goal line situations. That should be good for around 320 yards and 4 TDs.
If that doesn’t sound like much, it would be good enough to make him somewhere between the top (2020) and fifth (2017, 2018) leading rookie tight end in each of the last five draft classes. It would vastly exceed the expectations based on average performance of comparably drafted tight ends: 73 yds, 1 TD.
6. Injuries will take a toll.
NFL teams take a battering every season, and the WFT has suffered more than its fair share over the past few seasons. 2021 was not particularly bad, relatively speaking, although a few positions were particularly badly hit, including QB and center. Attrition due to injury is to be expected every season, which is why roster depth is nearly as important to remaining competitive as starting talent.
Rivera’s team have done a good a job at building roster depth, overall compared to what they took over. Quarterback, wide receiver, running back and tight end are the deepest we have seen in a long time. Offensive line depth is solid and safety is looking better than it has. But the team still has two Achilles’ heels.
Depth at linebacker is so thin that an injury to a single starter could prove disastrous, and cornerback is only slightly better. In 2021, 13 of the Commanders’ 22 starters missed three or more games due to injuries and other causes. Seven starters missed eight or more games. The injuries were not evenly spread around the roster, with QB, TE, C, DE, and LB taking the biggest hits in terms of proportion of total starts lost. We could get lucky this season and see our two starting linebackers and three starting corners stay healthy. But if any of those five starters misses significant time to injury we could end up starting players who are lucky to be on a 53 man roster.
Using the past four seasons as a guide, I expect seven to eight of the Commanders’ starters to end the season on injured reserve. If we are lucky, those injuries will be spread around the roster and land mainly at positions where the team has good depth. The team is well placed to absorb injuries at QB, WR, RB, TE and OL. If we are unlucky, and two or three of them occur at LB and/or CB, we could be in big trouble. Don’t even think about what happens if we get a streak of injuries at either position, similar to the situation at center last season.
7. Tight ends and pass-catching running backs will continue to shred the defense.
It seems like the one constant throughout time with this team is that the defense can’t cover tight ends and backs running routes out of the backfield. I can’t quite place my finger on why that is, but it might have something to do with the fact that our linebackers aren’t very good in coverage.
OK, that’s not quite true. In 2020, Cole Holcomb allowed only 12 completions on 22 passes thrown into his coverage, for very stingy 64.7 opposing Passer Rating. Like the rest of the defense, he had a bad year in 2021, allowing 60 completions on 81 attempts and slipping to a 95.7 opposing Passer Rating allowed mark. Still, he was better than rookie Jamin Davis, who allowed 36 completions on 42 attempts and a 107.1 opposing Passer Rating. Reports from training camp and preseason are that Jamin is improving. Good thing.
You want to hear something really scary, though? If either of those guys twists an ankle, we get to see Jon Bostic (129.2 opposing Passer Rating) and David Mayo (149.5!!!, OK, it was only 8 attempts but they were all caught, and went for a total of 83 yards and a TD) lumbering around the field trying to cover tight ends, running backs and, God forbid, slot receivers. Washington’s other LB, Milo Eifler, has not left a deep impression on NFL stat lines. Hopefully he is their secret weapon.
We have been promised throughout the offseason and preseason that the Commanders will find someone great to fill the Buffalo Nickel position to address the vacancy left by Landon Collins’ departure. It appears that second-year safety Darrick Forrest has stepped up to the position. That seems to be more hype coming out of Ashburn than proven fact to this point in time, but hopefully there is some fire behind the smoke signals (apologies for the Native American adjacent imagery).
I find it all a little unconvincing, as I have absolutely zero faith in Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio solving any problem thrown at him by today’s offensive coordinators. He seems to struggle with getting his defensive backs to execute basic communication. I expect the game threads to be full of exasperated commentary on our inability to cover tight ends, yet again.
8. Quarterback controversy will become a thing.
This prediction has more to do with the flashes that rookie Sam Howell has shown in preseason than it is about starter Carson Wentz.
I have softened on my original reaction to the Wentz trade. Since arriving in Washington, Wentz has demonstrated a real commitment to developing a strong rapport with his teammates, and to working with the coaching staff to fit into Scott Turner’s system and correct some of the issues with his play style that became apparent with his previous teams. All reports indicate that his teammates love him and he has taken a leadership role on the team.
On the field, he is an above-average starting QB with the ability to make all the throws in an NFL offense. Indications from camp and preseason are that he still has a tendency to hang onto the ball too long, resulting in unnecessary sacks, and has some inconsistency and accuracy issues. However, he definitely has the talent to lead a complete NFL offense and should be the best QB in Washington since Kirk Cousins left town.
Nevertheless, Wentz is a once promising QB who peaked in 2017, and is on to his third team in three years. A lot of people, particularly in the national sports media, are expecting him to fail. If Wentz struggles at all in his first year in Washington, which is to be expected of QB in a new system, or misses any time to injury, we can expect to hear a growing chorus of “Play the rookie!”
Sam Howell was my original choice for the Commanders in the second round, assuming that Matt Corral was off the board (oops). Ron and the Martys probably couldn’t believe their luck when he was still available at the start of the fifth round. Howell got off to a great start in his first preseason appearance, and he looked comfortable and flashed signs of future starting potential in his extended audition against the Ravens.
Howell still has a fair amount to learn, and will probably benefit from a year or two on the bench behind an established starter. But don’t expect that to stop fans and the national media to start calling for him to start if Wentz shows even the slightest signs of weakness.
9. CB Tariq Castro-Fields will surprise people.
This year’s Mason-Brennan competition was one of the most disappointing in recent memory. A few late round draft picks and UDFA hopefuls managed to earn themselves a place on the final 53 man roster, but none of them captured our imaginations and fired up the fanbase to the same extent that previous MB award winners have.
That is because this year’s late-round hidden gem went deep undercover, arriving too late make a splash in the Mason/Brennan competition or feature in any of my hype updates. At the final roster cut-down this year, the Commanders jettisoned all of their roster hopefuls battling for the backup CB positions, except for 7th round pick Christian Holmes, opting instead for waiver-claim additions Tariq Castro-Fields and Rachad Wildgoose.
Selected in by the San Francisco in the sixth round of the 2022 draft, Castro-Fields has a great combination of length (6’ 1”) and speed (4.38 40). Despite his draft status, he made a strong impression in the 49ers training camp, and at one point appeared to have overtaken second year CB Ambry Thomas to earn snaps with the second team in camp practice. Former Redskins, 49ers and Seahawks lead scout Scott McCloughan, who has an eye for late round defensive backs, was very high on the 49ers grabbing Castro-Fields in the 6th round.
Ultimately, Castro-Fields was a casualty a deep CB room in San Francisco. Perusing discussion threads on Niners Nation, he comes up as one of the main players that fans hoped would be stashed on the practice squad. Fortunately for Commanders fans, Washington was able to claim him on waivers.
Castro-Fields may not get much playing time early in the season, but when he does, people will be surprised by the value Washington found on the waiver wire.
10. Season record: 7-10
This season the Commanders should see improved QB play with a further assist from all of the returning and new weapons at Carson Wentz’s disposal. New WR2 Jahan Dotson impressed in training camp, and should draw attention from Terry McLaurin. The addition of Brian Robinson will strengthen the rushing attack between the tackles, and allow Antonio Gibson to flex out where he can do more damage in space. A healthy Curtis Samuel, new F tight end Cole Turner, returning 3rd down back J.D. McKissic and a resurgent Dax Milne should make it difficult for defenses to key on one or two lead players.
On defense, the safety group is deeper than it has been in a while. The defensive line might have taken a slight step backward, or maybe not depending on how rotational players Phidarian Mathis and Daniel Wise pan out. Sure, there might be some weakness at LB, and the cornerback group lacks depth, but combine the improvements on offense with the weak strength of schedule and the team should see at least a few more wins than last season.
This micro-level analysis of improvements at individual roster positions tends overlook some key truth about the Commanders under Rivera. This team has been poorly coached and tends to play as less than the sum of its parts. That has been particularly true on the defensive side of the ball. In each of Rivera’s first two seasons in DC, the team has got off to slow starts, recording its 3rd win at game 10 in 2020 and at game 9 in 2021. The team’s play during the slow starts has been plagued by poor communication and discipline on the field, poor scheme fits to players’ abilities and slow adjustments by the coaching staff.
While there have been significant improvements to the offensive roster, the head coach and defensive coordinator remain the same, and I think they are the main reasons why the team underperforms on the field.
Ron Rivera’s job is probably safe until Joe Gibbs tells Dan Snyder it’s time to move on, but if the team record does not improve in 2022, his seat will probably start to warm up.
11. The Commanders will be 1-4 at Week 5
Rivera’s teams get off to slow starts.
12. Chase Young’s return will be anticlimactic.
The prevailing narrative about Chase Young is all about the injury that derailed his 2021 season. We tend to gloss over the eight games he played before the injury, in which he showed little sign of improvement over his rookie season. Statistically, 2021 was a step backward for Young, and there was little indication that he had developed as a pass rusher.
Young’s injury was also severe. It may take him some time after he is cleared to play to fully return to pre-injury form. I am not expecting him to have a major impact when he returns from injury this season. Hopefully he has been using the extended rehab time to improve his technique and understanding of the nuances of the pro game. But I doubt we see that reflected in significantly improved play in 2022.
13. Jack Del Rio will be fired by the end of January.
Jack Del Rio had a good year in 2020, but aside from that his defenses have not ranked better than 22nd in yards allowed or 20th in opponents’ scoring in the last five years.
2020 2nd overall pick Chase Young showed little signs of development as a pass rusher before getting injured last season. The secondary was plagued by communication issues, and CB William Jackson III and LB Jamin Davis were played in roles that didn’t suit their talents. It took about a season and a half to figure out how to use Landon Collins. The defense also struggled to cover TEs and to stop opponents on third downs.
Heading into the 2022 season, I don’t think anyone understands what the Commanders are planning to do at linebacker, and I suspect that includes the defensive coordinator. I doubt it ends well.
While Ron Rivera is known for his fierce loyalty to his guys, he does have his limits. If the Commanders’ defense continues to struggle in 2022, I expect him to give Del Rio the boot at the end of the season.
Which prediction did I get right?
This poll is closed
Commanders ROY - Brian Robinson
Terry McLaurin > 1400 yards
CB Tariq Castro-Fields is this season’s late round gem
Chase Young underwhelms
JDR gets the boot