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Most draft classes aren’t judged in their first year, but how the class develops over the course of a rookie contract. Now that the class has had a year of development, what are reasonable expectations for how each player will perform in 2023? Let’s start at the top of the class:
WR Jahan Dotson
Jahan Dotson started out his rookie campaign red hot; in his first 4 games, he had 12 catches for 152 yards and 4 TDs, which was a record-setting pace in terms of finding the end zone as a rookie.
Unfortunately, a hamstring injury knocked Dotson out of the lineup for 5 weeks, putting a hole right in the middle of his rookie season.
Dotson’s first three games back from injury were fairly sluggish; he caught just 2 balls on 5 targets for 27 yards and no scores.
In his final 5 games, Dotson picked up the pace again; he caught 21 balls (but had one really disappointing miss on a deep ball against the Cowboys in Week 18) for 344 yards and 3 TDs (in consecutive games Weeks 13, 14, 15).
If we look at Dotson’s best 9 games — that is, Weeks 1-4 and 13-18 — he actually produced 33 receptions, 496 yards and 7 TDs in those 9 weeks. Extrapolating that production to a 17-game season results in: 62 receptions, 937 yards, 13 TDs.
If Dotson can stay healthy for his full sophomore season, and secure 65 catches for 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns from Sam Howell in Eric Bieniemy’s offense, I think that would be seen as a successful season for the 23-year-old receiver.
DT Phil Mathis
Phidarian Mathis’ rookie season lasted for just 1 special teams snap and 3 defensive snaps before a torn meniscus ended it abruptly.
At OTAs recently, reporters had a chance to ask Mathis about his recovery and expectations for the upcoming season. “I’ve been here the whole time,” Mathis told Zach Selby of Commanders.com in January. “I trust the trainers in there. We’ve been making great progress. It was very hard to take, a tough pill to swallow, for sure. The first couple of weeks, I was down, I was out, but I just put it in God’s hands and let him handle the rest.”
With the re-signing of Daron Payne and snatching John Ridgeway off of waivers early in the 2022 season, the Commanders DL depth is much better than the front office might’ve expected it to be when they made the decision to draft Mathis last year. Because of this, the team can afford to be patient with Mathis’ recovery. However, if the team needs him to play in 2023, it’s something he says he’s ready for.
“I’m gonna give it another try next year,” Mathis said. “I’m gonna come back even harder.”
There’s a pretty good chance that the team puts Mathis on the PUP list ahead of training camp, partly because the team probably won’t really need him, given the depth they’ve acquired since his injury.
Once he returns, I imagine that, absent injury to any other interior defensive linemen, Mathis will see sparing use as a rotational interior defender behind the team’s two stars, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. 2023 may end up being a developmental year for the 2021 2nd round pick, as he aims to head to camp as the healthy #3 for the 2024 season.
RB Brian Robinson
Brian Robinson was knocked out of action even earlier than Mathis when the rookie running back was targeted in a car-jacking in Washington DC just a day or so after the team’s final preseason game. He was shot twice in his lower body in the attack, which many people thought at the time would probably end his season and possibly end his career.
Instead, Robinson worked hard, sucked up a lot of pain, and made his debut in the Week 5 game against Tennessee. Honestly, that should have put him right at the top of the discussion for Comeback Player of the Year at that point.
Robinson ended up playing in 12 straight games (he was inactive for Week 18) and led the team in rushing with 797 yards (340 after contact) and 2 TDs.
Robinson’s rookie year saw him having to be his own blocker on most of his carries as the offensive line failed to create much running room. He proved that he had the strength and the will to get yards that most NFL running backs never could have. He ended up averaging just 3.9 yards per attempt, but that lack of efficiency was a reflection of the poor blocking, not a lack of vision or skill on Robinson’s part.
As we enter the 2023 season, Robinson is considered the lead back, and he will be backed up by Antonio Gibson and rookie Chris Rodriguez — another strong runner who should be able to rotate in and out of the game to keep Robinson fresh. In a deep running back room, Washington could potentially keep Jonathan Williams or Jaret Patterson as a 4th back on the roster.
Washington fans will be hoping that the 2023 offensive line will be an upgrade on the ‘22 iteration, and that the Eric Beiniemy, with an expected reliance on more zone blocking, will produce a more efficient running game.
Last year, Robinson averaged 17 carries per game. Despite GM Martin Mayhew’s assertion early in the offseason that the Commanders want to return with another run-first, time of possession offense in 2023, Eric Bieniemy likely has different ideas. Fans will be looking for the Commanders to have a more effective passing game and more efficient running attack.
The expectation should be for Robinson to carry less of the load in ‘23 than he did in ‘22, but to be more efficient. I’m suggesting that the 24-year-old back should see about 14 carries and one passing target per game. If he gets better blocking and can stay healthy for 17 games, I don’t see any reason why he can’t average 4.5 yards per carry, which would equate to (17 x 14 x 4.5) about 1,070 rushing yards and another 100 receiving yards. Last year, in Kansas City, Eric Bieniemy’s lead back — Isaiah Pacheco — put up just over 1,000 yards at an average of 5.0 yards per carry, so this projection feels pretty conservative.
Robinson should also benefit from a higher-scoring offense in 2023, so his TD total should rise a bit. I’m going to suggest that he can match Pacheco’s 2022 total of 6 rushing touchdowns.
S Percy Butler
4th round safety Percy Butler got defensive snaps in 12 games last season, but he only got double-digit snaps twice; he had 19 snaps in Week 13 and 58 snaps against the Cowboys in Week 18, when Washington’s backup defensive secondary held Dak Prescott’s offense to 6 points.
Washington has been incredibly fortunate in its drafting at the safety position under Ron Rivera. In 2020, the team drafted Kamren Curl in the 7th round, and in 2021, they got Darrick Forrest in the 5th.
Among safeties who played at least 500 snaps in ‘22, PFF ranked Curl #2 overall with a grade of 82.9, while Forrest earned a very solid score of 67.0 overall and 69.0 in coverage.
The result was that Butler primarily played special teams in ‘22, averaging about 20 snaps per game.
The outlook for 2023 is likely more of the same for Butler, as he will probably continue to play special teams along with All-Pro safety Jeremy Reaves. The Commanders used a 2nd round pick on safety Quan Martin, who, as a rookie, is likely to get most of the snaps that were going to Bobby McCain in the latter half of last season.
Barring injury to one of the other players in the safety room, expect Butler to see the field between 30 and 35 snaps per game, with 20 of those being special teams, and the other 10-15 snaps being part of the defensive rotation behind other talented players.
QB Sam Howell
Well, here’s the $64m question: What should fans expect from the 2021 5th round draft pick, Sam Howell?
It seems fair to say that Washington’s 2023 season will go as Sam Howell goes.
With only one NFL game and 19 NFL pass attempts on his resume, it’s hard to know what to expect from the 2nd year player. Nationally, no one one outside of the Commanders organization or fan base is expecting much, but the coaching staff seem prepared to pin their fortunes to the 22-year-old’s development.
In considering what I think we can expect from Howell, I’m going to take the glass-half-full approach and assume that the 17 months of development that Sam Howell will have gotten by the start of the 2023 season will enhance the skills he had when he was drafted.
In looking for a proxy to explain what I think we should expect in terms of statistical production, I’m going to rely on another young quarterback we are all familiar with: the 2015 version of Kirk Cousins.
In 2015, Cousins started all 16 games for the Redskins. He was throwing to Pierre Garcon, Ryan Grant, Jamison Crowder, and Jordan Reed. His running backs were Alfred Morris, Chris Thompson and Matt Jones. He was protected by Trent Williams, Morgan Moses and rookie Brandon Scherff, but also Spencer Long and Josh LeRibeus.
In 2023, Sam Howell has had less development than Cousins had in ‘15, but I’d say that Howell has the superior set of playmakers (aside from TE).
In 2015, Cousins threw for 4,166 yards, 29 TDs and 11 INTs while taking 26 sacks. The team’s record was 9-7, and they made the playoffs as a wildcard team.
If Howell can emulate Cousins’ 2015 performance — that is, throw for over over 3,900 yards, more than 26 TDs, less than 14 INTs, and take no more than 30 sacks on the way to 9 or more wins — then I think that would be a solid foundation for his subsequent career.
For a long time in Washington, fans weren’t sure from week to week whether they would see “good” Cousins (Kirk) or “bad” Cousins (Kurt), but despite a lack of consistency, he demonstrated that he had the tools to be an NFL quarterback, and now, several years later, he is realizing that potential. I think the journey with Sam Howell may be similar in 2023, with some beautiful “Hail yeah!” plays and some equally ugly “Oh no!” throws, but I’m optimistically looking forward to the ride.
TE Cole Turner
Like most of the tight ends on the Commanders roster, Cole Turner struggled with injury, inconsistency and lack of production in the passing game in 2022. He managed only 2 receptions on 9 targets (both in the Chicago game) for 23 yards.
The only time it went right all season:
#Commanders Cole Turner is a 1st string TE disguised as a 3rd string TE. He impressed in 2022 offseason and is again in 2023 OTAs. His competition:— Devin J. Lange (@DevinJLange) June 4, 2023
- Logan Thomas is 32 y/o, tore his Achilles in 2021, struggled in 2022
- John Bates is primarily a blockerpic.twitter.com/wch3XjweO0
Everyone at OTAs and minicamp over the past couple of weeks seems to be saying that Turner’s 2023 campaign will be completely different. Turner talked to reporters about his approach to training and conditioning, saying that he ‘worked on his hamstrings’ because they had troubled him as a rookie, and that he improved his eating habits and worked hard, reducing his body fat from 14% to 9%. Turner said that he feels as though, as a result of hard work and recovery, he’s actually in better physical condition than he was a year ago. He added that he wanted to ‘be quicker’ and ‘move like a receiver’ in the coming season.
At minicamp, Ron Rivera talked about Cole Turner, and addressed both his 2022 injury and his 2023 offseason to date:
Obviously, last year, the injury was a major setback, and it did take a little bit longer to heal up. So, the hard part for us was we really did see a guy that had a lot of potential coming in for us.
[This year], he’s had a great Spring. He’s been here almost the entire offseason on a voluntary basis doing the things that he needs to do and develop. One thing is you’ve seen is [that] he’s got a really good grasp of the offense so far. He’s still learning it, but he’s learning it quickly and doing the things that we need to have him do to be able to help us go forward.
I’m not really sure what statistical production to expect from Cole Turner in 2023. Obviously, everyone will be looking for a big improvement in health and on-field performance from his rookie season to this year.
If Turner can stay healthy, prove himself to be an adequate blocker, and hold on to 70% or 80% of the catchable balls that come his way, that should be enough to set himself up for future success in a tight end group that is led by the 31-year-old Logan Thomas.
G Chris Paul
Despite spending his entire rookie season on the Commanders regular roster, Chris Paul was inactive for 14 games and did not take a snap until the final week of the season, when he played 66 offensive snaps and 7 special teams snaps against the Cowboys. Paul played pretty well in that game, giving up just one hurry on 11 true pass sets, according to PFF, and earning a run blocking grade of 55.0 in a zone:power scheme split of about 2:1.
The coaching staff seems committed to giving Saahdiq Charles every chance to earn the starting LG spot, with Paul as his primary competition, though the team has several veteran players (Wylie, Gates, Larsen, etc) at other positions who can play left guard.
Ron Rivera talked briefly about Paul during minicamp:
You know, Chris Paul’s really just nipping at the heels of all of our offensive linemen because one thing we found about Chris is that he has got great position flex. He’s shown that he can play both guard positions and...there is some [interest] as to whether he can [also play] tackle. I mean, it’s something we’re gonna look at once we get into the pads in the summer and see if he’s capable of that as well. So that’s another huge plus.
Chris Paul is a fan of working with Travelle Wharton pic.twitter.com/gTJnKnIrmG— Zach Selby (@ZachSelbyWC) June 7, 2023
Chris Paul should be doing everything he can to compete for the starting spot, but ultimately, if he is simply active as a backup for all 17 games in 2023, that would represent career progress for the 2021 7th round pick.
CB Christian Holmes
Holmes was Washington’s final pick in the 2022 draft. Personally, I did not project him to make the ‘22 roster, so he exceeded my expectations as a rookie by beating out Corn Elder and Tory Apke for the final DB spot.
Holmes was primarily a special teams player, which is what you’d expect for a 7th round rookie safety. Per Pro Football Reference, he played 323 special teams snaps, and just 103 defensive snaps. The young CB didn’t really excel on those 103 snaps, giving up 7 completions on 8 targets for 106 yards and a touchdown. Opposing quarterbacks had a perfect 158.3 rating against the rookie in 2022.
Washington’s selection of Emmanuel Forbes as the 16th overall selection in the 2023 draft may put some pressure on Christian Holmes, as the team returns all of its 2022 corners, plus Forbes.
As a cornerback, Holmes appears to be on the bubble; he will probably be among the 5 or 6 players being considered for the final 3 spots on the roster. His special teams experience will be in his favor, and I think he’ll make the team as the 10th or 11th DB, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if Holmes started the season on the Commanders practice squad and didn’t get onto the regular roster until he gets an opportunity due to an injury to another player.
If Christian Holmes can make the initial 53-man roster, it will bode well for his opportunity to build an NFL career that extends beyond his rookie contract. If not, he may be destined for a few years of struggling as a special teams player at the fringe of NFL rosters.
Which Commanders 2nd year player will ultimately have the best NFL career relative to his draft position?
This poll is closed
Jahan Dotson (1st)
Phil Mathis (2nd)
Brian Robinson (3rd)
Percy Butler (4th)
Sam Howell (5th)
Cole Turner (5th)
Chris Paul (7th)
Christian Holmes (7th)