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While pundits and fans of the NFL don’t expect much from the Commanders in 2023, that’s almost solely because of the plan to start the unproven 5th round 2022 draft pick, Sam Howell, at quarterback, with the 7-year veteran Jacoby Brissett as the only viable alternative.
Outside of quarterback and some legitimate concerns about the offensive line, the Commanders have an NFL-ready roster that returns all but one starter from last year’s 3rd-ranked defense.
Today, I’m ranking the ‘baker’s dozen’ — the top 13 best players who return to the team from the 2022 roster.
#13 - WR Curtis Samuel
Curtis Samuel got off to a rocky start in Washington in 2020 when he simply couldn’t get healthy. After that wasted year, however, Samuel exploded into the 2022 season with 171 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first two games. He finished the season with 843 yards from scrimmage and 5 touchdowns.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that Samuel could have the best year of his career in 2023 in Eric Bieniemy’s west coast offense, which should prove to be a perfect match for Samuel’s skill set.
#12 - P Tress Way
Not many fan bases have the kind of positive relationship that Washington fans have with their punter and longest-tenured Washington player, Tress Way. Way was claimed off the waiver wire by Washington when he was released by the Bears at the end of training camp in 2014. He has, for most of the years since, been referred to half-jokingly as the team’s MVP.
What an amazing punt by Tress Way pic.twitter.com/XpOFCa4oRN— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) October 23, 2022
Your punter ain’t shit, Happy Birthday Tress Way pic.twitter.com/rmy1zuZF5F— Not Robert Griffin (@Pseudo_RGIII) April 18, 2020
Way was named 2nd team All Pro in 2019, and he went to his 2nd Pro Bowl in 2022. Tress is also known for being highly personable and adding to the energy of the team in practices, training camp and games.
#11 - TE Logan Thomas
Logan Thomas has suffered through two very tough years as an NFL tight end on the Washington roster. After having the best year of his career in 2020 with 670 yards and 6 touchdowns, his ‘21 season was cut short by a dirty shot at Thomas’ knee by Yannick Ngakoue.
The All-22 replay of the Logan Thomas injury does not make it look any better. Ngakoue spots the sift block early and holds his position instead of working down the line to close the gap. Then goes very low. pic.twitter.com/mepj1rZvXY— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) December 6, 2021
Thomas missed the rest of the ‘21 season and struggled for much of the ‘22 season before he seemed to return to form around Week 11.
Coaches and members of the media who have attended OTAs and minicamp this offseason have said that Logan Thomas looks healthy and confident as training camp approaches. With Eric Bieniemy taking over the offense, it seems like a reasonable bet that the 6’5”, 250 pound tight end can return to his 2020 form.
Logan Thomas with the amazing catch on the goal-line pic.twitter.com/mKqPb1twid— Sporting News Fantasy (@sn_fantasy) October 18, 2020
#10 - RB Antonio Gibson
Antonio Gibson has, in just 3 seasons, moved into 14th place on the list of career rushing yards for Washington players, and he should move up 2 or 3 spots by the end of the ‘23 season. Of course, Gibson is a receiving threat as well, and he has amassed 3,272 yards from scrimmage and an impressive 26 touchdowns in his 3-year career to date.
With Eric Bieniemy calling plays in Washington, the Commanders screen pass rate should skyrocket.— Adam Pfeifer (@APfeifer24) June 15, 2023
That could be fun for Antonio Gibson pic.twitter.com/R7rzTetloH
While Gibson was expected to take a bit of a backseat to Brian Robinson and JD McKissic last year, AG actually had to step up when, first, Robinson was shot in an attempted carjacking prior to the start of the season, and later, McKissic was placed on IR due to a lingering injury.
In Eric Bieniemy’s offense, Gibson could potentially have the best season of his career in 2023, which is his ‘contract’ year. If he can produce at his maximum potential, he could set himself up for a solid payday as a free agent in 2024.
#9 - RB Brian Robinson
Anyone who looks at Brian Robinson’s rookie stats will think he had a pretty good year — 797 yards and 3 total touchdowns in 12 games.
When you are aware that Brian Robinson missed the first 4 weeks of his rookie season because he’d been shot twice during an attempted carjacking, then it puts a whole different spin on those numbers.
When you actually watched the games, and you know that he was running behind one of the poorest offensive line units in the NFL, and that 43% of his rushing yards came from yards after contact, then it becomes apparent that Brian Robinson has a bright future as an NFL running back.
LOOK at this run by Brian Robinson Jr. Comes to a near complete stop at the line of scrimmage, works through an arm tackle, forces a corner off balance and then gains three bonus yards after getting walloped. A physical masterpiece pic.twitter.com/tKg8Ay9H0X— Pete Hailey (@PeteHaileyNBCS) November 28, 2022
The Commanders relied heavily on Robinson, handing him the ball an average of 17 times per game in 2022. In 2023, Washington fans will be looking for Eric Bieniemy to get more running room for the 2nd year running back.
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; it seems reasonable to think that Brian Robinson can achieve that or better in 2023.
#8 - S Darrick Forrest
Third-year safety Darrick Forrest may be the Commanders player who flies the lowest under the radar. In 2022, Forrest started 11 games and led the team with 4 interceptions (tied for 11th in the NFL).
When Darrick Forrest was targeted in the passing game, quarterbacks completed just 54.5% of their passes with an aggregate passer rating of 75.4. PFF rewarded him with a grade of 69.0 in pass coverage, but also gave “Forrest Thump” grades of 80.0 for tackling and 63.2 for run defense.
This play by Darrick Forrest is capitalized by his THUMP on the RB.— The Podfather (@TheBurgundyZone) September 12, 2022
Forrest is at the Safety spot pre snap, he instinctually reads the RB leak to the flat and missiles off to make the big tackle.
If he hesitated, no play would be made, WOW! #HTTC pic.twitter.com/b0TDcMOUvZ
#7 - S Kamren Curl
Washington’s other safety has made himself known to the broader NFL community with his excellent all-round play during his first three years in the league. In 2022, PFF ranked Curl 2nd overall among safeties who played at least 500 defensive snaps, with an overall grade of 82.9.
Loved the play call, just a great play by Kamren Curl to stick Michael Pittman Jr. short of the endzone to prevent the touchdown. pic.twitter.com/bRyOlupp1d— Cody Manning (@CodyTalksNFL) November 1, 2022
Game wasn’t too fast for rookie safety Kamren Curl. Dissects this screen from the jump and makes the play for a TFL. pic.twitter.com/tTRxsfZHac— Matt Valdovinos (@MVScouting) September 17, 2020
Great shot here of Jeremy Reaves and Kamren Curl communicating pre-snap. With no hesitation snuffing it out. Great awareness by Reaves. Great tackle by Curl. Great TEAM-work #PicturePerfect #WashingtonFootball pic.twitter.com/0eK5hpYn1D— The Real Telly (@DCdude202) November 27, 2020
Kamren Curl : 8 tackles (Stopped Christian McCaffrey from getting a 1st down on 4th & 3 with 3:02 left) pic.twitter.com/z3gx55GsY7— Lee Harvey (@AyeThatsLee) November 21, 2021
Curl, drafted in the 7th round of the 2020 draft, has great awareness, and takes responsibility for making sure that the defense is aligned and ready before every play. He has been a key member of two top-5 defenses in the NFL.
Entering his contract year, Curl will be counted on as a critical component of what is expected to be another league-leading defense.
#6 - DE Montez Sweat
Montez Sweat has played 4 good seasons in Washington and will play the 2023 season on his 5th year option. Sweat has perhaps been more workmanlike than many fans would have liked after he was drafted 26th overall in 2019, but he has consistently been good against both the run and pass.
The Athletic ranks Montez Sweat 11th on the list of all NFL players with contracts set to expire at the end of 2023. PFF ranks Sweat 9th overall among edge rushers with at least 300 defensive snaps, with an overall grade of 86.4 and a pass rush grade of 79.6 for the 2022 season.
Top 3 pressure percentage among edge rushers with at least 100 snaps:— Nick Akridge (@PFF_NickAkridge) October 26, 2020
1. Joey Bosa: 17.4%
2. Montez Sweat: 17.3%
3. TJ Watt: 16.9% pic.twitter.com/mbIE5UnbPC
In his 4-year career, Sweat has missed only 6 games — all due to a broken jaw in 2021. In his 3 full seasons (including his rookie year) he delivered 7, 8 or 9 sacks per season and between 27-31 pressures. He has 10 career passes defended (one for a pick-six), 7 forced fumbles, and 37 tackles for loss. Last season, he played 70% of the defensive snaps, and he’s never played less than 64% (in his rookie year).
Sweat plays the run very well, and he has been a solid pass rusher. In 2022, per PFF, Sweat was 16th in pressures (62) and 5th in QB hits (19). Sweat’s biggest issue has been that he hasn’t converted pressure and QB hits into sacks often enough. His 8 sacks in 2022 tied him for 41st in the league.
At minicamp, Jack Del Rio had this to say about Montez Sweat: “I mean, he’s a good football player and when he starts finishing at a higher rate, his numbers are gonna explode. I anticipate him having that kind of a year for us. He needs to have that for himself and we’d like to see it for our team.”
#5 - CB Kendall Fuller
When you look at Kendall Fuller’s PFF grades for the past four seasons, it is a reminder of how well and how consistently he has played.
In a recent film analysis, Mark Bullock went into detail on why Kendall Fuller is a great fit for Jack Del Rio’s defense. Here are some of his ‘bottom line’ conclusions when comparing Fuller to 3rd-year CB Benjamin St-Juste:
Fuller offers experience and veteran leadership that a young group needs to help guide them. On top of that, I think Fuller is a much better fit than St-Juste for the zone and match concepts that the team uses. When he plays off and with vision, he’s incredibly instinctive and can drive down on routes quickly.
[I]t’s not just the interceptions that make Fuller a strong cornerback. He made a number of plays while playing off and with vision, which this system prefers, that show his ability to thrive in this type of defense. Having Forbes on one side and Fuller on the other would give Washington an excellent pair to help them attack quick game passes and force the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer, allowing the defensive line an extra beat to generate pressure.
Having two similar corners like that would allow the Commanders to play more of their zone and match coverages and trust that the defense can hold up on both sides of the field.
For me, Fuller’s fit in the system, his consistency and his experience should give the upper hand over St-Juste going into training camp and the start of the season.
#4 - 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.
Jahan Dotson’s doing stuff like this in his second career game!???!?!?! pic.twitter.com/jpumww1FKS— Pete Hailey (@PeteHaileyNBCS) September 19, 2022
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).
Jahan Dotson with Sam Howell could be lethal in 2023. pic.twitter.com/CPhC7waluu— Elite Drafters (@Elite_Drafters) May 16, 2023
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.
#3 - WR Terry McLaurin
Terry McLaurin is better than most non-Commanders fans give him credit for. They judge him by comparing him to receivers on other teams, and using receptions, catch %, yards and touchdowns as the measuring stick. Normally, that’s the right thing to do, but with Scary Terry, the comparison is rarely apples-to-apples because of what has happened at the quarterback position in Washington during his career. McLaurin has had to catch passes from 10 different quarterbacks (plus one pass from TE Logan Thomas) in just 4 seasons.
Of course, Terry McLaurin had his career-best production in 2022, hauling in 77 receptions for 1,191 yards and 5 touchdowns; he was one of 4 Commanders (and the only one from the offense) to receive Pro Bowl honors.
Terry McLaurin’s career statistics
I hope Trevon Diggs wishes Terry McLaurin a Happy Fathers Day!!! pic.twitter.com/LqUpNtdx7K— Billy Tinkle (@BillyTinkleNuts) June 18, 2023
O ajuste que o Terry McLaurin fez pra receber essa bola foi uma coisa muito de elite.— Danilo Lacalle (@danlacalle) June 14, 2023
Um baita WR que tenta fazer muito, mesmo sem QB pic.twitter.com/cpEvI1KmmL
Sam Howell deep ball to Terry McLaurin pic.twitter.com/DW9QSDo3zO— Main Team (@MainTeamSports) January 8, 2023
Terry McLaurin combines on-field skills and athleticism with leadership and character traits that make him a player and a man who is much greater than the stats recorded in box scores. I think most Commanders fans have the feeling that, when all is said and done, Terry McLaurin is going to be remembered as one of Washington’s all-time greats whose name will be mentioned alongside players like Art Monk, Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell.
#2 - DT Jonathan Allen
Another player who is noted for his leadership skill as well as his on-field production is Jonathan Allen, the 17th overall pick in the 2017 draft.
Allen was selected to back-to-back Pro Bowls in 2021 & 2022, and he has been a defensive force throughout his 6-year career.
Allen has had at least 6 sacks in 4 out of his last 5 seasons, which is an accomplishment for an interior DT who is a focus for opposing offenses’ game plans. Allen has also had at least 61 tackles in each of the past 5 seasons, and he accumulated 47 tackles for loss in that time, including 26 TFLs in the past two seasons alone.
Jonathan Allen is ridiculous. pic.twitter.com/mqku0X3072— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) November 20, 2022
In the past three seasons, the lowest pass rushing grade given to Allen by PFF was 81.1, and he was awarded a pass rushing grade of 90.9 in 2021.
That’s not to suggest that Allen isn’t good at playing the run. Check out the clips below:
Jonathan Allen almost singlehandedly put the team on his back on the crucial Falcons drive before Washington scored the game-winning TD.— Nick Akridge (@PFF_NickAkridge) October 4, 2021
These are all three plays from that drive. 93 had a tackle for loss, tackle for a 3 yard gain, and the third play was just mean pic.twitter.com/C3soFtkkv5
Quenton Nelson is regarded as one of the NFL's top guards.— Pete Hailey (@PeteHaileyNBCS) October 31, 2022
Jonathan Allen doesn't care pic.twitter.com/jwZHLkZafv
Jonathan Allen signed a 4 year contract extension in 2021 worth $72 million with $35.6 million in guarantees, including a $30 million signing bonus — and then he went out and delivered the two best seasons of his career.
Allen is a beast on the field and a leader in the locker room. He has been an integral part of helping to make Washington’s defense one of the most dominant in the NFL in 2020 and 2022 — and hopefully again in 2023. If the team can achieve playoff success in the next few years, then Allen will likely be remembered as one of the player-architects of that success.
#1 - DT Daron Payne
It’s hard to separate Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. The two played together at Alabama; they were drafted in the first round in back-to-back years, and they dominate opposing offensive linemen, not separately, but as an interior unit.
First example:— Nick Akridge (@PFF_NickAkridge) July 29, 2021
Everyone remembers this play as Chase Young's fumble recovery for a TD but it's Jonathan Allen's clean win against the LG creating the pressure forcing the QB to scramble into Daron Payne.
Payne gets the strip-sack, Young gets the recovery, Allen gets nothing. pic.twitter.com/38OWNQP1sR
Jonathan Allen is the more vocal leader, but in 2022, Daron Payne, playing in a contract year, elbowed his way just ahead of his teammate in terms of on-field production.
Payne was explosive, leading the Commanders with 11.5 sacks. He also racked up 64 tackles (18 TFLs) and a safety. He has 4 forced fumbles and 4 fumble recoveries in his career as well as an interception. His AV (approximate value) number for the ‘22 season was 13, and he has a cumulative career AV of 42.
Daron Payne with the sack on 2nd and long, now into double digit sacks on the season. Had a great year pic.twitter.com/slc5UEjT5X— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) January 1, 2023
Payne went to his first-ever Pro Bowl in 2022. He was rewarded this offseason with a 4-year contract extension worth $90m.
Interestingly, PFF did not grade Daron Payne very highly in 2022.
Daron Payne has been one of the premier interior defensive linemen of 2022, racking up 15 tackles for loss which is tied for 1st in the NFL among defensive tackles with Jonathan Allen. Payne also has 8.5 sacks on the season, which ranks 3rd among defensive tackles in the NFL. Payne is undoubtedly having the best season of his career at an essential time of his career.
Pro Football Focus evaluates every player on every play during a football game. Per PFF itself, the grading system was founded on the principle of grading “production” rather than traits or measurables as a better way to describe it is a player’s “contribution to production” on a given play. According to PFF’s Senior Data Analyst Nick Akridge, Payne’s below-average grade of 59.2 this season does not match his production. “I think Daron Payne is severely underrated in our system; I get asked about it all the time.”
“A lot of times in what I talked about with him, his job is kind of a nose tackle - - to eat up blocks. So a lot of times when you see him or the defense playing well, you see [Cole] Holcomb or [Jamin] Davis being able to shoot their gaps because Payne is eating blocks. So for our system, if you are taking on a double-team and just holding the double-team, you are a zero [grade] for us.” Akridge has argued to PFF that stalemating double teams should be graded positively, but their grading system has not adjusted for that.
Daron Payne's name is often mentioned in trade rumors, but he has far more value to WFT on the field than on the trade market. In 2021 Payne led all interior DLs in defensive stops while finishing in the top 12 in total pressures & PFF pass rush grade. #WashingtonFootball pic.twitter.com/F8AwBYpwQu— Nathan Coleman (@CommandersStats) January 20, 2022
Look at Daron Payne chuck the right guard and then decide that he doesn't want the Bears to pick up another inch on the ground all in the span of like two seconds pic.twitter.com/ocnGY2PtJ0— Pete Hailey (@PeteHaileyNBCS) October 14, 2022
Daron Payne bursts through the LOS to make the play in the backfield, set up a 2nd and long. Good start to the drive for the defense pic.twitter.com/Fw2x3C7FyN— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) November 27, 2022
One thing watching the season back has reminded us of, we ABSOLUTELY LOVE Daron Payne's game.— Tae & Todd Commanders Podcast (@TaeNToddPodcast) September 7, 2020
He's 30+ yards down the field on this play. Hope he's in Washington for the duration of his career.
Also, Moreau pic.twitter.com/EF3MCMyJfR
Working on my Top 50 NFL free agents for ESPN.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) January 26, 2023
Players I moved up in the rankings…
• DT Daron Payne (WASH)
• OT Jawaan Taylor (JAX)
• DT/DE Dre’Mont Jones (DEN)
• S CJ Gardner-Johnson (PHI)
• LB Tremaine Edmunds (BUF)
• DT Zach Allen (AZ) pic.twitter.com/UyFpQn8zka
13. Curtis Samuel
12. Tress Way
11. Logan Thomas
10. Antonio Gibson
9. Brian Robinson
8. Darrick Forrest
7. Kam Curl
6. Montez Sweat
5. Kendall Fuller
4. Jahan Dotson
3. Terry McLaurin
2. Jonathan Allen
1. Daron Payne
Which Commanders player really should be ranked #1?
This poll is closed
Which player would you have omitted from this list?
This poll is closed
There’s no one on the list that I would have omitted