In this preseason series, I will be taking a look at the 2023 Washington Commanders roster and giving my breakdown on each position group.
Today I will look at one of the weak spots on the Commanders roster - Offensive Line
Unlike my previous season predictions, the offensive line is really not a statistically-driven position group. Instead of attempting to predict how many sacks/blown blocks each player along the front five will allow, I figured it’s best to give an overview of my projecting starting front five, and what we need to see from each to make this unit “respectable”.
Since Ron Rivera’s arrival in 2020, he has seriously de-emphasized the offensive line through high draft picks and quality free agent signings. Instead of building a team from the foundation on up, Rivera has chosen to go bargain basement shopping on the O-line while jettisoning some higher-priced, higher-preforming veterans either via means of them leaving through free agency or outright cuts.
The results - a 22-27-1 three-season W/L record, an offense that has consistently ranked in the bottom third of the league in both points scored and total yards, and a unit that has allowed an average of 47 sacks per season (bottom 7 in the league over that time period) while averaging 25th worst in rushing yards per carry. Last year in this pass-happy NFL, Washington’s line ranked 27th in ESPN’s pass block win rate and 23rd in adjusted sack rate.
To say the offensive line needs to drastically improve in 2023 for the team to have any success on offense would be a massive understatement. Thankfully (or maybe not so thankfully) Rivera and company rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic yet again. Fans are excited to see three new starters along the front five, but this writer remains skeptical...
Projected Starting Five (left to right):
Charles Leno - Leno returns for his third season in Washington as the team’s most-seasoned starter. At age 32, he’s still going strong, not having missed a start in two seasons. However, 2022 was a rough one for him as he allowed 37 blown blocks (tied for 4th most among all offensive tackles), and eight sacks (tied for 6th worst).
Despite his decline in play, Leno is a locker room/community leader and steady presence at left tackle - which the coaches value. With better play to his interior, he could be serviceable for one more year while the team searches for his replacement. He’ll need to do much better in pass protection, especially speed rushers off the edge, and tighten up his reach blocking on outside zone plays.
Saahdiq Charles - Saahdiq Charles is battling Chris Paul for the starting left guard position. Given that Charles worked with the first team all through OTA and mini-camp, it appears the staff is set on making the position his to lose.
Charles was a former left tackle at LSU protecting Joe Burrow during his Heisman campaign. He’s very strong and athletic but hasn’t been able to stay healthy over his brief NFL career. Now is the time to sink or swim for Charles, and if he sinks, Chris Paul will be waiting in the wings. If he is able to stay healthy, he may be able to give the Commanders a physical, athletic presence on the inside.
Nick Gates - Gates came over from the Giants in free agency and is projected to be the Commanders starting center after long-time starter Chase Roullier was released this offseason.
There are times when Gates struggles with the bull-rush, but he has good overall hand placement, is sound in the run game and seemed to do a nice job setting the protections when he played center. He’s a downgrade to a healthy Roullier, but Roullier hadn’t been healthy in a few years. It will be key for Gates to gel with his new teammates and quarterback quickly in training camp, while gaining the confidence of the offensive coaching staff. If he falters, there is rookie Ricky Stromberg waiting in the wings.
Sam Cosmi - The third-year pro will be entering his first season as a starting guard after beginning his career at right tackle. Although he saw action at right guard in 2022, this will be the first offseason where he is solely focused on the position.
This could be a good move for the uber-athletic Cosmi, as suspect footwork and technique plagued him as a tackle. At guard, he can use his powerful hands and quick feet to be a great position blocker and his ability to move well in space should allow him to get to the second level with ease. I’m not suggesting he’ll become an All-Pro overnight, but it wouldn’t shock me to see him play his best football to date on the inside. Having the veteran Andrew Wylie to his right should also help.
Andrew Wylie - The former starting right tackle for the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs joined Washington this spring as a priority free agent signing. He started all 17 regular season games in 2022 but was second in the NFL in blown blocks (45) and tied for third in sacks allowed (11).
Some blame the blown blocks and sacks on quarterback Patrick Mahomes holding the ball too long and “improvising” in the pocket. Regardless, he’ll need to clean that up here in Washington, as we DO NOT have Patrick Mahomes under center. What Wylie does bring is a nasty demeanor and good run blocking strength and awareness. He’s also very athletic for the position and does well when asked to get out front on screens.
Chris Paul - I mentioned this before, but Paul is in a battle with Charles to be the starting left guard. If he doesn’t win the spot during the preseason, look for him to be the first guy off the bench if one of the guards were to go down.
Paul is an athletic, powerful lineman with the ability to kick out to tackle in a pinch. He may need another year of development to be deemed NFL-ready, but there is a glimmer of hope that the staff can eventually turn him into a decent player.
Ricky Stromberg - Taken in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft, Stromberg was viewed by many to be Chase Roullier’s replacement at center - that is until ole Ron came out and declared him a “developmental” prospect. Nothing like your head coaching spending a top 100 pick on a “developmental” guy, then coming out and calling the player that in public before even seeing him in training camp. Maybe we can chalk that up to being some Jedi mind-trick by the crafty Rivera - or maybe we can just call it what it was...stupid. Regardless, Stromberg will need to come out and prove himself this summer if he wants to be in consideration for playing time this fall.
Braeden Daniels - Another “developmental” guy taken by Rivera in the fourth round, Daniels has tackle/guard versatility and if all plays out right, could be in the running for the swing tackle position this season. He’ll be up against incumbent Cornelius Lucas for that role, but Lucas has struggled with speed off the edge and if Daniels could show a bit better in that regard, the staff could opt for the younger player over the aging veteran.
Which Commanders offensive lineman has the best shot at making the Pro Bowl?
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The Commanders O-line unit as a whole will be _____________ than last season.
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