Training camp is a time of teaching — of laying a foundation for the season to come. The first three weeks of Commanders training camp is pretty much the same as training camps for the other 31 NFL teams; it is a time for players to learn systems, acclimate to coaches and build working relationships with their teammates.
Today, however, the focus begins to change with the start of preseason. When the Commanders travel to Cleveland for the team’s first competitive game against a team that isn’t wearing burgundy and gold, the process of winnowing the roster begins.
One of my favorite books is The Agony and the Ecstacy, which, despite its title, is not about deviant sexual behavior, but the life of the painter and sculptor Michelangelo. I don’t remember the quote exactly, but there is a story about Michelangelo that says that when he was asked how he created such beautiful marble sculptures, he replied that the sculpture was already complete within the marble block. According to the story, he said that, before he started to work, it was already there; Michelangelo’s job was just have to chisel away everything that wasn’t the statue.
NFL rosters are kind of like that, I think. There’s a complete 53-man team inside of the 90-man offseason roster. The job of the coaches and front office is to ‘chisel away’ everyone that isn’t part of that team. The goal of the next 18 or 19 days will be to figure out which players comprise that complete roster and which ones need to be discarded.
We hear it every year when cut-down day arrives — and this year it is truly one day — teams will cut from 90 players to 53 following the 3rd and final preseason game without any preliminary roster reductions — that it’s “a numbers game”. NFL teams, in general, follow similar patterns in terms of the number of players at each position to make up the 53-man opening day roster, and most coaches follow fairly consistent patterns from year to year.
In this week’s Reacts survey, we invited Hogs Haven readers to predict cuts at two positions: wide receiver and defensive end.
To create some context for the results, I think it’s useful to look at the number of players that Ron Rivera has kept at those two positions in his previous 3 seasons in Washington:
As you can see, Rivera has consistently kept 5 defensive ends. At the wide receiver position, he has kept between 5 and 7 players. In the 2021 season, when he kept 7, one of them was DeAndre Carter, who was seen, at least initially, as a specialist return man who was not really expected to see the field much, if at all, as a receiver.
It seems, then, as if the Commanders are likely to keep either 5 or 6 receivers. There are indications that Ron Rivera may try to keep an extra offensive lineman, which may limit the number of spots available at other positions. With Antonio Gibson’s ability to line up as a receiver, this unit seems like one where the coaches may go into the season with a leaner unit with as few as 5 players for the Week 1 game against the Arizona Cardinals.
There seems to be general agreement that the top-4 receivers are all locks to make the roster: Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson, Curtis Samuel, and Dayami Brown.
That leaves one — maybe two — roster spots available to be filled.
In the Reacts survey, we asked which one of three players — Marcus Kemp, Dax Milne, or Byron Pringle — would get ‘chipped away’ when the Week One 53-man roster is carved out of the existing 90-man group.
It’s not real surprise at this point that the largest number of respondents (50%) identified Marcus Kemp — a big-bodied receiver with minimal NFL offensive production who is primarily a special teamer — as the guy who won’t make it.
Early in the offseason, I thought Kemp was likely to make the initial roster. I saw him as Bieniemy’s guy from Kansas City that was brought in to replace Cam Sims. As the offseason and training camp have developed, and especially after the recent signing of another Kansas City receiver, Byron Pringle, Kemp’s prospects seem to have dimmed.
Dax Milne, of course, was the punt returner in 2022. Typically, that skill helps protect an incumbent, but Milne was unspectacular last season, and I think that if they can identify a quality returner to replace him, they’d be happy to put both Milne and Kemp on the practice squad.
Still, though, with the start of the preseason today, the three competitive games and the joint practice with the Ravens will provide opportunities for players to change their fortunes by showing skills (or lack of skills) that aren’t evident without being on the field of competitive play against another team. Every year, NFL players change their fortunes for better or worse with preseason performances. While most fans will be keenly watching to see how 2nd year QB Sam Howell looks in live action, players like Milne, Kemp, and Pringle will be playing a high-stakes game of ‘survivor’ over the next two and a half weeks as they try to get on an NFL roster for another year.
It will be a surprise if the Commanders keep more than 5 defensive ends, but it is possible that they could opt for as many as six.
There are probably three names carved in stone (or encased in marble, if I want my analogy to hold, I guess) at the DE position for 2023: Montez Sweat, Chase Young, and James Smith-Williams.
Keeping three other players at the position seems like a long shot, but that’s exactly what the largest number of survey respondents predicted will happen. Specifically, they said that Casey Toohill, who has been with the Commanders for nearly 3 full seasons; KJ Henry, a 5th round pick in this year’s draft; and Efe Obada, a free agent signing from last season who can play inside and outside on the defensive line will all make the team.
If that’s true, then it leaves this year’s 7th round pick, situational pass rusher Andre Jones, out in the cold.
Of course, perceptions on the veterans are based primarily on previous years’ play, while perceptions of rookies are based on draft profiles and observations from offseason OTAs, minicamp and training camp. With the preseason starting today, those perceptions may be reinforced or they may be greatly challenged. The fascination of preseason games lies less in seeing which team wins or loses, and more in seeing how these players who are fighting for a roster spot perform with their careers on the line.
For devoted football fans like those who are members of Hogs Haven, it’s often enough to keep us glued to the TV set until the final whistle, through a 4th quarter that is played by guys who are mostly destined for practice squads, the XFL, or stocking shelves at Walmart — because one or more of those guys is destined for something greater in the NFL.
For now, though, each of them is chasing his NFL dream, which, for today at least, remains very much alive.
BONUS - Reacts results from the Week 1 opponent
I thought it might be interesting to see how confident Arizona Cardinals fans are feeling on the first day of their team’s preseason. The answer is, “not very”.
Less than a quarter of those surveyed rated their confidence level in the team at an A or B level. A staggering 77% rated their confidence at a C-level or below, with more than one in five Cardinals fans opting for “F”.
That’s music to my ears. Week 1 at FedEx Field should be a lot of fun.
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