In this week’s Reacts survey, it was clear that fans are excited by many new young players on the Commanders roster.
Second-round defensive back Quan Martin was the top vote-getter, but still received less than 30% of the overall votes from HH readers. Martin is a safety who is also a skilled slot defender. If he lives up to expectations, he will provide the kind of flexibility that will make the Commanders defense scheme-diverse, able to disguise coverages, and help compensate for a relatively weaker linebacker group.
As has been the case all offseason, fans have a lot of interest in undrafted college free agent Kazmier Allen, primarily because they are hoping for a spark in the punt return game. This is interesting because, while Allen is shifty and fast, and was a fairly successful return man for kickoffs at UCLA, he never returned a punt in his 6-year college career.
Still, with last year’s return man, Dax Milne, having been reliable at fielding the punt but rather lackluster in the running upfield with the ball after the catch, fans are keen to find someone who offers a bit more. On a roster where an extra roster spot may need to go to the offensive line, and where new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy could potentially want to keep a fullback on the roster, keeping a 5th or 6th WR primarily for his return skills may be difficult. I think Allen is going to have to look very special as a return man and highly competent as a receiver in preseason if he hopes to make the 53-man roster to open the season.
The team’s 3rd round pick, center Ricky Stromberg, got 20% of the vote. Washington looks fairly deep at the center position, with veterans Nick Gates and Tyler Larsen seemingly ensconced ahead of Stromberg on the depth chart, but the team has had to play as many as 4 different centers in each of the past two seasons due to multiple injuries, so it’s a genuine possibility that Stromberg may be called upon to play in the 2023 regular season. He won a prestigious SEC blocking award playing at Arkansas, but there have been reports that he needs time in an NFL conditioning program to enhance his strength to the level of professional completion.
Commanders 5th & 6th round draft picks
Clearly, Commanders fans will be excited to tune in and watch the team’s first competitive game against another team when they travel to take on the Cleveland Browns at 7:30 pm on Friday night, the 11th of August.
The position group that may be under the most scrutiny is the offensive line.
The Commanders OL unit was not good in 2022, and it’s difficult to know whether the changes in the 2023 offseason will pay off.
Of course, the team is implementing a new scheme under new assistant head coach and offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, who was hired to breathe life into an offense that struggled mightily to score points for three seasons under Scott Turner.
Among last season’s early-season starters, following a pair of injury-plagued seasons, long-time starting center Chase Roullier was released and then he retired. RG Trai Turner was allowed to leave in free agency, while LG Andrew Norwell was released prior to training camp.
Prior to the draft, in March, two veteran free agents were signed as starters — C Nick Gates from the Giants and RT Andrew Wylie from the Chiefs. With the addition of Wylie, the decision was made to move 3rd year player Sam Cosmi from RT to RG.
The result of all these moves is that the team projects to have only two returning OL starters from last year’s roster, with LT Charles Leno being the only guy who will be in the same position. With 4/5 of the players either new to the team or in a new position, it’s difficult to know what to expect from the unit. The most common theme has been: “They have to be better than last year...right?”
The position battle at LG
For the moment, it’s not certain who the starter at LG will be. Fourth-year player Saadiq Charles has been given most of the first-team reps throughout the OTAs, minicamp and the start of training camp, but the oft-injured lineman missed a couple of days of practice this week with a calf strain, and Chris Paul was right there to take his place in a competition that may not be over until the preseason ends. In fact, I’ve heard some camp observers say that they believe Paul will win the job, especially if Charles’ injury lingers.
A surprise early entry for the Mason-Brennan Award
There have been good reports about UDFA offensive lineman Mason Brooks; some observers have openly suggested that he has looked better than the team’s 4th round draft pick, Braeden Daniels.
Numbers game is problematic
If the team keeps its two 2023 draft picks (Daniels and Stromberg) as backups, along with last year’s 7th rounder, Chris Paul, then they may find it difficult to keep another young player like Brooks on the roster. Ron Rivera has typically kept 4 backups (so, 9 OL total) on the initial roster, though he often talks about his desire to have 10.
The top 6 linemen appear to be Leno, Gates, Cosmi, Wylie, Charles and Paul.
That leaves 3 or 4 roster spots up for grabs.
Cornelius Lucas probably remains as the swing tackle. Braeden Daniels ends up as the 4th tackle. He’ll be buried on the depth chart as a developmental player for the future and unlikely to see the field.
At center, the team will almost certainly hold onto 3rd round pick Ricky Stromberg, so the question becomes whether they keep Tyler Larsen on the 53-man roster. If they don’t, then will Stromberg be ready to play if Gates is injured? And would Larsen make it to the practice squad if he were to be waived, or would he signed by another team in need of a veteran backup?
When you count numbers, it’s hard to see how the team can keep 5 starters, 2 backup tackles and more than 2 or 3 backup interior linemen. What happens with Mason Brooks? Would the front office decide to keep him in favor of Charles, Paul, Larsen, or Daniels? If he continues to play well, the decision-makers will have some tough decisions to make at the most problematic position group.
In any event, with so many questions surrounding the OL unit and mixed reports coming out of camp, 32% of fans said they are ambivalent about the prospects for the offensive line in 2023, with 30% claiming to be pessimistic and 29% optimistic. Only 9% of fans felt strongly one way or the other (bullish or preparing for disaster). Clearly, the fans need to see the players in action to gain any confidence about what to expect from the OL this season.
The season outcome probably depends on the readiness of the QB and OL
If the OL and Sam Howell can rise to the challenge, Washington could surprise most NFL analysts by reaching the playoffs with a chance to get their first postseason win in nearly two decades. On the other hand, if the OL or the young quarterback (or both) can’t rise to the challenge, then Washington fans could find themselves getting very interested in the 2024 draft long before they should.
Week 1 opponent - the Cardinals
On September 10th, Washington opens its season at home against the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona’s starting quarterback, Kyler Murray, is recovering from a 2022 ACL tear. While there have been a couple of stray reports saying that he hasn’t been ruled out for Week 1, he has yet to practice, and that game is just 5 weeks away.
The general view has been that backup Cardinals QB and longtime Washington player Colt McCoy will get the start, but I guess that’s not written in stone.
In this week’s Reacts survey, SB Nation website Revenge of the Birds asked Cards fans which quarterback should start the first game against the Commanders. Sixty-nine percent of the readers who responded to the survey wanted to see rookie 5th rounder Clayton Tune as the starter until Kyler Murray is ready to play.
I thought this was interesting for a couple of reasons, but, in particular, it made me wonder if a matchup of Tune vs Howell would be the first time two 5th round quarterbacks (especially from consecutive years) would have ever faced off in Week 1 of a season.
There are lots of questions at the moment, and we are about to see most of them answered between now and the night of September 10th.