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A Dozen Bold Predictions for the 2023 Commanders and NFL Season

Hope returns to Washington

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Baltimore Ravens v Washington Commanders Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

With the dawn of a new era of Washington football just a few hours away, it must be time for my annual bold season predictions.

1) The Washington Commanders will make the national media look silly

I like to start these with one gimme before getting into the bold predictions, just to make sure I get at least one right.

My season prediction for the Commanders is a 9-8 finish. That might be enough to earn a Wild Card berth and it might not. I doubt they win a playoff game. It might be enough for Ron Rivera to keep his job (see prediction # 4), and it might not. A 9-8 record could see them finish anywhere from second in the division to last place.

The point of this prediction is that the Commanders don’t have to become this year’s worst to first Cinderella story to make the national media’s predictions look silly. A modest, incremental improvement over last season’s record, of the sort I am expecting, is all that will be required.

What makes this a safe bet is that most of the national media appear to be running on assumptions made early in the offseason that, in most cases, don’t appear to have been updated to reflect developments in training camp and the preseason.

The laziness of these takes is epitomized by Pro Football Focus, who place the Commanders 22nd in their pre-season Power Rankings, published August 28:

The Commanders added a decent starting tackle in Andrew Wylie during free agency and an upgrade at quarterback in Jacoby Brissett.

They filled their need at cornerback right away in the draft, picking Emmanuel Forbes and Jartavius Martin. Forbes put up an 87.2 PFF grade in 2022 and racked up 14 interceptions and 17 pass breakups in his college career. Another need, the offensive line, was filled by Braeden Daniels and Ricky Stromberg. Daniels may start right away, considering the Commanders’ offensive line struggles in 2022 (24th-ranked unit in PFF pass-blocking grade).

The best part of PFF’s assessment is:

Biggest impact player from the draft: T Braeden Daniels

Naming a player on season-ending IR the biggest impact player from the draft is either a massive slam on the Commanders scouting efforts, or they just haven’t kept up. Since they also missed the Commanders naming Sam Howell the starter over Brissett, I’m guessing it’s the latter.

Sadly PFF were not alone in their assessment of the Commanders chances. The vast majority of media analysts who have weighed in have them going backward from their 2022 performance, which had them picking 16th in the draft, exactly middle of the pack.

The two main reasons for the anticipated drop in the standings from last season are question marks at quarterback and offensive line. To fans who actually follow the Commanders, the suggestion that Howell could turn out to be worse than last years’ starters might have seemed reasonable at the end of the 2022 season. After watching his development in Eric Bieniemy’s more QB-friendly scheme throughout training camp and preseason games, such concerns now seem like a distant memory. Even if you didn’t follow the Commanders’ offseason, the stats from recent later round QBs who earned the start in their first two seasons don’t support the level of skepticism that the national media are directing toward Howell.

Questions about the offensive line being any good in 2023 are certainly justified (see Prediction #8). But will they be so bad that the Commanders, whose 2022 record was buoyed by a top-five defense, finish 5-12 and drop twelve places in the rankings? With the upgrade at Offensive Coordinator, even modest improvement at QB, and no obvious reason for the defense to regress, that seems highly unlikely.

I’ll mark this prediction correct if the Commanders win nine games.

Syndication: The Enquirer Albert Cesare/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

2) Chris Rodriguez will be the Commanders’ lead back by Week 8

Chris Rodriguez is precisely the type of running back we regularly see slip to the late rounds or go undrafted and then vastly exceed expectations in the NFL.

To win the starting job, Rodriguez will need to demonstrate that he is a better option at lead back than established starter Brian Robinson. Robinson averaged a fairly pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry in 2022, which ranked 27th among starting RBs.

Rodriguez has a penchant for picking up chunk yardage. He averaged 6.2 YPC through five years in college. In three preseason games, he averaged 7.2 yards per carry, ranking fourth among NFL RBs with >10 attempts, and looking just like he did at Kentucky.

Whether I get this right will depend on who makes the personnel decisions. Rodriguez appears to have been Eric Bieniemy’s pick. If Bieniemy is calling the shots, the best player will get the most opportunities and Rodriguez will earn the start by midseason.

I will count this correct if Rodriguez is getting more touches than Robinson by Week 8, regardless of who the team designates as the starter.

3) The Commanders will start the season 3-2

Last year I correctly predicted the Commanders would start 1-4, because Rivera’s teams tend to get off to slow starts. A lot has changed since then. Most notably, Eric Bieniemy has replaced Scott Turner as Offensive Coordinator, with the added title of Assistant Head Coach, and Dan Snyder sold the team to new owners, led by Josh Harris. Bieniemy does not seem like the type to allow his team to be unprepared for the season ahead. That and the positive energy created by the change in ownership will be enough to break the patterns of the past.

I predict that by Week 5 the Commanders’ fanbase will believe our team can beat anyone. I can’t say exactly where the team will find six more wins to make my 9-8 prediction good, but once momentum takes over anything can happen.

4) The Commanders will have a new head coach before the 2024 Draft

Ron Rivera is a great guy. He is widely respected and liked around the NFL and in the Commanders’ locker room. He has brought an air of respectability to the Commanders’ franchise despite constant interference from the owner’s suite and bumbling by the franchise executive.

But, to put it quite simply, he has never demonstrated an ability to win consistently as an NFL head coach. In 12 years as a head coach, he has three winning seasons. The most recent of those was in 2017, with his previous team. He has as many conference championships as midseason firings.

Josh Harris and his co-owners did not invest $6.04B to preside over a mediocre franchise. No NFL head coach has broken a five-year streak without a winning season in the salary cap era. Even if Rivera makes history with a 9-8 record and a Wild Card appearance, I don’t see that as being enough to keep his job. It is time to give someone younger a try.

Only around 14% of NFL coaches in similar situations going into their fourth year have been fired midseason. I can’t see the Harris group making that rash a move unless things go disastrously wrong. So, I predict the decision will be made shortly after the season ends. I will happily get this prediction wrong if the Commanders win a playoff game.

Washington Commanders v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

5) Sam Howell will finish the season with a Total QBR in the mid to high 50’s to rank among the top 19 NFL starting QBs

That might not seem that bold. To put it in context, in the last five seasons, only seven of 25 QBs getting the start in their first two years achieved a Total QBR above 50 in their first year starting, and only six of them ranked in the top 19 (Patrick Mahomes QBR 80.3, Justin Herbert 62.6, Kyler Murray 57.7, Mac Jones 56.9, Daniel Jones 55.7, Kenny Pickett 53.6).

A total QBR in that range in his first season might not guarantee long-term success, but it would represent a vast improvement over Carson Wentz in 2022 (QBR 34.4, 30th) and even Taylor Heinicke (QBR 44.4, equivalent to 26th, but too few snaps to qualify for ESPN’s leaders board).

In my Offseason Skeptic QB edition I showed that, if Howell plays like the average late-round QB getting the start in his first two seasons, he will have slightly less passing yardage than the 2022 starters, around the same TDs and fewer sacks and interceptions, resulting in a better overall performance.

Based on his progress in Bieniemy’s offense thus far, working with better than average offensive weapons, I predict he will do better, overall, than the average comparable QB. I expect him to have more passing and rushing yardage and TDs. I also predict more sacks than average, due to questionable OL play, and the fact that pocket awareness has always been a weakness.

I will judge whether I got this one right based on the QBR rank. But just for fun, I predict his stat line as follows:

Passing: 3,600 yds, 65% completions, 24 TDs, 10 INT, 39 sacks

Rushing: 75 attempts, 420 yards, 6 TDs

6) Terry McLaurin will remain Washington’s leading receiver

Jahan Dotson is the trendy pick as Washington’s breakout player for 2023. People are even starting to predict that he will overtake McLaurin as Washington’s leading receiver. Dotson may break out, but it won’t be enough to overtake Washington’s best player on offense.

Through four seasons in Washington, McLaurin has averaged 68 receiving yards per game, which would have been good enough to rank 20th among NFL starting WRs in 2022. Notably, McLaurin did that without ever playing with a legitimate NFL starting QB. With Sam Howell looking like the real deal, I am predicting that McLaurin’s productivity will make a massive jump to around 85 yards per game, which would have ranked 8th in 2022.

That productivity rate would put Terry on pace to break 1,400 receiving yards this season. However, he is dealing with a turf toe injury. Those are notorious for lingering. If he rushes back to play before it is fully healed there is a good chance he will reaggravate it. I am guessing he will miss around four games, which would drop his receiving total to 1,190 yds, just 1 yard below his 2022 total, but in fewer games.

I will count this as a win if McLaurin has one more receiving yard than Dotson and plays fewer games. If they both stay healthy, I will count it as a tie – meaning incorrect – if Dotson comes within 100 receiving yards of Terry, unless neither finishes the season with over 1,100 receiving yards, which would mean something went terribly wrong.

7) Antonio Gibson will have over 450 receiving yards and remain the Commanders’ fourth-leading receiver in 2023

Antonio Gibson was drafted as a wide receiver converted to running back with the promise of becoming Washington’s flex weapon to give opposing defensive coordinators headaches. Sadly Scott Turner never figured out how to best use his talents.

Incoming OC Eric Bieniemy is used to having a superstar tight end to create coverage mismatches and keep defenses off balance. I am betting that Bieniemy will find that Gibson, used as a receiver out of the backfield, has the talent to fill that role more effectively than any other player on the roster.

To repeat as the team’s fourth leading receiver this season, Gibson will have to stay ahead of Logan Thomas making a comeback as well as Dyami Brown and Cole Turner trying to break out. I suspect that Thomas peaked in 2020. I was dangerously close to picking Turner instead of Gibson here, based on a very strong preseason showing good chemistry with QB Sam Howell. But he did the same thing with Carson Wentz last year and then only caught two of nine targets during the regular season.

I think it’s more likely that EB uses Gibson to his full potential than Dyami Brown or Cole Turner staging improbable breakouts.

Washington Commanders Training Camp Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

8) The offensive line will not be the train wreck that many fear

On paper, the Commanders’ starting offensive line is one of the weakest units in the NFL. After years of losing quality starters and neglect in the draft, the line is pretty much a makeshift collection of bargain players. Most media outlets rank them as a bottom-five unit.

What gives me some glimmer of hope is that the depth is better than last year, which should provide a higher floor. A few of Washington’s depth players quietly had strong performances in the preseason games, including tackles Trent Scott and Alex Akingbulu, guards Mason Brooks and Chris Paul and center/guard Ricky Stromberg. Even late-bloomer Saahdiq Charles has earned praise from former Hog Mark Schlereth. I expect to see a fair bit of shuffling of positions throughout the season as starters miss time to injury or just fail to live up to expectations. The modest influx of younger talent hopefully provides more buffer than we had last year to withstand those changes and, in some cases, maybe even benefit from them.

I’m not saying it’s going to be good. Just not the three-alarm fire many expect.

9) LB Khaleke Hudson will be Washington’s breakout player on defense

There are a few good candidates. Second-year CB Christian Holmes emerged as a physical presence in the secondary this offseason. It is still unclear who will take over the nickelback/free safety role that Bobby McCain manned last season, or whether those responsibilities will be distributed differently. That creates opportunities for players to step up including Benjamin St-Juste, Quan Martin and Percy Butler. If DE Chase Young’s neck injury doesn’t resolve quickly, we could even see players like James Smith-Williams, JK Henry or Andre Jones make a statement.

The position group on defense with the biggest opportunity for a player to make his mark this season has to be linebacker, so I am going with Hudson. Hudson is a smaller linebacker with 4.56 speed, who played a hybrid linebacker-safety role at Michigan. In his first three seasons in Washington, he has mainly played on special teams, recording just 146 defensive snaps in 41 games.

He appears to have finally caught the coaches’ attention with a strong performance starting in last season’s final game against Dallas. He followed that up with a strong performance in three preseason games. Hudson should get more opportunities to play this season in Washington’s skeletal linebacking corps, with the team’s best linebacker possibly facing jail time. If his speed can make a difference in covering running backs, tight ends and mobile QBs, he has an excellent chance to earn a role in the starting lineup.

10) Bijan Robinson will challenge conventional wisdom about drafting running backs in the first round.

Interesting fact, 13 of the top 20 players in yards from scrimmage last season were running backs, including the top three. Sixteen running backs had more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage in 2022, compared to just nine wide receivers. Yet, no one bats an eye when a wide receiver is drafted in the top ten, but it’s considered sacrilege to draft a running back in the first round.

The NFL runs in fads and cycles. Running backs are currently out of fashion. Robinson drew comps to Marshall Faulk from NFL scouts before the draft. For the benefit of younger fans, what made Faulk so special was that, during his peak seasons, he had receiving yardage that would be good for a team’s second WR, while also putting up over 1,300 yards rushing. I won’t go so far as predicting that Robinson’s rookie season will match Faulk’s, but he will do enough to make every team want a dual threat running back just like him.

Bonus, not overly bold prediction: Robinson wins Offensive Rookie of the Year.

NFL: Preseason-Las Vegas Raiders at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

11) Fullback Hunter Luepke will give the Commanders’ defense headaches in 2023 and for years to come.

The fullback position was once the centerpiece of NFL offenses, but fell out of favor in the Super Bowl era, reaching a point of near extinction in 2013. Since then, their numbers have quietly rebounded. I have predicted that the fullback will return as a mismatch weapon to exploit the soft underbelly of nickel defenses, created when linebackers thinned out and shrunk to handle coverage duties.

Luepke was the lead back for North Dakota State Bison, and split time between running back, fullback and tight end. At 6’1”, 234 lbs, with a Relative Athletic Score of 9.55, he is the prototype of the new-age fullback. The Commanders unwisely allowed Luepke fall into the waiting arms of Jerry Jones as one of the first undrafted players signed following the draft. In three preseason games, Luepke played just 71 offensive snaps and had five receptions on five targets for 100 yards and a TD, while ranking 5th in run blocking among running backs with a minimum of 10 blocking snaps according to PFF. He will be a mismatch problem for the Commanders’ anemic linebacking corps in 2023, and likely for years to come.

12) The Dallas Cowboys will not win a divisional round playoff game.

I recently documented the analytical basis for this prediction in detail. Since winning the Super Bowl in 1995, Jerruh’s ‘boys have achieved the dubious distinction of being the greatest underachievers in professional football. The annual cycle of the Dallas Cowboys being hyped as a playoff contender, only to fall short of expectations in the post-season will extend to 27 years.

Make Your Own Bold Predictions

That wraps up my bold predictions. Now it’s your turn. Feel free to tell me which ones I got wrong and why in the comments and, if you are bold enough, make some predictions of your own. If I remember, I will give an update at some point during the season and then review everyone’s predictions when it’s a wrap.

Acknowledgement: Edited by James Dorsett


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