The uncertainty at the bottom of the depth chart has created opportunities for young players and tough decisions for coaches. After the Commanders’ third preseason game, against Baltimore, Rivera said about four to seven spots were available. But an eleventh-hour tragedy forced Washington to rethink everything.
Rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. was shot twice Sunday in an attempted robbery in Washington, and the team placed him on the non-football injury list Thursday, forcing him to miss at least four games, if not more.
Additionally, starting safety Kam Curl is suffering from a thumb injury, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. COs don’t have to provide injury reports until Wednesday, and Curl remains on the active roster.
Brian Robinson Jr. should be fine. Don’t forget the victims who won’t.
So after putting together a version of a 53-man roster on Tuesday, Commanders began tweaking and tweaking a bit more to come up with a group that offers depth and a blueprint suitable for all skill levels.
Quarterback (3): Carson Wentz, Taylor Heinicke, Sam Howell
For the first time in years, the Commanders have known their starting quarterback and replacements since the start of the offseason. They traded for Wentz in March, and a month later they drafted Howell. Rivera has learned the hard way that having three quarters is essential these days.
Wentz has been traded twice in as many years, which has raised eyebrows about his potential suitability in Washington, but he’s clearly an upgrade. The team wanted a taller quarterback who could see past the rush and throw the ball downfield. And while COs may not consider Heinicke a full-time starter, he has experience as such and provides a safety net for Wentz. And Howell? His play in the pre-season provided plenty of intrigue.
Wide receiver (6): Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson, Cam Sims, Dax Milne, Dyami Brown
Washington’s receiving corps begins the season with confidence in its starters. McLaurin is back on a three-year contract extension, Samuel is healthy after dealing with groin and hamstring issues last season, and Dotson, a first-round rookie, impressed with his catching ability and its refined pre-season routes. But the fall is steep after these three. Sims gives Washington a bigger body and is good for a big play once in a while. Milne returns after vastly improving as a wide receiver and will serve as a COs returner, but his reps and reliability are unknown. And Brown can be an explosive option on deep passes, but his falls make him a potential liability.
Offensive line (9): Charles Leno Jr., Andrew Norwell, Chase Roullier, Trai Turner, Sam Cosmi, Wes Schweitzer, Cornelius Lucas, Saahdiq Charles, Chris Paul
Rivera has said throughout camp and preseason that it’s important for the team to have confidence in at least 10 offensive linemen. Commanders were plagued by forward injuries last year and relied heavily on depth to get through the season. But they kept nine to start the season, largely because tight-end talent made it too difficult to part with some talent. After trading guards to bring in Norwell and Turner in the offseason, and dealing with numerous injuries during camp, the team has a group of experienced veterans in the system, and the line could expand to 10, if not more, as the list continually changes.
On the deep offensive line of commanders, everyone has a “starting mentality”
Tight end (4): Logan Thomas, John Bates, Cole Turner, Armani Rogers
No group has been hit harder by injuries than Washington’s tight ends in recent years. This fall, Rivera kept four — and rookie Curtis Hodges, fifth, is starting the year on injured reserve — because of their talent, not necessarily for insurance.
Thomas is working on his way after missing 11 games last year. Bates, Washington’s top tackler, is coming off a calf injury and should feel more comfortable after a year in the system. Turner, a rookie, has the size and catch radius to play a major role if he can stay healthy. And Rogers, an undrafted rookie, could be Thomas 2.0. The former college quarterback converted to a tight end earlier this year and quickly acclimated to the new position to earn a spot on the roster. He could produce immediately: Since 2017, Wentz has targeted his tight ends for second most of all NFL quarterbacks.
Running back (3): Antonio Gibson, JD McKissic, Jonathan Williams
What was once the commanders’ strongest position is now the most moving. Robinson, their promising third-round recruit, is on NFI for at least the first four games after being shot twice, in the knee and hip. The team said they wouldn’t rush Robinson – “We want to make sure he’s in a really good place, both physically and mentally,” Rivera said – so to help fill the void, commanders kept Williams, who is closest to Robinson in size and racing style. He also has a skill set that complements those of Gibson, a powerful fullback with pass-catching ability, and McKissic, another converted receiver who has become the Commanders’ all-round third ace.
Defensive line (9): Montez Sweat, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, James Smith-Williams, Casey Toohill, Phidarian Mathis, Efe Obada, Shaka Toney, Daniel Wise
The line is always the crux of this team. His impressive performance in 2020 faded last season, and this year he will open without star defensive end Chase Young. He is on the physically unable to play list while he continues to rehabilitate his torn ACL and will miss at least four games (possibly more).
Smith-Williams will be Young’s primary replacement, but Washington is expected to incorporate more front-fives this year, making his depth, especially on the inside, paramount. Tim Settle and Matt Ioannidis, two backup defensive tackles who could step in at any time, are gone, and the best inside reserves are now Mathis, a rookie, and Obada, who signed in March.
Linebacker (5): Cole Holcomb, Jamin Davis, Jon Bostic, David Mayo, Milo Eifler
It was a surprise that COs kept five linebackers. It was perhaps an even bigger surprise that they brought back Jon Bostic, a veteran who spent nearly three seasons in Washington before suffering a pectoral muscle injury in 2021 and leaving as a free agent. But Bostic has experience in the system and is known for his locker room leadership. His mentorship could help the development of Davis, who will move on the outside this year instead of trying his hand at “Mike,” or middle linebacker.
Holcomb, who is essentially the quarterback for the defense, is the leader of the group, and Eifler earned his place after beating Khaleke Hudson, among others, in camp. But Washington’s use of linebackers is worth watching this year; the team have tweaked their defense and should incorporate more front fives and have more fluidity with their game zone at the back.
Starting 2021: Cole Holcomb brings more speed and a new mullet to his third season in Washington
Cornerbacks (6): Kendall Fuller, William Jackson III, Benjamin St-Juste, Christian Holmes, Tariq Castro-Fields, Rachad Wildgoose
Washington belatedly changed its cornerback room, claiming waivers Tariq Castro-Fields and Rachad Wildgoose to expand the group to six. Why so much? Washington’s base defense is no longer the antiquated 4-3. Now it’s a 4-2-5, and the team will play most of their snaps in subsets with an additional defensive back.
Many Washington defensive backs can play two, or even three, positions in the secondary, allowing coordinator Jack Del Rio more flexibility in game planning. Wildgoose also has the flex position the team covets, and Casto-Fields provides depth to the outside corner. But the beginners are the core, and after a year together in the system, they are confident that their communication and experience will take them to the next level.
Safety (5): Bobby McCain, Kam Curl, Darrick Forrest, Percy Butler, Jeremy Reaves
Washington’s starters are back this season, and that’s perhaps what’s most important to the safety corps. But they may not be united for the start of the season. Due to his thumb injury, Curl wore a sling during practice on August 31.
Once healthy, however, this group will be key to successful defense. McCain and Curl have a year of experience together — and a year with starting corners Fuller and Jackson — and said they felt more confident and comfortable on the program. Del Rio made changes to the system to suit their players, and throughout preseason and camp the group expressed optimism that it would improve.
Washington’s longest-serving player is back for Year 9, and if his 62-yard punt in the preseason was any indicator of the future, buckle up.
Slye skipped mid-season last year after Commanders ran through two other kickers. He hasn’t missed a single attempt in six games, but in preseason this year he missed an extra point attempt and a 42-yarder.
Long Snapper: Camaron Cheeseman
Special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor said of Cheeseman, “He’s definitely in mental space to not be a rookie anymore. … We’re not perfect yet, but he’s definitely improved and the consistency is better. We thought it was pretty good last year being a rookie.