Following consecutive seven-win seasons (one of which led to a Wild Card berth), the Washington Commanders enter training camp once again projected as a mid-tier team in the NFC. Can Ron Rivera and new quarterback Carson Wentz upend expectations in the nation’s capital?
5 storylines for Commanders training camp
Rivera has dragged Washington out of the 3-13 wasteland they were in as recently as 2019, but he and general manager Martin Mayhew haven’t yet turned the club into a reliable contender. Still, Rivera has given the Commanders an air of respectability — at least on the football side of things — while the franchise is repeatedly embarrassed by owner Daniel Snyder’s failures.
Without an improvement in on-field results, will Rivera’s seat start to get warm? Here are the top storylines to monitor as Washington’s training camp gets underway.
Is Carson Wentz the answer under center?
Given how badly Wentz struggled down the stretch for the Colts in 2021, it’s easy to overlook just how large of an upgrade he should be over Taylor Heinicke, who started 15 games for the Commanders after Ryan Fitzpatrick suffered a season-ending injury.
Wentz, who managed 3,563 yards, 27 touchdowns, and seven interceptions last year, finished ninth in the NFL in QBR (54.7). Heinicke ranked 23rd. Wentz beat Heinicke in adjusted net yards per attempt, expected points added per play, and sack percentage. Heinicke topped Wentz in completion percentage over expectation, but Wentz finished better in nearly every other critical metric.
Wentz will no longer get to play alongside All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor or benefit from Frank Reich’s coaching, but he’ll have improved pass catchers in Washington. Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson, and Curtis Samuel should be the best trio Wentz has thrown to in years. Even if Wentz never returns to his peak 2017 level of play, Commanders OC Scott Turner should be able to tailor the offense to Wentz’s strengths and allow him to maintain his 2021 production.
How do the Commanders divide the running back touches?
At one point during this offseason, it appeared that Antonio Gibson would become Washington’s bell-cow back. J.D. McKissic had signed a contract with the Bills, leaving Gibson to handle the majority of the Commanders’ carries and passing-game work.
Then McKissic backed out of his Buffalo deal to return to Washington. Strike one. The Commanders subsequently selected Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. in the third round of April’s draft. Strike two. Gibson fantasy managers everywhere shied away in horror as Washington’s backfield situation became one of the murkiest in the NFL.
Gibson and McKissic have always been an odd pairing. Sure, Gibson has the size (6’0″, 220 pounds) to be a bruising back, but he was primarily a receiver in college. Over two seasons at Memphis, Gibson caught 44 passes and handled only 33 rushing attempts. McKissic, though, is one of the best pass-catching RBs in the NFL. He’s dominated targets in Washington since 2019, receiving 163 looks to Gibson’s 96.
Third-round draft capital is significant for a running back, so Robinson could also factor into the Commanders’ plans as a rookie. He profiles similarly to Gibson — a power back who can play on passing downs. An older rookie at 23, Robinson should slot in as Gibson’s direct backup.
Can Washington’s reworked OL mesh immediately?
The Commanders found one of the steals of free agency by signing left tackle Charles Leno Jr. after he’d been released by the Bears last May. He’ll return to handle Wentz’s blindside, and second-year right tackle Samuel Cosmi is back after injuries cost him eight games in an otherwise productive debut.
Washington’s offensive line situation is a little cloudier on the interior. New left guard Andrew Norwell is still a solid player, but he’ll represent an appreciable step down from free agent departure Brandon Scherff. Center Chase Roullier is still recovering from a fractured fibula that ended his season last November.
Meanwhile, Wes Schweitzer and Trai Turner will use training camp to compete for the starting right guard job. Turner has familiarity with Rivera from their Panthers days, and the Commanders may view Schweitzer — who’s played at least one career snap at every OL position except for left guard — as an excellent utility lineman.
Will Chase Young and/or Logan Thomas be ready for the season?
Chase Young hasn’t quite been the dominating pass rusher many expected after he was selected second overall in the 2020 draft, and now he’s recovering from a torn ACL suffered in Week 10. The Ohio State product will likely begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list, which could put him on track to miss games in the regular season. The Commanders have little EDGE depth behind Young and Montez Sweat.
Tight end Logan Thomas is also uncertain for Week 1 after he tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus in December. Thomas’ injury was far more severe than Young’s, and the former quarterback believes he’ll need a full 10 months to recover. If Thomas misses the first month of the season, 2021 fourth-round pick John Bates will step in as Washington’s starter.
Can Jamin Davis take a step forward?
Hindsight is 20/20, but the Commanders drafted linebacker Jamin Davis in 2021 over the likes of Kwity Paye, Greg Newsome, Rashod Bateman, and Eric Stokes. It’s only been one season, but Washington may already regret that decision.
Davis struggled against both the run and the pass and ultimately played 56% of the team’s defensive snaps. Fellow linebacker Cole Holcomb saw a 92% snap rate, and he’s expected to begin the 2022 campaign as Washington’s middle linebacker and defensive play-caller.
At the 2021 Combine, Davis posted a 4.48 40-yard dash and 42-inch vertical at 6’3″, 234 pounds, and he should be able to turn that elite athleticism into on-field results. Still, if he wants more playing time, Davis will have to wrest the Commanders’ nickel LB role away from Holcomb.