Every NFL team has different strengths and weaknesses. Even the best teams have some positions that lag behind others. Those areas can be masked with great talent and coaching — see Patrick Mahomes lifting a relatively anonymous wide receiving corps post-Tyreek Hill to a Super Bowl last year — but without those in place, the underwhelming units can cripple otherwise strong rosters.
The Commanders are dealing with a potentially large difference between their top groups and their most uncertain — a gap that they hope the weaker links can close significantly throughout the season. Here’s how each unit ranks from first to worst, with what should be no surprise at the top.
1. Defensive line
Let’s put it this way: If the defensive line isn’t the clear strength of this group, something has either gone unexpectedly wrong or shockingly right this season. There is clear top-tier talent here with Pro Bowlers Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, both of whom the Commanders have locked up to long-term deals. Montez Sweat is coming off the highest pressure rate of his career (14.5% — higher than bigger-name edge rushers such as Brian Burns, Maxx Crosby and Danielle Hunter) and has looked terrific in training camp. Chase Young is expected to return to 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year form nearly two years removed from his major knee injury.
Then there’s the depth: Efe Obada can play both inside and outside and has also had a strong summer. Casey Toohill and James Smith-Williams are dependable edges, and John Ridgeway is a stout presence in the middle. If 2022 second-rounder Phidarian Mathis (calf) can stay on the field, he’s another run stopper. Finally, seventh-round edge defender Andre Jones Jr. has made a strong push for not only a roster spot but a rotation spot, too.
The Commanders secondary is an intriguing mix of grizzled veterans, standout youngsters and early-round rookies who will get a trial by fire.
At cornerback, the starters are a mix of all three: Eighth-year veteran Kendall Fuller and first-round rookie Emmanuel Forbes are on the outside, and third-year pro Benjamin St-Juste mans the slot. St-Juste has been a camp standout, and Forbes has made his fair share of plays. Danny Johnson (if healthy) and Christian Holmes seem to be primary backups.
If analyzed apart from the cornerbacks, the safeties would have challenge the defensive line for the top spot. Kamren Curl is an under-appreciated star who can play all over the formation, and fellow starter Darrick Forrest came on strong in the second half of last year. Percy Butler and special teams All-Pro Jeremy Reaves serve as depth, and second-round rookie Quan Martin is a superb athlete who has been up and down so far but could grow into a versatile contributor as the season goes on.
The big question here is whether they can produce more takeaways. The Commanders had just nine interceptions last year, fifth-fewest in the NFL. The defense as a whole ranked fifth in expected points added last year but 26th in expected points added via interceptions. Forbes — whose six career pick-sixes are an FBS record — is expected to help change that, but he can’t do it alone.
3. Wide receiver
This group would have ranked lower last year with uncertainty behind Terry McLaurin. Curtis Samuel was coming off an injury-riddled first year in Washington, and Jahan Dotson was a rookie — a first-round rookie, but still a rookie.
Then Samuel stayed healthy and was one of three players league-wide with at least 650 receiving yards and 150 rushing yards, and Dotson caught seven touchdowns, tied for second-most by a rookie in franchise history. Add in Dyami Brown’s strides this offseason, and this should be a very solid group. McLaurin and Dotson are terrific route runners — McLaurin maybe more smooth and Dotson more sudden — Samuel will move all around the formation, and Brown is a deep threat.
There are questions behind those four, but this is the best unit on the offense.
4. Running back
Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson will head the running back room, and they’ll complement each other. Robinson will be the early-downs, between-the-tackles runner, and Gibson will feature more as a pass-catcher who can tote the rock, too. Robinson said he feels (and he certainly looks) more explosive after a rookie year delayed by him.
The explosive element was completely missing last year: Of 47 running backs with at least 100 carries, Robinson and Gibson ranked 38th and 47th, respectively, in explosive rush rate. They also ranked 38th and 40th, respectively, on yards before first contact per carry, so better blocking would help, too. More on that in a bit.
These fifth and sixth positions were very close calls, but linebacker gets the slight nod. Jamin Davis needs to make a big jump this season, especially playing behind a defensive line as good as this one. Cody Barton figures to start alongside Davis, and he brings speed and some attitude to the middle of the defense. David Mayo excels in run defense while Khaleke Hudson will be used in passing situations, giving this unit some depth. But until Davis can live up to his first-round billing, this unit still has questions.
6. Tight end
Logan Thomas struggling with a calf issue knocks the tight ends down a notch or two. The veteran tight end has not practiced since early in training camp and has not suited up for either preseason game (nor either joint practice). Ron Rivera has said several times that the team is just being cautious with the 32-year-old, but the longer the absence stretches, the more worrying it is. Thomas had hamstring issues before tearing his ACL two seasons ago and dealt with a nagging calf injury last year as well.
Cole Turner has had a nice preseason but has two career catches. John Bates is best served as a blocking tight end. After that, there’s not much.
Sam Howell has had a very good preseason,after strong performances in and again in . He followed up the announcement with an impressive half against the Ravens, tossing a pair of touchdowns. Rivera said the decision wasn’t about what Jacoby Brissett didn’t do, but rather what Howell did to win the job.
Until he proves it in the regular season, though, Howell is a gigantic question mark. Coaches and players alike praise his poise, his work ethic and the way he goes about his business on a day-to-day basis. He has a strong, accurate arm and enough mobility to get himself out of muddy pockets and extend plays. But he also has one career start, takes some unnecessary sacks and will have to work with a supporting cast that has some proven pieces and several major questions.
8. Offensive line
Having quarterback and offensive line be second-to-last and last, respectively, on this list is far from ideal. The Commanders are betting heavily on unproven quantities at each. Along the offensive line, there are four new starters: the winner of the Saahdiq Charles/Chris Paul battle at left guard, offseason addition Nick Gates at center, former tackle Sam Cosmi at right guard and offseason addition Andrew Wylie at right tackle. This group really struggled in the preseason opener against Cleveland, with Howell pressured on 42.9% of dropbacks. That doesn’t include two holds by Wylie, including one that resulted in a safety.
The unit was better against the Ravens — one Howell sack was after he held the ball for too long and the other was a blown assignment — and Howell was pressured on just 30% of his dropbacks. Then again, Baltimore played almost none of its top defensive linemen and linebackers.
The other issue is depth, particularly on the interior. The group is extremely young. Outside backup center Tyler Larsen, none of the projected interior backups have played more than one NFL season. Rivera acknowledged it’s— and potentially even after that.