ASHBURN, Va. — A few minutes before the Washington Commanders‘ rookie practice on May 6, coach Ron Rivera provided a quick assessment of this group for the assembled media. He rattled off first impressions of each draft pick, sounding like someone who would like to fast-forward to August.
“It’s an exciting group,” he said. “[However] it’s still early … so we just try to temper all that.”
Washington should have bigger expectations for players who were on the roster before the draft. If the Commanders are going to improve on a 7-10 season and not only contend for the NFC East title in Rivera’s third season, but also win a playoff game, the veterans must take the lead.
It’s realistic to envision their top four 2022 draft picks — receiver Jahan Dotson (first round), defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis (second), running back Brian Robinson Jr. (third) and safety Percy Butler (fourth) — playing key roles. Even fifth-round tight end Cole Turner has a chance to help.
That would make it a solid draft. However, of that group it’s possible only Dotson starts. Any big strides as an organization will be aided more by the following four veterans:
Washington ranks last in the NFL in total QBR and touchdown passes over the past four seasons combined. It has started 10 different quarterbacks during that stretch.
Heinicke ranked 23rd in total QBR, throwing 20 touchdown passes to 15 interceptions. Wentz, in his first season with Indianapolis, threw 27 touchdowns to seven interceptions and ranked ninth in total QBR last season.
Washington hasn’t had a quarterback in the top 10 of total QBR since Kirk Cousins in 2016. Not a coincidence: Washington is 31-50 since that season.
Wentz has his share of doubters after getting traded twice in two years, including on March 9 to Washington. But here, he is viewed differently.
“There is some excitement to Carson out there,” Rivera said. “Big, strong arm.”
If he flourishes, Wentz gives the Commanders a quarterback who can make every throw and challenge opponents in areas of the field they could not in recent years.
“Carson Wentz is an upgrade,” ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL safety Matt Bowen said. “There’s no question you can be more aggressive and more vertical with Carson in your offense, more shots to the third level.
“He is going to challenge opposing defenses. He’ll challenge tight windows inside and outside the pocket.”
He tore the ACL in his right knee on Nov. 14, but offers perhaps the highest ceiling of anyone on the roster. That is how it should be for the second overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft.
Washington hopes Young can return to how he rushed during the second half of his rookie season. In his final seven games that season he recorded four sacks, forced three fumbles and recovered three more, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
In that stretch, coaches believed Young was learning to rush better — attacking one side of the blocker rather than always going head-on; exploding more off the line, allowing him to be more violent with his hands. Last season, they believed he stutter-stepped too often, leading to less powerful hands and stifled rushes. He finished with 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in nine games.
Young (6-foot-5, 264 pounds) and fellow end Montez Sweat (6-6, 262) have the ability to transform the defense. Both are tall and can get to the quarterback.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Young said this offseason about 2021. “But I’m the type of guy who never stops working. Everybody has hiccups in the road. I plan … to keep working hard to be the Hall of Famer I want to be one day.”
Samuel remains a mystery in this offense considering he played five games last season. He was never completely healthy, thanks to a groin injury that required surgery in June and later a hamstring issue.
However, Rivera said Samuel has been moving around well during offseason workouts.
“We expect a bounce-back year from Curtis,” Washington general manager Martin Mayhew said in March.
That optimism doesn’t fade when team officials discuss Samuel privately, either. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner calls him one of the smartest players he’s coached, giving them the ability to move Samuel around the formation. Turner says he can be a downfield target. Samuel is also adept at running routes out of the backfield.
In 2020 with Carolina, Samuel finished with 1,051 total yards from scrimmage. Last season he had 38. Samuel’s healthy return plus Dotson would lead to a potentially more diverse passing attack.
“[Opponents will] have to spread their defense out even more. That’s what you want when you have playmakers,” Rivera said.
Washington failed to bolster its linebacking corps this offseason — so far — but Davis’ improvement would soften the need for anything other than depth. Because of his size (6-4, 234) and speed (4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2021), the No. 19 overall pick in 2021 has room for growth.
Washington initially tried him at middle linebacker, but quickly learned Davis wasn’t ready for that role, so he will stay outside alongside Cole Holcomb. The Commanders will likely add another linebacker, preferably someone with experience in the middle. Holcomb progressed last season and showed he belongs on the field, whether inside or outside.
But the Commanders’ defense would take a big step if Davis ascends and his size-speed combination results in flash plays.
Rivera said during walk-throughs that he has been pleased with how Davis has handled formation recognition and adjustments.
“Right now all we’re really looking for is that we’re going in the right direction,” Rivera said, “and that’s probably been one of the biggest pluses right now.”