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2022 NFC East Preview: Did the Washington Commanders get better?

Their nickname isn’t all that has changed

Washington Football Team v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Washington Commanders, the new moniker for the Washington based football team, will look to establish dominance in their inaugural season with a new name. There are many changes other than just their name.

Washington swapped second round picks with the Indianapolis Colts and then gave the Colts two third round selections (one being conditional) while absorbing the 29-year-old’s cap number of $28.3 million.

Upgrading the quarterback position over incumbent starter Taylor Heinicke isn’t a head-scratcher. Still, trading that kind of capital for an inconsistent quarterback who floundered down the stretch of the 2021 season can befog.

Brandon Scherff is one of the top guards in football, and he left Washington for Jacksonville during free agency. Consequently, the Commanders signed Andrew Norwell, formerly of the Jaguars, to play guard. They also added Trai Turner to play guard.

Washington did look to improve their receiving corps for the long-term during the off-season. They signed star WR Terry McLaurin to a three-year, $68.3 million extension just after selecting Penn State WR Jahan Dotson in the draft’s first round. They should also receive a healthy Curtis Samuel, something they lacked in 2021.

Key additions: Carson Wentz, Trai Turner, Andrew Norwell, Justin Hamilton, Alex Erickson

Drafted players: Jahan Dotson, Phidarian Mathis, Brian Robinson, Percy Butler, Cole Turner, Sam Howell, Chris Paul, Christian Holmes

Key losses: Brandon Scherff, Matt Ioannidis, Tim Settle, DeAndre Carter, Ricky Seals-Jones, Jamil Douglas, Kyle Allen, London Collins, Ereck Flowers, Jon Bostic, Adam Humphries

2022 outlook

Offense

In three seasons with Washington, 39-year-old offensive coordinator Scott Turner will have coached six separate starting quarterbacks (under three different team names). The late Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen, Taylor Heinicke, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, and now Carson Wentz.

Continuity has been a struggle for Washington at the quarterback position. Washington’s offense finished 25th (21.1) and 23rd (19.7) in points per game in 2020 and 2021, respectively. They were 21st (323.6 YPG) in yards per game in 2021 and 22nd in passing yards per game (202.4 YPG).

Turner’s success running the football jumped exponentially from 2020 to 2021. In 2020, Washington averaged 99.8 yards per game, ranking them 26th in the league while jumping to 11th with an average of 121.2 YPG in 2021.

The increase in rushing yards per game came with a decrease in rushing efficiency from running back Antonio Gibson. In his rookie season of 2020, Gibson averaged 4.5 YPC with 11 touchdowns, 826 yards, on 184 attempts. In 2021, Gibson rushed more (258 times) for 1,035 yards (an average of 4.0 YPC) with seven touchdowns.

The increase in rushing output can primarily be attributed to quarterback Taylor Heinicke’s propensity to extend plays and use his legs. Heinicke rushed for 313 yards last season. New Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz isn’t shy to run either, albeit he’s never rushed as Heinicke did in 2021. Wentz rushed for 215 yards last season and 276 in the previous year as an Eagle. Ironically enough, both quarterbacks dropped back to pass 575 times in 2021.

I would surmise that Wentz is an upgrade over Heinicke but is that enough to outweigh the cost and money absorbed by Washington? I am not sure.

Gibson had the fourth most carries in the NFL last season. According to pro football reference’s advanced rushing stats, Gibson had 19 broken tackles, ranking ninth in the NFL. Pro Football Focus had Gibson marked with 39 missed tackles forced, which ranked tied for 14th in the NFL. He had the eighth-most yards before contact, but much of that was a product of volume. On a per attempt basis, Gibson averaged 2.1 yards before contact, ranking 35th in the NFL.

Gibson just turned 24 years old and is a big explosive talent, but head coach Ron Rivera will likely use a committee approach. JD McKissic flipped his verbal commitment with the Buffalo Bills to return to Washington. McKissic had a big role last season as the pass catching back; he averaged 4.4 YPC with two rushing touchdowns while catching 43 of 51 targets for 397 yards and two receiving touchdowns.

There was off-season discussion about McKissic playing a more wide receiver type of role, but that’s yet to be fully determined. Washington also added Alabama running back Brian Robinson in the third round. He’ll look to eat into carries behind Gibson and McKissic.

The rushing attack’s effectiveness is undetermined due to the offensive line changes. Charles Leno Jr. and Sam Cosmi will start at the tackle spots; Cosmi split time at right tackle last season with Cornelius Lucas, who is still on the team.

Both guards are new in Norwell and Turner, and the offensive line is anchored by underrated center Chase Roullier. The offensive line probably tiers in the bottom third in the NFL. Washington has some solid depth behind their starters on the offensive line.

As for the receiving threats behind the talented McLaurin and Dotson, the Commanders will look to finally utilize the skill-set of the versatile - and hopefully healthy - Curtis Samuel. Turner and Rivera signed Samuel in free agency after his breakout final year in Carolina, but several injuries kept Samuel sidelined last season.

A combination of McLaurin, Dotson, and Samuel in 11 personnel isn’t the biggest, but it’s explosive and talented. Washington also has second year player Dyami Brown, who was an explosive vertical asset for UNC. The 22 year old 6’1, 185-pound receiver only caught 12 of 24 targets for 165 yards last season.

Cam Sims at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, and Kelvin Harmon at 6-2, 215 pounds are the big-bodied receivers after former WR out of Liberty, Antonio Gandy-Golden, transitioned to tight end. Gandy-Golden pairs with former college quarterback Logan Thomas to form a divergent tight end room.

Gandy-Golden is likely developmental and won’t be a part of Washington’s 12 personnel package, a package they ran 18 percent of the time in 2021. The second year blocking ace John Bates will have a role on this offense, and rookie Cole Turner will compete for receiving snaps behind Thomas.

Defense

Washington’s defense has long been defined by its dominant defensive line. Jack Del Rio assumed the defensive coordinator role in 2020 with the talented front. Three first round selections, spanning from 2017-2020, are now joined by a 2022 second-round pick in Phidarian Mathis to one of the best lines in the league.

Chase Young is returning from his torn ACL to pair with Montez Sweat on the EDGE. Sweat missed weeks 9-14 last season and finished the year with five sacks and 27 pressures. 2020 seventh round pick Casey Toohill, James Smith-Williams, Shaka Toney, and Olubunmi Rotimi rotated at EDGE when Young and Sweat were injured.

Young tore his ACL against Tampa Bay in week 10. He had only two sacks and 24 pressures in nine games. Offenses continued to focus their game plan on eliminating Young’s ability to rush the passer.

Three defensive linemen led Washington in pressures. Jonathan Allen had 67 with 10 sacks, Daron Payne 47 with five sacks, and Matt Ioannidis 34 with four sacks. Ioannidis is now on the Panthers, and Tim Settle - another rotational defensive lineman - is a Bill.

Washington selected Jamin Davis in the first round of 2021 in an effort to infuse the second level with incredible athletic ability. Davis was raw in 2021 but has all the potential in the world. Cole Holcomb will start next to Davis, manning the MIKE position most of the time. Holcomb led the team in STOPs last season with 43, with a missed tackle rate of 9.6%. Holcomb almost doubled the snaps of the younger, more exciting player, Davis in 2021.

Washington has a young gem in their secondary that was rather inexpensive. Safety Kamren Curl was a 2020 seventh round selection out of Arkansas. He is 6-2, 198 pounds, and he is a sure tackling physical player who is solid in coverage. Curl is underrated, and he’s playing next to former Dolphins’ defensive back Bobby McCain, who can also play slot.

Percy Butler has a chance to also earn snaps on the backend next to Curl. The two starting cornerbacks are Kendall Fuller and Williams Jackson III. The latter was signed in 2021 and had a sub-optimal season; he’ll look to rebound. 2021 third round selection Benjamin St-Juste is a long physical player who had an adequate start to 2021 before a concussion landed him on I.R. after week eight.

The secondary is also likely in the top half of the bottom third in the league, but the potent pass-rush of Washington makes their job a little bit easier. Washington will hope that Jackson III will improve and that Fuller can maintain his level of play. Fuller had 14 passes defended and a pick last year.

Final thoughts

Washington isn’t definitely a better team in 2022. A lot will come down to Carson Wentz and his ability to lead the locker room off the field, something that was questionable on his last two teams, and his ability to take care of the football. The addition of Wentz was the defining move during the off-season, but how much better is Washington with Wentz over Heinicke?

Receiving a healthy Young should improve how opposing offenses play their defense, but losing their best player (arguably) in Scherff hurts their offensive line, rushing attack, and ability to protect the passer. I’d say Washington is around the same as last season, with the potential of being better if they can stay healthy and Wentz reverts to his 2017 play.