Behind Enemy Lines 2022: NFC East Offseason Review – Washington Commanders
In the last leg of this offseason’s “Behind Enemy Lines,” we find ourselves in the nation’s capital with a brand new nickname and logo.
The Washington Commanders might be one of the blandest team names ever and will undoubtedly offend nobody. But rest assured, the organization we all know and love remains its same dysfunctional and unpredictable self.
Over the summer, owner Dan Snyder answered questions from a congressional committee over allegations of widespread sexual harassment in the workplace. If the team’s owner testifying to a government entity about his widely inappropriate workplace is not enough of a dumpster fire for you, then wait until we get into what’s been happening on the field.
Head coach Ron Rivera will start his seventh different quarterback since arriving in 2020.
Eagles fans should be thrilled as the newly dubbed Washington Commanders ditched their 1990s Minnesota Vikings strategy by trading for 2016’s second overall draft pick, Carson Wentz. Not only did general manager Martin Mayhew seek out the former division rival quarterback, but they took on his entire $28.3M cap hit for 2022, more than doubling their second highest paid player while making up for over 13% of their total cap space.
The Washington Commanders surrounded Carson Wentz with sure-handed receivers, but is that enough for a career renaissance?
Carson Wentz is one of the NFL’s greatest enigmas.
The North Dakota kid went from an MVP-caliber player in 2017 to throwing some of the most embarrassing and mind-boggling interceptions of all time.
If it wasn’t clear that something was wrong with Wentz after scrambling 20 yards backward only to attempt a pass and get buried into the turf, just look at the Indianapolis experiment where he had one of his former coaches helping “revive his career”. It started with the same hypothesis that the Eagles once had: “Wentz could return to his old form given the right circumstances,” and it ended like this.
With Wentz’s contract eating up most of Washington’s cap flexibility in 2022, the Commanders gave star wideout Terry McLaurin his much-deserved three-year $71M bag, which will pay him next season after he plays out his rookie deal. Given his circumstances, McLaurin’s first three seasons in the league have been incredibly impressive.
Despite playing with a carousel of quarterbacks like Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen, Garrett Gilbert, and Taylor Heinicke, McLaurin has eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards for two seasons straight.
I loved the grit and passion that Taylor Heinicke played with, and who could ever forget that superman dive into the endzone against the Bucs in the 2020 playoffs.
However, Carson Wentz offers significantly more upside in terms of his big-play ability, or at least giving McLaurin and others the chance to come down with some deep balls. PFF gave the former Ohio State wide receiver the highest receiving grade on contested targets (93.0) in the league last season, but the Commanders want to get McLaurin more quality targets. Of the team-high 130 passes thrown his way, only 62.7% were catchable, the lowest rate of any wideout in the league with a minimum of 100 targets.
The other major obstacle McLaurin overcame was putting up all those numbers without a solid number two option running beside him. Last year’s big offseason prize, Curtis Samuel, signed a three-year, $34.5M deal but played in just five games due to injury/illness, while third-round pick out of UNC, Dynami Brown, dealt with plenty of rookie growing pains.
They both will battle for the number three option at receiver as first-round rookie wideout Jahan Dotson has been the talk of training camp. Watching him firsthand every week as a Penn State fan, I can confidently say that Dotson’s catch radius and playmaking ability are off the charts.
The Commanders may have found a viable complement to Scary Terry in Dotson and hope Curtis Samuel can rebound into the elite slot receiver they expected when inking that contract.
In the backfield, the Commanders have a very well-rounded and versatile group. The front office used what little cap room they had to bring back reliable third-down back J.D. McKissic to play alongside Antonio Gibson and rookie Brian Robinson Jr. McKissic’s pass-catching and ability to block in pass pro complement their third-round pick’s bruising between the tackles running style
Antonio Gibson, a 2020 third-round pick out of Memphis, surpassed 1,000 scrimmage yards in his first two NFL seasons but led the league with six fumbles in 2021.
Weapons Grade: B+
Chase Young and the defensive line try to rebound from a disappointing campaign while the offensive line is devoid of depth
Chase Young played in ten games last season before suffering a brutal torn ACL that showed the true colors of the Washington Commanders’ trench depth futility. The former Defensive Rookie of the Year totaled only 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss before the injury and symbolized the team’s downward trajectory. Due to the complexity of his particular ACL tear, the Commanders expect Young back a little later than usual, exposing their delicately thin trench depth once again.
Because of Wentz’s enormous cap hit, Washington could not retain valuable backups like Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle on their defensive line. Montez Sweat, who has 21 sacks in his first three seasons, will have to step up in a big way with little to no quality edge rushers behind him and his partner in crime remaining on the PUP list for now.
The Washington Commanders’ interior defensive line remains an Alabama Crimson Tide alum team. Not only do they have duo alumni Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen anchoring the interior, but they used their second-round pick in the 2022 draft on another Crimson Tide defensive tackle, Phidarian Mathis.
Payne and Allen had their differences on a public stage last season in a Week 16 loss to Dallas. With Allen being the more consistently productive player and Payne on the final year of his rookie deal, Mathis could play his way into a starting role as Dan Snyder keeps rotating Alabama’s defensive tackles until something sticks.
The other side of the ball doesn’t get much better. Again the cap situation allowed one of Washington’s most revered offensive linemen, Brandon Scherff, to skip town and grab his bag in Jacksonville on a three-year, $49.5M contract. In an ironic free agency swap, the Commanders brought in former Jaguars Andrew Norwell and journeyman Trai Turner to battle veteran Wes Schweitzer as the three prime candidates at offensive guard.
Charles Leno Jr and Samuel Cosmi remain reliable bookmarks at offensive tackle for Washington, but neither would be considered “elite” at their position. Sixth-year center Chase Roullier enjoyed a breakout 2021 season before fracturing his leg in Week 8. With little to no quality depth on the roster, the Washington Commanders are only a few badly-timed injuries away from becoming a total disaster in the trenches.
Trench Grade: C-
Losing Landon Collins and overdrafting Jamin Davis will come back to burn the Commanders’ passing defense
Only one draft ago, Washington used the 19th overall on Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis to sure up their perennial weak unit and play the vital ‘MIKE’ role. After a massively disappointing start to the season, Davis moved to an outside position where he should continue to start this year.
On the other hand, 2019 fifth-round pick Cole Holcomb exploded onto the scene for Washington and finally established a presence at the middle linebacker spot. Once again, this unit is as thin as rice paper with little to no value behind the two starters.
The Washington Commanders love to run a three-safety look with Landon Collins handling the “Buffalo nickel” role in a set the team used more than 50% of defensive snaps. With his departure, the theme of thin positional units continues as Washington used two of their eight draft picks on safeties.
With Kamren Curl and Bobby McCain returning to the team during free agency, fourth-rounder Percy Butler out of UL-Lafayette could be the next man up to play that vital third safety in Washington’s scheme. As of this writing, Landon Collins remains a free agent and could return to Washington, given their current roster options, but it doesn’t seem very likely given his post-release statement.
Cornerback Kendall Fuller, who signed with Washington last offseason, became a bonafide superstar in his role, finishing 2021 with the third highest PFF defensive grade (81.5) amongst all corners in the NFL. Fuller has the versatility to play slot or on the outside, which gives Washington maneuverability with their secondary members.
At the same time, 29-year-old William Jackson III will remain at one outside cornerback spot. Their third-round pick from 2021, Benjamin St-Juste, will either fill in opposite Jackson III or play as a sub-nickel whenever the Commanders run a two-safety look.
One thing to point out when analyzing Washington’s 29th-ranked pass defense last year is they faced a gauntlet of S-Tier quarterbacks. In 2021, the Commanders went up against Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Derek Carr, Justin Herbert, and Josh Allen while giving up over 250 passing yards per game.
This year only Aaron Rodgers faces the Washington Commanders again, and the team goes from playing one of the most demanding schedules in 2021 to a much more manageable one this season with opponents holding a combined .462 win percentage last year.