Uncertainty at the bottom of the depth chart created opportunities for young players and difficult decisions for coaches. Following the Commanders’ third preseason game, against Baltimore, Rivera said about four to seven roster spots were available. But an 11th-hour tragedy forced Washington to rethink it all.
Rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. was shot twice on Sunday during an attempted armed robbery in Washington, and the team placed him on the non-football injury list Thursday, requiring him to miss at least four games, if not more.
So after setting one version of a 53-man roster on Tuesday, the Commanders began to tweak and tweak some more to come up with group that provides depth and scheme-fit across the board.
Quarterback (3): Carson Wentz, Taylor Heinicke, Sam Howell
For the first time in years, the Commanders have known their starting quarterback and backups since early in the offseason. They traded for Wentz in March, and a month later, they drafted Howell. Rivera has learned the hard way that having three quarterbacks is essential nowadays.
Wentz was traded twice in as many years, raising eyebrows about his potential fit in Washington, but he’s a clear upgrade. The team wanted a bigger quarterback who can see over the rush and sling the ball downfield. And though the Commanders might not view Heinicke as a full-time starter, he has experience as one and provides a safety net for Wentz. And Howell? His play in the preseason provided plenty of intrigue.
Wide receiver (6): Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson, Cam Sims, Dax Milne, Dyami Brown
Washington’s receiving corps begins the season confident in its starters. McLaurin is back on a three-year contract extension, Samuel is healthy after dealing with groin and hamstring issues last season, and Dotson, a first-round rookie, impressed with his catching ability and polished routes in the preseason. But the drop is steep after those three. Sims gives Washington a bigger body and is good for a big play every so often. Milne returns having significantly improved as a pass-catcher and will serve as the Commanders’ returner, but his reps and reliability are unknown. And Brown can be an explosive option on deep passes, but his drops make him a potential liability.
Offensive line (9): Charles Leno Jr., Andrew Norwell, Chase Roullier, Trai Turner, Sam Cosmi, Wes Schweitzer, Cornelius Lucas, Saahdiq Charles, Chris Paul
Rivera said throughout camp and the preseason that it was important for the team to feel confident in at least 10 offensive linemen. The Commanders were ravaged by injuries up front last year and relied heavily on depth to make it through the season. But they kept nine to start the season, largely because the talent at tight end made it too difficult to part with some of the talent. After swapping out guards to bring in Norwell and Turner in the offseason, and after dealing with numerous injuries during camp, the team has a group of veterans with experience in the system, and the line could expand to 10, if not more, as the roster continually shuffles.
Tight end (4): Logan Thomas, John Bates, Cole Turner, Armani Rogers
No group has been hit harder by injuries than Washington’s tight ends in recent years. This fall, Rivera kept four — and rookie Curtis Hodges, a fifth, begins the year on injured reserve — because of their talent, not necessarily for insurance.
Thomas is working his way back after missing 11 games last year. Bates, Washington’s best blocking tight end, is returning from a calf injury and should feel more comfortable after a year in the system. Turner, a rookie, has the size and catch radius to play a major role if he can stay healthy. And Rogers, an undrafted rookie, could be Thomas 2.0. The former college quarterback converted to tight end earlier this year and quickly acclimated to the new position to earn a spot on the roster. He could produce immediately: Since 2017, Wentz has targeted his tight ends the second-most of any quarterback in the NFL.
Running back (3): Antonio Gibson, J.D. McKissic, Jonathan Williams
What was once the Commanders’ most solid position is now the most in flux. Robinson, their promising third-round rookie, is on NFI for at least the first four games after he was shot twice, in his knee and his hip area. The team said it will not rush back Robinson — “We want to make sure he’s in a very good place, both physically and mentally,” Rivera said — so to help fill the void, the Commanders kept Williams, who is most akin to Robinson in size and running style. He also has a skill set that complements those of Gibson, a powerful back with pass-catching ability, and McKissic, another receiver convert who has become the Commanders’ versatile third-down ace.
Defensive line (9): Montez Sweat, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, James Smith-Williams, Casey Toohill, Phidarian Mathis, Efe Obada, Shaka Toney, Daniel Wise
The line is still the crux of this team. Its impressive showing in 2020 faded last season, and this year, it will open without star defensive end Chase Young. He’s on the physically unable to perform list while he continues to rehab his torn ACL and will miss at least four games (maybe more).
Smith-Williams will be Young’s primary replacement, but Washington is expected to incorporate more five-man fronts this year, making its depth, especially inside, paramount. Tim Settle and Matt Ioannidis, two backup defensive tackles who could step up on a moment’s notice, are gone, and the top reserves inside now are Mathis, a rookie, and Obada, who signed in March.
Linebacker (5): Cole Holcomb, Jamin Davis, Jon Bostic, David Mayo, Milo Eifler
It was a surprise that the Commanders kept five linebackers. It was perhaps an ever bigger surprise that they brought back Jon Bostic, a veteran who spent nearly three seasons in Washington before he suffered a pectoral muscle injury in 2021 and left as a free agent. But Bostic is experienced in the system and is known for his locker-room leadership. His mentorship could help the development of Davis, who will shift to the outside this year instead of trying his hand at the “Mike,” or middle linebacker.
Holcomb, who’s essentially the quarterback of the defense, is the leader of the group, and Eifler earned his spot after beating out Khaleke Hudson, among others, in camp. But Washington’s use of its linebackers bears watching this year; the team tweaked its defense and is expected to incorporate more five-man fronts and have more fluidity with its matchup zone on the back end.
Cornerback (6): Kendall Fuller, William Jackson III, Benjamin St-Juste, Christian Holmes, Tariq Castro-Fields, Rachad Wildgoose
Washington altered its cornerbacks room late, claiming Tariq Castro-Fields and Rachad Wildgoose off waivers to expand the group to six. Why so many? Washington’s base defense is no longer the antiquated 4-3. Now, it’s a 4-2-5, and the team will play most of its snaps in subpackages with an extra defensive back.
Many of Washington’s defensive backs can play two, if not three, positions in the secondary, allowing coordinator Jack Del Rio more flexibility in game-planning. Wildgoose also has the position flex the team covets, and Casto-Fields provides depth at outside corner. But the starters are the core, and after a year together in the system, they are confident their communication and experience will propel them to a higher level.
Safety (5): Bobby McCain, Kam Curl, Darrick Forrest, Percy Butler, Jeremy Reaves
Washington’s starters are back this season, and that, perhaps, is what’s most important for the safety corps. But they may not be united for the start of the season. Curl is dealing with an undisclosed injury and wore an arm sling while observing practice Aug. 31.
Once he’s healthy, though, this group will be key to the defense’s success. McCain and Curl have a year’s experience together — and a year with starting corners Fuller and Jackson — and have said they feel more confident and comfortable in the scheme. Del Rio made tweaks to the system to tailor it to his players, and throughout preseason and camp, the group expressed optimism about its improvement.
The longest-tenured Washington player is back for Year 9, and if his 62-yard punt in the preseason was any indicator of the future, buckle up.
Slye jumped in midseason last year after the Commanders cycled through two other kickers. He didn’t miss a single attempt in his six games, but in the preseason this year, he missed an extra-point attempt and a 42-yarder.
Long snapper: Camaron Cheeseman
Special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor said of Cheeseman: “He is certainly in a mental space of not being a rookie anymore. … We’re not perfect yet, but he’s definitely improved, and consistency is better. We thought it was pretty good last year being a rookie.”