The team formerly known as the Washington Football Team entered the 2021 season hoping to catch Fitzmagic in a bottle. After a hip injury in the season opener ended quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s year and ultimately led to his retirement, backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke took the reins and performed admirably. The Commanders finished the year with 7 wins, outperforming their SIS-WAR Expected Wins of 5.5.
Third-year coach Ron Rivera is coming off back-to-back 7-win seasons and is looking to take the next step. Going into another year with what looks to be a stop-gap behind center, the organization may be in a position to go all in on a tantalizing QB class if the season goes the wrong way.
Is Carson Wentz an Improvement?
After overperforming last year with Heinicke at the helm, the Commanders are hoping Carson Wentz can at least be sufficient, if not reach his former glory that had Philadelphia under the assumption they had a franchise QB. While Wentz has been much maligned, his numbers show that he’s an improvement over Heinicke.
In 2021, Wentz posted an IQR of 97.9, good for 14th in the league among QBs with at least 200 attempts. Juxtaposed with Heinicke’s 78.4, which ranked 30th. Wentz should translate to more wins after leading Indianapolis to a 9-8 record.
One area Wentz does struggle with is accuracy. In 2021, he threw 72.2% of his passes on target, 28th in the league. Thankfully, he will be throwing to a duo that is comfortable adjusting to off-target throws. Terry McLaurin racked up 137 yards on off-target throws last year, 2nd most in the NFL.
Rookie WR Jahan Dotson is also comfortable adjusting. While his Lynn Swann-Esque adjustments created jaw-dropping highlights, the numbers back up how frequently they were needed.
In 2021, Dotson’s Penn State batterymate, Sean Clifford, threw just 68.4% of his passes on target, the 9th-lowest number among FBS QBs. Dotson was highly productive on off-target throws, posting 0 drops, 3 TDs (T-1st in FBS among WRs), and 5 Total Points (3rd in FBS among WRs).
Scouting the Offensive Line
Wentz will also benefit from playing behind an offensive line fleshed out with quality players. Even after losing stalwart guard Brandon Scherff. Washington had above-average play at three positions in 2021. Left tackle Charles Leno was their most productive player.
After being released by Chicago following the 2020 season, Leno signed a one-year deal with Washington and proved he is a starting LT. He produced 38 Total Points (2nd among all LTs) while starting all 17 games.
Before suffering a fractured fibula that ended his season in Week 8, center Chase Roullier produced 4.1 Total Points per 100 Snaps, 1st among centers that played at least 200 snaps.
At right tackle, second-round pick Sam Cosmi produced 3.8 Total Points per 100 Snaps (6th among RTs) when on the field and looks to return fully healthy this year. Washington also added two quality guards via free agency. Trai Turner produced 34 Total Points, and Andrew Norwell produced 32, good for 11th and 21st among guards, respectively.
Scouting the Defense
On defense, it’s impossible to start anywhere other than a defensive line that has been widely considered elite for the past few seasons. While Chase Young will miss the beginning of the season still recovering from his ACL tear in Week 10 of last year, the Commanders will lean on a front that boasts a premier duo of interior pass rushers.
In 2021, Jonathan Allen made a case that he is the second-best DT in the league, behind only demigod Aaron Donald. His 58 total pressures were 2nd in the league among DTs (Donald was first with 76) and his 13.1% pressure rate was second (among DTs with at least 10 Pressures) only to Kansas City’s Chris Jones.
Allen’s 21 Total Points when rushing the passer was also good for 4th among DTs. His teammate (and occasional sparring partner) Daron Payne was no slouch. Payne’s 40 Pressures ranked 9th among DTs, and his 17 Points Saved were good for 9th as well.
Looking elsewhere on the defense, 2021 first-round pick Jamin Davis jumps out as someone who can take a leap this year. Davis was a late riser in the 2021 draft process due to his size and athleticism at the linebacker position.
In his first year, Davis showed he could hold up in coverage. As the primary defender covering the targeted receiver, he produced 8 Pass Coverage Total Points, which ranked 11th among LBs. Davis looks to fit the role of a modern NFL weakside linebacker, and his arrow is pointing up.
The formula for the Commanders to win this year will be to get up early and allow the defensive front to pin their ears back and ravage opposing QBs in clear passing situations. Their OL is good enough to allow their runners to be productive and time of possession will be key. Being only 1 year removed from winning the division and with no perennial juggernaut, a steady hand behind center and a few bounces in their direction could have Washington back in the playoffs.
Ben Hrkach contributed to this report.