Our 2022 NFL Preview comes to its conclusion in the nation’s capital, where the newly christened Commanders look to find their footing once again in the NFC East. After following a surprise division title in 2020 with an injury-ravaged 7-10 finish in 2021, pressure is mounting on (Head Coach) Ron Rivera to show some kind of progress in Washington, leading to a change at Quarterback, where Carson Wentz looks to rebuild his once promising career. Will he recapture his form with his third team in as many years? Will the defense bounce back after a miserable campaign plagued by injuries? Will this new identity even stick? Let’s take a look, shall we?
Last Chance U
In an unprecedented offseason that featured more Quarterback movement than we’re accustomed to seeing, the Commanders were absolutely in the running for a number of passers, most notably Russell Wilson. Unfortunately, the nine-time Pro-Bowler opted to take his talents elsewhere, leaving Washington to pivot towards their second (or was it third?) choice, Carson Wentz (pictured). Simply put, this move is fascinating on MANY levels. First and foremost, it wasn’t that long ago that Wentz had blossomed into a legitimate MVP candidate in his sophomore season in Philadelphia, before a torn ACL ended his run, but not his team’s, as the Eagles went on to claim their first Lombardi trophy roughly two months later. Of course, the signal-caller’s relationship with the franchise would gradually deteriorate over the next few years, what with another run of injuries coupled with losing the confidence of his teammates and frequently clashing with the coaching staff leading to his benching and ousting from the City of Brotherly Love in the spring of 2021. Wentz was then traded to Indianapolis, where he was reunited with former mentor, Frank Reich, and though he had the Colts positioned for the playoffs, an inexplicable collapse in the season finale at Jacksonville hastened his exit after one lone season. Now with his third franchise in as many years, the 29-year-old is out to prove that he can still be a franchise Quarterback, and that his flaws have indeed been corrected. So, what are the odds that he can return to Pro-Bowl level, you ask? Well, apart from the final two games of the previous campaign, Wentz was solid if unspectacular in Indy, completing 62.4% of his passes for 3,563 yards on 6.09 net yards per attempt, with twenty-seven touchdowns opposed to just seven interceptions and a middling QBR of 54.7. While those figures are a ways off from his magical 2017 in Philly, they’re a significant improvement over his 2020 campaign in which he led the NFL in interceptions (15) and sacks (50) despite being benched for the final four contests. Now in Washington, he’ll look to regain his touch with a talented supporting cast that doesn’t lack for weapons (much more on them shortly).
When the Commanders (then known simply as “The Football Team”) won the NFC East in 2020, their defense was the driving force, ranking among the league’s elite in a number of categories. Washington finished fourth in points allowed (20.6), second in total defense (304.6), second against the pass (191.8) and net yards per attempt permitted (5.3), seventh in takeaways (23), and sixth in sacks (47), along with sixth overall on third down (37.5%) and fourth in the red zone (53.5%). Unfortunately, hindsight reveals that those statistics were greatly inflated due to a decimated NFC East, with the gauntlet of opposing Quarterbacks that they faced proving less than arduous. Against a much tougher schedule in 2021, Rivera and (Defensive Coordinator) Jack Del Rio saw the unit spiral downward; Washington finished twenty-fifth (25.5), twenty-second (359.3), twenty-ninth (254.9), twenty-eighth (6.8), twenty-first (19), seventeenth (38), thirty-first (48.5%), and seventeenth (59.3%) in those same categories a year later. Furthermore, after relinquishing the second-fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL (21), they proceeded to ship the most in the league (34). However, their struggles weren’t all due to a dramatic upswing in competition, for injuries played a HUGE role in their fate. (Reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year) Chase Young (pictured) was the poster boy for their success on this side of the football two years ago, totaling 7.5 sacks, twenty-four pressures, and a dozen QB hits, only to enter a veritable sophomore slump with a meager 1.5 sacks, thirteen pressures, and four hits of the passer through nine games before tearing both the ACL and MCL in his right knee. While the 23-year-old is expected to miss a few games at the beginning of the schedule, the Defensive Line is clearly the strength of this unit, though the back seven is littered with question marks. Will (young Linebackers) Cole Holcomb and Jamin Davis make an impact this season? Can the Secondary bounce back after getting eviscerated in 2021? Time will tell if this group is more 2020 or 2021 in the capital…
Expanding the Arsenal
Though they failed to launch last season, the Commanders do in fact possess the building blocks of a strong passing game. Even last season’s incarnation of the aforementioned Wentz is an upgrade over any of his recent predecessors at Quarterback in the capital, with the potential of a talented Receiving Corps facilitating his success. First and foremost, Rivera & Co struck gold with (Pro-Bowler) Terry McLaurin (pictured), with the third-round pick easily outperforming his rookie contract with 222 receptions, 3,090 yards, and sixteen touchdowns over the course of his three seasons in the NFL. The franchise promptly tied him down to a three-year, $68.36 million contract extension in the summer, ensuring his stay in the capital through the prime of his career. However, after the 26-year-old, there wasn’t another Receiver or Tight End to haul in more than forty passes or register over 400 yards. (Offensive Coordinator) Scott Turner utilized his Tailbacks A LOT in this regard, with Antonio Gibson (42 REC, 294 YDS) and J.D. McKissic (43 REC, 397 YDS) ranking second and third in catches respectively. A return to form from Curtis Samuel would go a long way towards improving matters, with the versatile Wideout participating in just five games after arriving from Carolina via free agency on a three-year, $34.5 million contract. Rivera and Turner utilized him in a variety of roles during their time together in Charlotte, and the expectation is that they’ll pick up where they left off after last year’s lingering groin and hamstring maladies. And if he fails to impress, there are others in place to fill the void; Washington selected (Receiver) Jahan Dotson out of Penn State with the sixteenth overall pick in last spring’s NFL Draft, with his speed and savvy route-running just dying to be tapped into. Lastly, a healthy return for (Tight End) Logan Thomas would certainly be a boon for the attack; the 31-year-old tore his ACL in December and will probably miss the start of the regular season, but his size (6′-6″, 250 lbs), particularly in the red zone (9 TD since 2020), brings a dimension to the passing game that it is otherwise lacking.
Projected Finish: 8-9
After back-to-back seven-win campaigns, it’s a valid question as to whether or not this team has progressed much at all in Ron Rivera’s two years in the nation’s capital. While on one hand, seven wins was good enough to win the NFC East one year, it was far from it the next, making this a crucial campaign for he and his coaching staff. Though he earned the moniker of “Riverboat Ron” for his penchant for going for it on fourth down, pinning your hopes on the play of Carson Wentz is a serious roll of the dice, with a lot of things having to happen in order for this gamble to pay off. Can the Receiving Corps stay healthy and gel into a multi-faceted attack? Can the defense avoid injury and return to form? Can Wentz avoid pissing everyone off and alienating himself from his third team in as many years? That’s a lot to answer for a team whose ceiling is likely a Wild Card…