- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Not everyone can casually name-drop the greatest basketball player of all time, so no one could blame Washington coach Ron Rivera for doing so this week when he was asked a question about Thursday’s preseason game.

“Michael Jordan told me this one time,” Rivera said, carrying on with the story. 

When it comes down to clutch time, Rivera said Jordan told him when they were in Chicago, you’ll see the players who “come to the ball hard,” who fight hard around screens to get open and you’ll see the ones who don’t. In other words, the men separate from the boys, the leader of the pack will emerge and all that jazz. (Or maybe Bulls, in this case.) 

No one should confuse Washington’s preseason opener with Game 7 of the NBA Finals, but Thursday’s matchup against the New England Patriots gives Rivera and Co. the first chance to see who can handle the real speed of an NFL game after weeks of training camp.

“That’s when you really notice some guys do some things,” Rivera said. 

From star players to those fighting for a roster spot, here’s who to keep an eye on against the Patriots. These players have had fascinating stretches in practice and now it’s time to see how they do when the lights come on: 

Landon Collins, safety

Rivera said his starters will play, and that appears to include Collins. Nine months removed from a torn Achilles, Collins’ resurgence is arguably the most surprising story in camp. He looks explosive and flies to the ball. Will that translate to disrupting the Patriots’ offense? Even if Collins doesn’t see the field for long, those first few snaps could be telling. 

Remember, Collins struggled before his injury. His missed tackle percentage — the number of missed tackles divided by combined number of tackles and missed tackles — of 18% ranked second worst on Washington. But Collins was a three-time Pro Bowler with the Giants. Maybe he’s found that form again.

Sam Cosmi, tackle 

Defensive end Chase Young said the best thing he could do for Cosmi, a rookie tackle, was to focus on “destroying” him. He wasn’t kidding. And for the first few days of practice, Cosmi looked overwhelmed against Young and pass rusher Montez Sweat. 

But Cosmi has started to turn a corner, adapting to Young’s speed. New England presents a good test for the second-rounder, with Matt Judon and Dont’a Hightower (granted they play). 

“Every day I’m getting better,” Cosmi said “Every day, the game is slowing down for me as I am really getting the playbook in and everything like that. I’m really focusing and keying in on my technique as well. I think it’s been a really good process so far.”

DeAndre Carter, wide receiver

Carter flashed during practices in Richmond, but he hasn’t made as many eye-popping plays when Washington’s training camp shifted back to Ashburn earlier this month. Signed in the offseason, Carter has a chance to make this roster based on his return skills. Carter was a punt returner for the Houston Texans and will likely hold the same role Thursday.

Steven Sims, though, has had a strong camp and could also handle return duties. Both are slot options on the offense, so there’s some overlap between them. The competition between Sims and Carter, specifically, seems to be one of the closest battles so far during camp.

Steven Montez, quarterback 

Most are curious to see how Ryan Fitzpatrick looks in his first game in a Washington uniform, Rivera included. But Fitzpatrick is also 38 years old and on his ninth team. He’s established at this point. 

Montez, the team’s fourth-string quarterback out of Colorado, is far from that. He likely will get plenty of work against the Patriots as third-stringer Kyle Allen is nursing an ankle injury. Montez has had a fascinating camp, albeit for the wrong reasons. Over a stretch of five days, the 24-year-old threw four interceptions on the last play of practice.

“He’s got to stop trying to make the perfect play and just make the right play,” Rivera said.

Sammis Reyes, tight end 

Washington understands that Reyes, a Chilean-born former college basketball turned football player, will be a project. The team, though, gets to see how much progress Reyes has made over the last few months starting with the Patriots. It’s been a rough go for Reyes at times. Tight ends coach Pete Hoener isn’t shy in letting Reyes know what he’s doing wrong and the 25-year-old was slowed for a few days by a minor knee injury. 

Still, Reyes holds potential and his 6-foot-7 frame makes him an intriguing prospect — even if he’s been playing football for less than a year. 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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