- The Washington Times - Monday, July 26, 2021

Kirk Cousins once said he wanted Washington to be the San Antonio Spurs of the NFL — a no-drama franchise known for winning, thank you, just winning. Cousins is long gone, but compared to a year ago, the Burgundy-and-Gold are set to enter training camp, for once, without the usual chaos that typically follows the organization.

A year ago, Washington began training camp steeped in turmoil. A sexual harassment investigation was underway. The team’s name had just changed. And coach Ron Rivera revealed right before the team’s first practice that he had cancer.

Those issues have mostly been addressed, aside from the ongoing search for a new name. That gives Rivera the opportunity to focus and build on a promising first season that, though the team finished below .500, resulted in a playoff appearance.

With training camp set to begin Tuesday in Richmond — the team returns to its former training camp home for five days — here’s what Rivera and Co. will be working on.

⦁ Offensive jump: Technically, Washington is having yet another quarterback competition. But the storyline of that battle is not whether the cagey vet can hold off the young up-and-comer — See: Case Keenum vs. Dwayne Haskins — but which man can ultimately give Washington’s offense the biggest boost.

Ryan Fitzpatrick seems to have the upper hand: Washington signed him for $10 million and the team is excited to see how the 38-year-old journeyman can unlock the team’s playmakers. Still, Taylor Heinicke dazzled in last year’s playoff game and had another strong spring. At the very least, Rivera could get to run a legitimate competition after giving the since-departed Haskins practically all of the reps in last year’s camp.

Washington hasn’t had an above-average offense since Cousins was at the helm. It ranked dead last in offensive DVOA (efficiency) last year, according to Football Outsiders.

⦁ Defensive regression? Chase Young fed into the hype when he declared during OTAs that Washington’s defense could be the best in the league this fall. The prediction might not be as unrealistic as it seems. Washington is coming off a fantastic defensive season in which it ranked in the top five of practically every major statistical category, including second in defensive DVOA.
The major thing Washington will try to prevent is regression. Most defenses slip after an elite year and the team is slated to face a murderer’s row of quarterbacks in 2021 — including Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. Washington is banking on the additions it made in free agency and the draft to help. First-round linebacker Jamin Davis is one to watch in camp, as are cornerback William Jackson and safety Bobby McCain.

⦁ Vaccination procrastination: Rivera told reporters that Washington’s players potentially not being vaccinated would only create a competitive disadvantage if they don’t follow protocols to stay safe. That said, Rivera would like his team to be vaccinated.
The NFL Network reported Tuesday that no team is below a 60% vaccination rate among players when it comes to getting at least one shot. That includes Washington, which had hovered below 50% as of 10 days ago.
Still, some Washington players have publicly questioned the vaccine. Montez Sweat said he wouldn’t get the shot until he received “more facts and stuff,” while safety Kam Curl used a thinking emoji Tuesday in reply to a tweet that said at least 13 people in the NFL have caught the virus since being vaccinated.

⦁ Competition, competition, competition: Besides the quarterback, the biggest spots up for grabs are left guard, right tackle and free safety. On the left side of the interior, Ereck Flowers and Wes Schweitzer will battle it out, while Sam Cosmi looks to overtake veteran Cornelius Lucas on the right side. Free safety is arguably the most flexible spot on the roster with Deshazor Everett, Jeremy Reaves and McCain looking to become the starter.

The last three or four roster spots behind Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Dyami Brown will also be something to monitor at wide receiver. Washington will have to narrow its roster from a pool of Kelvin Harmon, Cam Sims, Steven Sims, Adam Humphries, Antonio Gandy-Golden, Isaiah Wright, Dax Milne, DeAndre Carter and Tony Brown.

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

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