This is the first of a series on the biggest questions facing the Washington Commanders when training camp opens in Ashburn Tuesday. Today: Can Carson Wentz thrive with this supporting cast?
Indianapolis was supposed to be an ideal situation for Carson Wentz. Last season, the quarterback not only reunited with coach Frank Reich — his former offensive coordinator in Philadelphia — but Wentz was also surrounded by a stout offensive line and a strong running game with star back Jonathan Taylor.
It was supposed to be, anyway.
By now, everyone knows that Wentz flamed out in Indianapolis and the Colts traded him to Washington after just one season. But as Wentz prepares to lead the Commanders this fall, the question becomes: Can the 29-year-old boost the Burgundy and Gold’s offense? Specifically, can he thrive with Washington’s supporting cast?
On paper, the Commanders, like the Colts, seem to have the talent to surround Wentz. There’s an argument to be made that this collection of players is even better than what Wentz walked into a year ago. While the Colts had a steady rushing attack to prop up their quarterback, they were lacking at receiver — perhaps the strength of Washington’s unit.
The Commanders have a bonafide No. 1 wideout in Terry McLaurin, whose three-year, $71 million extension was signed earlier this month. They have an intriguing rookie in first-rounder Jahan Dotson, taken with the 16th overall pick. And veteran Curtis Samuel should provide a big boost as long as he can stay healthy. Even the backups — Cam Sims and Dyami Brown — have shown flashes.
This might be Washington’s best offense since Kirk Cousins excelled with DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed. That’s more than five years ago now.
“We got a lot of speed, a lot of weapons,” Wentz said in June. “It’s been fun.”
But there are concerns. In 2021, the Commanders were one of only two teams that had a single receiver reach at least 400 yards. Ironically, the other team was the Colts: After Michael Pittman (1,082 yards), Indianapolis’ next leading receiver mustered only 384 yards in Zach Pascal. For Washington, running back J.D. McKissic’s 397 receiving yards ranked second behind McLaurin’s 1,053.
The Commanders’ receiver room, though, largely stayed the same. The team’s only major add at the position was Dotson — and that puts a lot of expectations on the Penn State product to produce right away. Fortunately for the Commanders, Dotson was one of the high points of the team’s offseason workouts as he displayed an impressive catch radius and chemistry with Wentz.
“The guy has an ability to put himself in position to make plays,” coach Ron Rivera said of Dotson.
Health will be another important factor. Last year, Samuel was limited to only five games because of nagging injuries and only caught six passes for 27 yards. Tight end Logan Thomas also missed 11 games and tore his ACL in December. Washington’s offense should be better with the return of those two, but questions persist about how much they can contribute in 2022.
Even in offseason workouts, Samuel missed half of the sessions open to reporters. Thomas didn’t practice, focusing on his rehab with trainers. Thomas might not be ready for Week 1.
The ideal scenario for Washington is that Wentz can elevate the talent around him no matter the circumstances. Elite-level quarterbacks have shown an ability to do just that, though few would argue that Wentz is still on that level. In Philadelphia, the Eagles’ lack of playmakers and offensive line arguably led to Wentz’s unraveling in 2020.
Wentz’s play mostly improved with the Colts, despite some maddening inconsistencies. He made significant strides in accuracy (57.4% to 62.4%), passer rating (72.8 to 94.6) and sack percentage (10.3% to 5.8%) from 2020 to 2021. The former No. 2 overall pick did drop off down the stretch — he notably failed to top 200 yards in back-to-back losses that cost the Colts a playoff spot — though the overall improvement led Washington to trade for him.
In all, the Colts finished 13th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, a metric that measures efficiency. Washington hasn’t sported an above-average offense in that category since 2016. Looking at just passing efficiency, Indianapolis ranked 20th — which would still be Washington’s highest ranking since 2017, when the team ranked 14th.
“Last year, he bounced back,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said, “and really, really had a good year and really played really well in stretches of last season. That’s more of what to expect from him.”