Editor’s note: Welcome to our series on the big questions the Commanders face when camp opens Tuesday in Ashburn. Today: What are some position battles to watch?
The Washington Commanders are in an unusual position. When the team takes the field Wednesday for the first practice of training camp, most of Washington’s starting positions are already locked down. There’s no quarterback controversy or even the sham appearance of a competition.
That’s a departure from recent times.
Coach Ron Rivera expects his team to make a big jump in Year 3, and the stability on the roster is arguably one of the main reasons why. The Commanders are bringing back almost every piece of their defense and their offense — outside changes at quarterback, wideout and guard — is mostly the same, as well.
That said, there are still some spots up for grabs. Let’s take a look:
Backup receiver (Cam Sims vs. Dyami Brown): Stay with us here. Yes, neither Sims (211 yards) nor Brown (165) posted gaudy numbers last season, but the team’s fourth receiver spot — behind Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and rookie Jahan Dotson — should be an interesting battle because it largely depends on what the coaching staff prefers. Will Sims see the field more because of his 6-foot-5 size? Or will the staff turn to Brown, the 2021 third-rounder whose speed is still plenty intriguing?
This spot could prove to be valuable as the year goes along, especially given Samuel’s shaky injury history. Sims isn’t that far removed from a productive 2020 season in which he racked up 477 yards on 32 catches. Brown got valuable experience in the spring filling in for McLaurin, who missed offseason workouts because of a contract dispute.
Slot cornerback (Benjamin St-Juste vs. Danny Johnson): Last year’s focus on the “buffalo nickel” — a hybrid linebacker-safety role — may have been a tad overblown. With Landon Collins no longer on the roster, Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio seem much more open to filling that spot with a traditional slot cornerback rather than rolling with a three-safety look.
That brings us to St-Juste — last year’s third-round choice — pitted against Johnson, a crafty veteran who always ends up earning more playing time than expected. Adding to the intrigue, Washington is using St-Juste in the slot — despite the cornerback having never played there before this offseason. Coaches see St-Juste’s 6-foot-3 size as a strength to match up with bigger receivers.
If Washington wants to go back to its three-safety looks, fourth-rounder Percy Butler and 2021 fifth-rounder Darrick Forrest are options to slide in at the buffalo nickel.
Edge rusher (James Smith-Williams vs. Casey Toohill vs. Efe Obada): With Chase Young recovering from an ACL tear, someone is going to need to start at edge rusher opposite Montez Sweat. Last year, that went to James Smith-Williams, but the former seventh-rounder faces more competition this season.
Toohill and Smith-Williams started the same amount of games last year with six, though Toohill often filled in for Sweat. In the offseason, Obada was one of the Commanders’ rare free-agent signings as he agreed to a one-year deal. The 30-year-old, who grew up in London, had 3½ sacks last year with the Buffalo Bills.
Beyond those three, the Commanders still have young edge rushers in Shaka Toney, William Bradley-King and Daniel Wise.
Linebacker (Jamin Davis vs. David Mayo): This one may not qualify as a traditional position battle. By all accounts, Davis is the heavy, heavy favorite to lock down the other starting linebacker spot next to Cole Holcomb. But, the second-year linebacker spent part of the team’s offseason workouts taking second-team reps behind Holcomb and Mayo, a veteran.
Mayo saw an increase in playing time late last season, cutting into Davis’ reps in one of those outings. If that happens again — if Davis’ rocky play warrants the move — it’ll be for the Commanders as they used the 19th overall pick on Davis in 2021.
Punt returner (Dax Milne vs. Alex Erickson vs. Jequez Ezzard vs. Kyric McGowan): The Commanders have a vacancy at returner after DeAndre Carter departed in free agency for the Los Angeles Chargers. To replace him, Washington special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor has used a variety of players for the role — including Dotson.
Still, it would be a surprise if Dotson, the 16th overall pick, factors into the return game considering that he’s expected to contribute significantly on offense. That leaves a slew of others fighting to secure the spot.
Milne and Erickson, the latter of whom joined the team this offseason after stints with the Bengals and Panthers, are likely the frontrunners, but keep an eye on Ezzard and McGowan. Both of the undrafted rookies earned shoutouts from Kaczor near the end of the team’s offseason workouts last month.
• Matthew Paras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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