ASHBURN — Every week, Taylor Heinicke says, there will be a playmaker on the Washington Commanders who “doesn’t get the touches he deserves.” This was a dilemma before the quarterback entered the lineup this season, but it has become especially relevant as the Commanders have become a run-first offense with Heinicke under center.
With that kind of commitment to the ground game, there are only so many passes — and targets — to go around.
“When you have a bunch of weapons like this, someone is going to get shorthanded,” Heinicke said. “From week to week, it might be one person or another.”
Lately, that person on the short end of the stick has been Jahan Dotson.
The rookie wide receiver has just two catches for 27 yards over the last three games. He’s been targeted only four times overall since returning Nov. 14 from a hamstring injury, an ailment that caused him to miss five weeks.
The lack of volume is a stark contrast to how Dotson began his season — when he racked up 152 yards on 12 catches for four touchdowns in four games. In those outings, the 22-year-old impressed with his precise route running and notable catch radius — traits that helped him stand out in a noteworthy class of rookie wideouts. The 16th overall pick was targeted 22 times in that stretch.
By the time Dotson returned from the injury, however, Washington’s offense had changed.
“He’s still important and very integral into what we’re doing,” Commanders coach Ron Rivera said of Dotson. “He’s developing and he’s growing. We all know he’s got the potential to be a very, very good player for us. It’s just a matter of time before you see him start getting some more opportunities.”
The Commanders have won six of the last seven, so Dotson’s dip in production may be as big of an issue as, say, when Terry McLaurin saw a lack of targets when Carson Wentz was at quarterback. But if the Penn State product finds his rhythm again, Dotson could help boost an offense that still has hit a lull during stretches of the team’s past few wins.
One area, in particular, Dotson could make an impact in is the red zone. Since Dotson’s return, the Commanders have only scored four touchdowns on their last nine trips inside the 20. But over his first four games, three of Dotson’s four scores were in the red zone.
Coaches and teammates had praised Dotson as a threat in that area, noting his ability to create separation with his footwork and haul in passes in tight windows with his hands.
“He runs very mature routes,” Rivera said in October.
Speaking to reporters last week, Dotson said it was “tough” trying to work his way back into the offense. After missing so much time with the injury, he admitted he was still searching to find a rhythm again. Of course, Dotson has to find that groove with a different quarterback under center.
Dotson was at his most productive with Wentz, building that chemistry after spending most of the offseason and training camp working with the first team. The wide receiver, though, dismissed the idea that it was difficult going from Wentz to Heinicke — telling reporters that all quarterbacks on the roster were capable of making every throw.
“They’re going to put it right where it needs to be,” Dotson said. “You just need to make the catch.”
Dotson, to be clear, is not the only one affected by the Wentz-Heinicke switch. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel’s numbers have also fallen, averaging fewer targets (from 5.7 to 3.2) and receiving yards (from 47.8 to 34.3). On the opposite end, McLaurin’s numbers are notably up as he has been targeted 8.2 times per game with Heinicke compared to 6.2 with Wentz. Heinicke is averaging nearly 10 fewer throws per game than Wentz, too.
Heinicke, though, remained optimistic about being able to keep Dotson involved. He pointed out how tight end Logan Thomas had a quiet first half of the season — only to catch five passes for 65 yards in Washington’s Week 11 win over the Houston Texans.
“Obviously we want to give him the ball more,” Heinicke said of Dotson.