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Washington Commanders: 2022 Preseason Predictions and Preview

Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team

Washington embarks on the Commanders' era with Antonio Gibson and company hoping to return to playoff contention.

New nickname, new logo — same old turmoil and dysfunction. The Washington Football Team is rebranded for 2022 as the Commanders — a perfectly bland nickname certain to offend no one. But the chaos that perpetually swirls around this franchise remains — from the owner's suite, where Dan Snyder's regime is the subject of Congressional investigation, to the field, where head coach Ron Rivera will open 2022 with his seventh different (!) starting quarterback since arriving in 2020. That new signal-caller would be Carson Wentz, late of the Eagles and Colts, for whom the Commanders gave up a package of draft picks and took on his full contract, including a whopping $28.3 million cap hit for 2022.

The Wentz contract ate up most of the Commanders' salary-cap space for 2022, and they used most of what was left to bring back key role players such as RB J.D. McKissic, OT Cornelius Lucas and FS Bobby McCain. That, plus a draft that emphasized depth over star power, appears to have Washington back in that same middle ground, somewhere between a legitimate contender and an unmitigated disaster.

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OFFENSE

For all Taylor Heinicke's gutty play in 2021, Wentz will be a major upgrade, particularly when it comes to the deep balls that could stretch a defense and provide chances for huge production out of No. 1 wideout Terry McLaurin, who the team signed to a massive (three years, worth $71 million including $28 million signing bonus) extension earlier this summer. Wentz may never again be the MVP candidate he appeared to be in 2017, but the Commanders think he can be a top-tier quarterback in the league. They did, however, raise some eyebrows with the selection of UNC's Sam Howell, whom some analysts viewed as one of the top two quarterbacks in the draft, with a fifth-round pick.

As for McLaurin, it's not about simply getting him targets — but getting him quality targets, as Pro Football Focus noted that only 62.7 percent of his 130 targets were deemed catchable, the lowest rate of any wideout in the league (min. 100 targets). He also needs a dynamic No. 2 receiver to take some of the coverage heat off him, and neither veteran Curtis Samuel (limited by injury and illness to five games last season, the first year of a three-year $34.5 million deal) nor Dyami Brown (a disappointment as a rookie after being drafted in the third round in 2021) filled that role adequately. Both will get second chances in 2022, but the Commanders also added another intriguing option in first-round pick (16th overall) Jahan Dotson, a smallish but explosive weapon.

The running back position is in good hands with returnees Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic, plus third-round pick Brian Robinson Jr. Together, they form a diverse and potent trio: Gibson, a 2020 third-rounder, is a solid all-around back who has notched 1,000-plus yards from scrimmage in each of his first two pro seasons (though Washington would love to see him fix his fumbling problem). McKissic, meanwhile, is a prolific third-down back and pass-catcher who is returning from a neck injury that limited him to 11 games in 2021. And Robinson has a bruising, between-the-tackles style.

Tight end could be a problem if Logan Thomas, a breakout star in 2020, fails to make a full comeback from the knee injury that required surgery late last season. The Commanders, however, added an intriguing piece in fifth-round pick Cole Turner, a 6'6", 240-pounder who began his collegiate career at Nevada as a wide receiver.

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Washington's offensive line, which struggled with pass protection throughout 2021, looked perilously thin heading into the draft, following the departure of five-time Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Scherff via free agency. Veteran Wes Schweitzer should be a capable replacement there, and with Charles Leno Jr. and Sam Cosmi returning at the tackles and Chase Roullier at center, this is a decent starting unit. Roullier, in particular, was having a breakthrough 2021 before suffering a broken leg in Week 8. But depth remains a big concern here.

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DEFENSE

Nobody symbolized Washington's disappointing 2021 more than Chase Young. The NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year one season earlier, he amassed only 1.5 sacks and three tackles for a loss before tearing his ACL in Week 10. His return to health — and pre-2021 production — will be key to a resurgent defense. Given better health, the line could still be a dominant unit, with Young and Montez Sweat (21 sacks in his three NFL seasons) on the edges and Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen inside. The Commanders also spent their second-round pick on Alabama run-stopper Phidarian Mathis, who could eventually replace Payne when the latter's contract runs out after this season. But if depth becomes an issue again in 2021 — a distinct possibility after the team failed to bring back Tim Settle and Matt Ioannidis — things could get dicey.

Linebacker has become a perennial weak spot for the Commanders. A year ago, they used the 19th overall pick — in hindsight, an overdraft — on Jamin Davis, hoping he would seize the Mike job and shore up the unit. But Davis was a disappointment as a rookie and was eventually moved to the outside. Cole Holcomb, on the other hand, had a breakthrough season in 2021, playing out of position in the Mike slot and establishing himself as a projected contributor for 2022.

The Commanders' biggest loss from 2021 could be safety/linebacker hybrid Landon Collins, who manned their critical "Buffalo nickel" role in a package the team used for more than half of all defensive snaps and whose departure left a thin unit even thinner. Not surprisingly, the team used two of its eight draft picks on DBs, plucking safety Percy Butler in the fourth round and corner Christian Holmes in the seventh.

Cornerback Kendall Fuller blossomed into a star in 2021, in his second season playing mostly on the outside, with Pro Football Focus giving him an 81.5 player grade, third among all corners in the NFL. Fuller, who is versatile enough to play either outside or in the slot, heads a returning cornerback trio that also includes veteran William Jackson III and 2021 third-rounder Benjamin St-Juste. And the Commanders will bring back the safety duo of Kamren Curl and Bobby McCain, the latter of whom returned on a two-year $11 million deal. Seeing as how they regularly utilize three-safety sets, expect to see Butler on the field plenty as a third member of a trio.

SPECIALISTS

Kicker Joey Slye came to Washington last November — one of four kickers the team used in 2021 — and was a perfect 12-for-12 on field goals over his six games, prompting the Commanders to reward him with a two-year deal to keep him in the fold. Punter Tress Way may be the most dependable figure in the nation's capital, which is why he will return for a ninth season with the Commanders. He is a consummate pro with a leg that still booms it. The failure to bring back DeAndre Carter for 2022 meant the Commanders would be looking for a new return man. Dotson, the team's first-round draft pick, was an excellent punt returner at Penn State, but it remains to be seen whether the Commanders want to risk their No. 1 draftee returning punts.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Anything is possible in the NFC East, which could rival the AFC South as the worst division in the NFL. For the Commanders, much will depend on the relative returns to health of cornerstones such as Young, Thomas and Samuel, as well as sustained health throughout the season. The Commanders have a nice collection of winning pieces but not much depth. It helps that they go from the toughest schedule in the NFL in 2021 to one of the easiest in 2022, with their opponents having gone a combined 133-155-1 (.462) last year. In all likelihood, this is another franchise in the teeming mass of mediocrity in the seven- to 10-win territory.

Prediction: 3rd in NFC East