Commanders’ draft class: What each player brings and how they fit

Former North Carolina standout Sam Howell is poised to be the third passer in the Washington quarterbacks room next season, joining Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke. (Gerry Broome/AP)
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In Coach Ron Rivera’s third draft, the Washington Commanders prioritized experience, physicality and depth. Seven of the eight picks were seniors — North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell was the only underclassman — and scouting reports suggested most had high floors and moderate ceilings.

This year, after acquiring quarterback Carson Wentz, Rivera seems to be betting on these players to help the team take a significant step forward. Washington compensated for the draft capital it traded away for Wentz by twice trading down, first flipping the No. 11 pick to New Orleans for three picks (Nos. 16, 98 and 120), then giving Carolina Nos. 120 and 189 for two spots in the fifth round (Nos. 144 and 149).

The headliner of the draft was Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson, a first-rounder expected to help Wentz early. The rest of the picks were for depth, though Howell added some buzz as a developmental prospect.

Here is an analysis of each pick:

Round 1 (16th overall): Jahan Dotson, WR, Penn State

Rivera said Dotson, at 5-foot-10 and 178 pounds, would help the offense with his precise interior routes and his ability to win 50-50 balls despite a slight frame.

Dotson, 22, is a speedster who runs polished routes and has, per NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, “the best hands in this draft.” Some experts are concerned about his strength — several analysts doubted he could break tackles consistently — but Rivera said Dotson can break press coverage with quickness.

In Washington, Dotson figures to be the third receiver behind Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel and could play primarily in the slot or move around the formation. Offensive coordinator Scott Turner values positional flexibility, especially among receivers, and Dotson gives him a deeper rotation with 2021 third-round pick Dyami Brown and role player Cam Sims.

“One of [the] biggest traits of my game is my versatility, to be able to play anywhere, to be able to play outside, play inside,” Dotson said. “So I’m excited for the opportunity and can’t wait to see what Coach Turner has in store for me.”

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At Penn State, Dotson produced even on average offenses and finished second in school history in catches (183) and touchdown grabs (25). His 2,757 receiving yards were fourth in school history.

One analyst, Dane Brugler of the Athletic, compared Dotson to Pittsburgh Steelers speedster Diontae Johnson “with better hands and punt-return skills.”

“His overall play strength is the only real concern with his transition to the next level, but he has the ability to produce both outside and in the slot,” Jeremiah wrote. “Dotson is ready to make an immediate impact.”

Round 2 (47th): Phidarian Mathis, DT, Alabama

Mathis, a classic run-stuffer at 6-4 and 310, gives Washington its third defensive tackle from Alabama, alongside Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. Mathis could be the top backup tackle following the departures of Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle this offseason.

After Day 2, Rivera argued Mathis won’t just provide depth, pointing out Ioannidis played 59 percent of the snaps last season.

In the long term, Washington could look to Mathis to replace his friend Payne, who is entering the final year of his contract, though they’re both 24. Rivera suggested the door isn’t closed on Payne’s future in Washington and said “things changed” after trading for Wentz.

Mathis can be a two-gap tackle in the NFL immediately but probably will come off the field on passing downs, according to his scouting report on NFL.com. He was the second player in this draft the Commanders selected ahead of the consensus rankings.

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Jeremiah and Brugler had Mathis ranked 66th and 68th overall. Brugler wrote that Mathis, while an inconsistent pass-rusher, is stout and powerful against the run. Several experts said he should be a rotational player as a rookie and could become a full-time starter.

On Saturday, Mayhew dismissed the big boards of outside analysts and said the team understood its own needs “much, much better.”

“I’m just going to take whatever come to me,” Mathis said. “I’m just going to go in, just do my job. Whatever Coach asks of me, I’m doing it.”

Round 3 (98th): Brian Robinson Jr., RB, Alabama

The Commanders drafted a redshirt senior from Alabama for the second round in a row with Robinson, a physical running back at 6-1 and 225. Robinson, 23, will be the bruising, between-the-tackles rushing threat Washington once had in Peyton Barber, though Robinson has the potential to be a little more well-rounded.

In the Commanders’ backfield, he figures to slot in with top rusher Antonio Gibson and pass-catcher J.D. McKissic. Rivera said he feels the Commanders have a good “trifecta,” which will allow the offense to lean on whichever running back the situation calls for.

“Whenever the ball needs to get downhill, or whenever I need to lock in on certain protections,” Robinson said of what he expected his role to be.

Robinson is good friends with Mathis. In February at the Senior Bowl, Mathis called Robinson a hard runner and joked that trying to tackle him in practice felt like “hitting an old-school Cadillac.” The Athletic called him “an agile tank.”

On NFL.com, Robinson’s scouting report called him a powerful but predictable back who is “more fight than flight.”

“He is a linear runner who is likely to be utilized as a complementary bulldozer to help wear down defenses,” it added, “but Robinson might have more potential from sideline to sideline than he receives credit for.”

Round 4 (113th): Percy Butler, S, Louisiana Lafayette

Rivera praised the speed and versatility of Butler, a 6-foot, 194-pound senior. Scouting reports peg him as a developmental safety, but Rivera said he could compete for snaps early on at free safety and nickel cornerback, as well as Washington’s “Buffalo” nickelback position.

Butler, 21, is also a special teams standout. Jeremiah praised his ability as a gunner, calling him “the best special teams coverage player in the entire draft.” In this way, Butler is something of a blend of other Commanders safeties: the speed of Troy Apke — Butler ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash — and the physicality of Deshazor Everett.

Round 5 (144th): Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina

Washington stopped the slide of Howell, a 6-foot, 218-pound dual threat, with the first pick of the fifth round. Washington probably will keep three passers this season with Wentz and Taylor Heinicke. Jeremiah said Howell, 21, is a good backup who may develop into a starter.

“I’m not going to throw him in the career backup pile,” Jeremiah added.

Despite Washington’s high hopes for Wentz, Howell provides at least some insurance and at most a viable starter one day if Wentz doesn’t last.

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Before the 2021 season, Howell was seen as a potential No. 1 pick. But his disappointing season, in part because of losing four skill players to the NFL, forced him to run more and lowered his stock. Now, Howell will reunite with former Tar Heel teammate Brown, the vertical threat who showcased Howell’s arm talent in college.

Round 5 (149th): Cole Turner, TE, Nevada

Turner, a 6-6, 249-pound tight end, started as a wide receiver at Nevada and gives Washington depth at a position of need following the departure of Ricky Seals-Jones to the Giants. Turner, 22, has a different skill set from John Bates and Sammis Reyes, primarily blockers, and may need to play early if Logan Thomas is slow to return from the torn ACL in his left knee.

In the run-up to the draft, tight ends coach Juan Castillo visited Turner in Nevada and watched him catch at a private workout. Rivera said Turner was perhaps the team’s most “intriguing” Day 3 prospect because of his catch radius, a phrase he also used to describe Dotson.

“I’m a guy who can come in immediately and help out in the pass game, in the red zone,” Turner said. “[I can] come help move the chains on third down. I kind of think that’s where my skills are. That where I kind of excel.”

Round 7 (230): Chris Paul, OL, Tulsa

Paul is a large and versatile offensive lineman at 6-3 and 323. The redshirt senior played both guard and tackle spots at Tulsa. If he makes the team, he could provide some depth for the interior line, which has a hole at right guard that could be filled by Wes Schweitzer or Saahdiq Charles.

“He’s highly intelligent on and off the field,” his NFL.com scouting report reads. “Picking up technique and scheme will not be a problem for him. However, picking up twists and slants might be an issue due to a lack of foot quickness and reactive agility. Paul has the size, strength, football character and toughness to play NFL guard but the [physical] limitations could make it a short stay in the league.”

Last season, Paul, 23, started nine games at right tackle and one at left. He said he would play tackle or guard in the NFL, but if he had to choose, he would pick guard. Paul served last year as a representative to the NCAA’s Division I Football Oversight Committee. He is also a musician.

Round 7 (240th): Christian Holmes, CB, Oklahoma State

In Washington, Holmes figures to provide depth at a position of need. The Commanders have two high-priced veterans (William Jackson III and Kendall Fuller), two depth players (Danny Johnson and Corn Elder) and a 2021 third-round pick (Benjamin St-Juste).

In college from 2016 to 2021 — first at Missouri, then at Oklahoma State — Holmes played 60 games (27 starts) and had 30 pass breakups as well as three interceptions. He finished with 39 tackles (33 solo) and was named second-team all-Big 12 by the coaches and the Associated Press in 2021.

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