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In a room of converts, Commanders find competition, potential at tight end

Tight end Cole Turner, a fifth-round pick by the Commanders, hauls in a pass during minicamp. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Sandwiched between a trip to Chapel Hill, N.C., where he would scout a quarterback, and a day out west to check on a highly touted wide receiver, Scott Turner squeezed in dinner and a private workout in Reno, Nev.

Amid a packed few weeks of cross-country travel, with an eye primarily on quarterbacks and wideouts, Turner and other members of the Washington Commanders’ coaching and personnel staff took a detour of sorts. They wanted a close-up look at a 6-foot-6 former basketball player and wideout from the University of Nevada who they felt had promise as a tight end.

“Everybody thought we were working out [quarterback] Carson Strong,” Turner said in a recent interview. “But really, we were there to see Cole Turner.”

In the Commanders’ short history with Ron Rivera as coach and Scott Turner as offensive coordinator, they’ve learned to love converts: the receivers who transitioned to running back, the cornerbacks who moved to safety and especially the athletes of all stripes who switched to tight end — receivers, quarterbacks and even international basketball players.

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“It’s kind of something we look for because my first year here, one of the things we talked about was position-flex guys, being able to move around and do different things,” Rivera said. “It’s one of those things that kind of applies to the tight end position.”

Logan Thomas, a former fourth-round quarterback from Virginia Tech, is the Commanders’ star pupil. But behind him is a cast of players still learning.

And as Thomas recovers from a serious knee injury he suffered in December, that young cast soon faces a critical training camp to prove its potential at a position Scott Turner — and his new quarterback, Carson Wentz — favor heavily. (Since 2017, Wentz has thrown to tight ends on 31.1 percent of his targets, the second-highest rate among quarterbacks behind Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson.) The competition has provided optimism but also uncertainty as Rivera and his staff attempt, again, to find a reliable corps of complete pass-catchers and blockers.

Last year, the team kept four tight ends on its initial 53-man roster. If that holds this year, that leaves possibly two spots up for grabs — assuming Thomas and John Bates, a fourth-round pick last year who is the only tight end in the room to have played the position his entire college and pro careers, are healthy and have a lock on the top two jobs.

Bates, who was viewed as primarily a blocking tight end coming out of Boise State, impressed in Year 1, when he rose to a starting role because of injuries. His development into a more complete tight end already has garnered praise.

Behind Thomas and Bates are five players — Cole Turner, Antonio Gandy-Golden, Sammis Reyes, Curtis Hodges and ­Armani Rogers — relatively new to the position. But they have the size and athleticism that have become a requisite for the position, and with some coaching the Commanders envision a group that can provide options. The past two years, the team dealt with a string of injuries, forcing it to turn to many young players early in the season.

This year, the Commanders hope for more stability. Even more, they hope for long-term production.

Cole Turner, a 240-pounder who switched to tight end two years ago, is the youngest of the group at 22 but perhaps the most promising. A fairly raw receiver coming out of Clackamas, Ore., Turner was a lanky 190 pounds when he started his college career. But in three years he filled out to 250, fitting the bill as a red-zone weapon and a magnet for 50-50 balls — such as his one-handed, back-shoulder catch on a fade route against Idaho State last year or his touchdown three weeks later against Boise State when he spun 180 degrees, falling almost parallel to the ground in the corner of the end zone.

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“We just did that against everybody we played,” said Jay Norvell, the former coach at Nevada who has taken over at Colorado State. “Everybody in our stadium knew we were going to do it. The defense knew we were going to do it.”

In Nevada’s Air Raid offense, Cole Turner was used primarily as a receiver, but Norvell found plenty of ways to exploit him as a mismatch.

“[Bill] Belichick used to talk about the tight end and say: ‘It’s the one position that changes every formation in football. When you move the tight ends around, the defense has to adjust,’ ” Norvell said. “So I always remembered that. I loved putting all our receivers on one side and flex Cole out of the backside. They would have to flip the corners over or they’d have to play a safety or linebacker on him, and every time they did it was a mismatch.”

Washington tight ends coach Juan Castillo could see the potential for even more. In the months ahead of the draft, he spoke often with his receivers and the tight ends coach at Nevada, Chad Savage (now the wide receivers coach at Colorado State). Castillo also met with Cole Turner at the combine and again in Reno for dinner, alongside Scott Turner and Washington executive vice president of football/player personnel Marty Hurney.

“When you sit like that, you get a good feel for the individual,” Castillo said. “And he’s been everything I thought he’d be, plus more — being a hard worker is very important to him. His craft is very important, he’s willing to do the extra work, he can handle adversity, and he’s a physical kid.”

To try to prove Castillo right, Cole Turner spent much of his offseason training for the draft in Irvine, Calif., with Joe Staley, the former San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle, and John Garrett, the brother of former Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and the previous coach at Lafayette College. Their focus: blocking.

“It’s something that I know a lot of people always like to call that a knock in my game,” Cole Turner said. “I want to make it a strength, and I want to be an all-around player.”

Blocking may be the toughest transition for all four tight ends vying for jobs in Washington. Another who has impressed is fellow receiver convert Gandy-Golden, who switched positions this offseason.

A fourth-round pick in 2020, Gandy-Golden spent time on injured reserve as a rookie and twice was sent to the practice squad. But when he arrived for offseason workouts in the spring, his weight had jumped to more than 230 pounds, up at least 12 since the end of last season.

“They were like: ‘You look good, and we feel like you switching over would be good for us and good for you as well. You should be able to make the team and make an impact,’ ” he said. “And I felt the same way. … My mom had always thought it was a good idea. She actually said this a couple years ago, which is crazy.”

Turner and Gandy-Golden have competition from three other converts: Reyes, a former Division I basketball player who had not played organized football before joining the Commanders in 2021; Hodges, a 6-8 former receiver out of Arizona State; and Rogers, previously a quarterback at UNLV and Ohio.

Though all face steep learning curves, their progress has created optimism. Washington’s most unlikely group may be its deepest.

“It’s very competitive — it really is,” Rivera said of the tight ends. “… We are a little more athletic as we start getting into our depth, and I think that can play very well into the things that Scott [Turner] wants to do with the different personnel groupings in not just being an 11 [one running back, one tight end] and 12 personnel team, but we can be 11, 12, 13.

“And even if we get a little salty, we could go 14 personnel if we wanted to.”

Training camp details announced

There will be no trip to Richmond this year.

The Commanders will hold training camp at their Ashburn headquarters, from July 27 to Aug. 18, with one workout scheduled at FedEx Field, the night of Aug. 6. All practices will be free for fans to attend, but given limited space, priority for the Ashburn workouts will go to season ticket holders, suite owners and corporate partners. The remaining spots will be available through a fan lottery that will open closer to the start of camp.

For the Aug. 6 practice, fans can claim tickets on a first-come, first-served basis.

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