For the first time in three years, Washington Commanders Coach Ron Rivera will open training camp with the benefit of having seen his players through a full offseason program. Rivera has more information (and more settled starters) than he did in his first two seasons with the team, but some key players may not start camp on the field, including defensive end Chase Young and tight end Logan Thomas.
But when training camp kicks off Wednesday morning in Ashburn, there will be several roles at stake, including a couple of starting positions. Here are five position battles to watch:
Starting defensive end (maybe)
James Smith-Williams vs. Casey Toohill vs. Efe Obada
If Young cannot return for Week 1, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will need a bookend for Montez Sweat. The top backups from last season, Toohill and Smith-Williams, may compete with each other and Obada, one of the team’s offseason signings.
Before camp, it’s tough to tell who has the edge (pun intended). Del Rio could prefer Obada because of his experience or size — or he may like Toohill or Smith-Williams because of their play last season. In the second half of 2021, Rivera praised Toohill and Smith-Williams for following instructions after Young and Sweat sometimes lacked rush-lane discipline, creating holes for the opposing offense.
Tue., Aug. 16
90 to 85
Tue., Aug. 23
85 to 80
Tue., Aug. 30
80 to 53
Benjamin St-Juste vs. Percy Butler vs. Darrick Forrest vs. Danny Johnson
When the defense is at full health, seemingly the only position up for grabs is the slot. In the base defense, the slot figures to be a linebacker; in most subpackages, it’s a cornerback or safety.
Last season, Washington played base only 16 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders, and it played best in subpackages with a three-safety set. This year, Del Rio could try to replicate that success by replacing Landon Collins, who was released in the offseason, with Butler or Forrest; both are physical but inexperienced safeties.
If Washington wants more true coverage skills, it could use St-Juste — a long, promising cornerback who was limited by concussions to nine games as a rookie in 2021 — or Johnson. In minicamp, St-Juste took a good number of first-team snaps at slot cornerback.
Depending on situation and opponent, Washington is likely to use some combination of these defensive backs throughout the year. But in 2020, Kam Curl showed that one versatile, reliable player is capable of taking over the role of the 11th defender.
Trai Turner vs. Wes Schweitzer
This battle didn’t manifest in the spring. Turner took nearly all of the first-team reps at right guard as Schweitzer filled in at center for Chase Roullier (leg). If Roullier returns during camp, as he has said he expects to do, it would create a battle between two of the more dependable linemen position coach John Matsko has had in the past decade.
With Carolina from 2015 to 2019, Matsko helped Turner reach five consecutive Pro Bowls. In Washington in 2020 and 2021, he helped Schweitzer adapt to several positions across 18 starts.
Last wide receiver spots
Dax Milne vs. Cam Sims vs. Alex Erickson vs. Jequez Ezzard vs. Kelvin Harmon vs. Marken Michel vs. Kyric McGowan
If four receivers — Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson and Dyami Brown — are locked in, there are seven others competing for the final one to three roster spots.
The favorites among them figure to be Milne and Sims, the only real big-body target at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds. But special teams often decides bottom-of-the-roster spots, which could help Erickson and undrafted free agent Ezzard, who took returner reps in the spring.
The final three receivers — Harmon, Michel and McGowan — seem to face longer odds. Harmon and Michel are practice squad vets, and though Michel impressed in minicamp, he is, at 29, already tied as the second-oldest skill position player on offense behind Thomas (31). McGowan, an undrafted rookie, signed for a guarantee of only $5,000, one of the lowest sums in this class.
De’Jon Harris vs. Milo Eifler vs. Drew White vs. Tre Walker vs. Ferrod Gardner vs. Bryce Notree vs. a veteran signing
Although Rivera has talked about the need to improve at linebacker since the beginning of the offseason, the front office has not meaningfully addressed the position beyond signing four undrafted free agents. The Commanders could sign a veteran before or during camp — A.J. Klein and Anthony Barr are options — but they are likely to ride a top two of Cole Holcomb and Jamin Davis into the season.
On the depth chart, the strengths and limitations of the third and fourth linebackers — David Mayo and Khaleke Hudson — are well known and create opportunities for younger players, such as sophomores Harris and Eifler and the four undrafted free agents (Walker of Idaho, Gardner of Louisiana Lafayette, White of Notre Dame and Notree of Southern Illinois).
In June, when asked why the Commanders hadn’t signed a veteran linebacker, Rivera said they had “identified three of these young guys that we really like” and wanted to give them more reps because they ultimately would only be able to keep one or two of them. He declined to name the players.
“We’ve talked about [them as coaches] . . . maybe twice a week for probably the last three weeks and what we’ve seen in those three guys,” he said. “As we get closer to training camp, we’ll start deciding what our next move’s going to be as far as personnel.”