The Washington Commanders don’t have a quarterback competition this year. They don’t have a competition for most starting jobs. They don’t even have a kicker competition.
But even so, many players (and coaches) begin the third year of Coach Ron Rivera’s tenure with plenty to prove, especially as the Commanders seek their first winning season under Rivera and try to show their culture change is real.
Here’s who is under significant pressure heading into the season:
Coach Ron Rivera
At the end of last season, Rivera stressed to his players the importance of their offseason, of staying on top of workouts and of maintaining their health to begin the new season right.
“Truth of the matter is Year 3 is big,” he told his players in a video the team posted. “Year 3 is big for a football team going forward.”
Rivera has made a number of significant improvements to the club and has the respect of players and coaches. But over the past two seasons, Washington has posted a .424 winning percentage, which ranks 22nd in the NFL.
Rivera told The Washington Post in a recent interview that he doesn’t personally feel pressure and is confident his team has overcome the maturity issues of last year. The reality is that time could be running out. Rivera signed a five-year contract in 2020, but after two years of losing, there’s undoubtedly a greater expectation to start winning, to bring fans back to the stadium and to help the franchise make money.
“The pressure more so than anything else is just winning,” the coach said last week. “It’s being successful. And if it comes to a number, then so be it, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s about going out there playing hard, playing physical and doing the best you can to win.”
Quarterback Carson Wentz
Rivera has told Carson Wentz repeatedly that he is wanted with the Commanders, which is perhaps an attempt to quash any notion that the trade to acquire the quarterback in March was a desperation move. The team did want an upgrade at quarterback and does feel Wentz is one. But many questions remain about his ability and long-term future.
In 2017, Wentz started 13 games to help the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl, led the league with a touchdown percentage of 7.5, was fourth in the league with a 101.9 passer rating and was widely considered the top candidate for MVP honors before a knee injury ended his season. Although he had a solid 2021 in Indianapolis, he has been traded in successive seasons by the Eagles and Colts.
Washington acquired Wentz, who will turn 30 in December, after agreeing to take on his full $22 million salary and $29.3 million cap charge for this season. The move was bold, considering his recent history. And his play in training camp has yet to calm any concerns about his consistency on the field.
But with his cap figure, he is all but guaranteed to be the Commanders’ starter this season (barring injury or complete implosion). After this season, he has no guaranteed salary and no guarantee of staying in Washington. The Commanders could cut him and face no lingering cap charges.
His future as a starter in the NFL and the Commanders’ future at quarterback are in his hands.
Defensive tackle Daron Payne
Veteran defensive tackle Daron Payne, a 2018 first-round draft pick, has been a staple on the interior of the Commanders’ line for four seasons. The team exercised his fifth-year option ($8.5 million) for this season, but it also gave fellow defensive tackle Jonathan Allen a four-year, $72 million extension. And with Montez Sweat’s contract coming up and Chase Young’s right behind that, Payne’s future is uncertain.
Payne declined to participate in some on-field drills during the offseason, presumably as a “hold in” for a new contract. But he has been all over the field in training camp.
Whether he stays in Washington will depend on a number of factors, including the Commanders’ cap health and their confidence in younger players, such as Phidarian Mathis. It will also depend heavily on Payne’s play. An impressive season could land him a new contract. Or, at 25, he could price himself out of Washington.
Linebacker Cole Holcomb
Rivera indicated at the end of last season that Cole Holcomb wasn’t the team’s first choice to play the “Mike,” or middle linebacker, position. Holcomb, 26, had been lobbying for the gig and over the years has shown the improvement to at least warrant a competition for the job in camp. But during the offseason, the team’s tune changed, and Rivera and General Manager Martin Mayhew began to pump up Holcomb as the right man for the job.
That doesn’t mean the job is his for the near or distant future. It does mean, however, that this season comes with pressure.
The Commanders drafted Jamin Davis in the first round last year to develop into the Mike, which is essentially the quarterback of the defense. But the coaching staff realized Davis is better suited to play outside. Now Holcomb has a chance to secure a starting job at a spot that has given the Commanders fits over the years. If he can, he could soon be in line for a pay bump. This is the last year on his rookie deal, and unless Washington extends him, he will be a free agent in March.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio
In 2020, Jack Del Rio’s first season as Washington’s defensive coordinator, he turned a group that ranked near the bottom of the NFL in most defensive categories into one that sat near the top. Young was named defensive rookie of the year, the starting defensive line composed of all first-round picks was smothering, and the team finished fourth in scoring defense, second in total yards allowed and second in passing yards allowed.
Del Rio’s experience as a coordinator and as a head coach was a boon that year as Rivera battled cancer and relied heavily on his assistants to lead the team.
But the following season, Washington slipped back to the bottom of the barrel. Much of that could be attributed to coronavirus issues late in the season, when more than two dozen players (mostly defenders) had to miss time, and to an influx of new players, especially in the secondary. But Del Rio compounded the on-field struggles with controversial comments on social media, prompting a fine from Rivera and leading to his exit from Twitter.
With the core veteran defensive backs returning and Young eventually coming back from an ACL injury, the defense appears to have the pieces to bounce back this season — on paper, at least. If not, fingers could be pointed at Del Rio — if broader, more drastic changes aren’t considered first.
RB Antonio Gibson: Gibson, 24, is still Washington’s lead running back and is coming off a 1,037-yard rushing season. But the wait for a true breakout season continues. The third-year back has dealt with significant injuries — turf toe as a rookie, a fracture in his shin last season — and is being eased into camp this season because of a hamstring issue. Health will be key, but if Gibson can stay available (and if he can fumble less often), he could develop into a top playmaker.
DE Montez Sweat: The Commanders picked up Sweat’s fifth-year option for 2023, but the start of a player’s last season is when talk of a longer-term extension comes into play. Young will be out for Week 1 and maybe longer, making Sweat the key playmaker on the edge. A productive season for the soon-to-be 26-year-old could go a long way.
WR Dyami Brown: Brown, 22, starred in camp last year, but the shine didn’t last through the entire season. It rarely does for rookie wide receivers, who are adjusting to NFL play speed and expansive playbooks. But with Wentz, who has the arm to air it out downfield, Brown has a chance to let his vertical speed and acrobatic catches open up the offense. Still, there is plenty of competition for the final wideout spots on the 53-man roster.