On his first full day as the Washington Commanders’ defensive line coach, Jeff Zgonina bounced around during drills, barked out snap calls as a mock center, threw volleyballs so players could practice batting passes at the line of scrimmage and dropped into a three-point stance to show them exactly how he wanted it done.
The only time he seemed deterred was during Wednesday’s batting passes drill, when retired defensive tackle (and unofficial team adviser) Warren Sapp tossed Zgonina a volleyball when he wasn’t looking. The ball hit Zgonina in the head and knocked off his glasses. Zgonina, the former assistant defensive line coach, put them back on quickly, shimmied like a boxer and stayed in rhythm.
“Come on, Boom,” he yelled to defensive tackle Bunmi Rotimi.
Coach Ron Rivera liked the energy and engagement, which he called a “different style, different vibe” from what former coach Sam Mills III, whom he fired Tuesday morning, brought to the table.
“What I'm looking for is that constant push, pressure and growth,” Rivera said. “I want [the coaching] to be more demonstrative. I want it to be more in their face, at them, stuff like that. And that's pretty much what we've accomplished.”
The more interactive approach may resonate. In Carolina, Mills coached groups led by older players, such as Mario Addison and Julius Peppers. Washington’s linemen are much younger.
“They’ve accepted and understood that this is something that I did … in our best interest,” Rivera said of how the players have taken the switch. “They’ve adapted and handled it very well.”
Roquan Smith trade seems unlikely
Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith recently requested a trade by releasing a lengthy statement that read, in part, “The new front office regime doesn’t value me here.” The Commanders are thin at linebacker. Could they pursue the disgruntled star?
It’s unlikely. If Chicago trades Smith — and it has a lot of leverage, thanks to the collective bargaining agreement — Washington probably would be unwilling to pay the steep price.
In the past decade, the only decent trade comparison for Smith (who’s 25 and a second-team all-pro) is the 2018 deal that sent Khalil Mack (who was 27 and a two-time all-pro) and two draft picks from Oakland to Chicago for four picks, including two first-rounders. Even if this trade ends up being slightly cheaper, it probably still would be too expensive.
If Washington did trade for Smith, it would then have to pay him, too. The NFL’s highest-paid linebackers — Indianapolis’s Shaquille Leonard and San Francisco’s Fred Warner — each earn slightly more than $19 million per year. Washington has about $13 million in salary cap space, according to salary database website Over the Cap, and though the team could create room if it wanted to, it probably still would cost too much.
Players who did not participate in some or all of practice Wednesday included tight ends John Bates (calf) and Cole Turner (hamstring), cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, offensive linemen Saahdiq Charles and Nolan Laufenberg, defensive back Troy Apke and linebacker De’Jon Harris.
Right guard Trai Turner (quad) has been out since July 28. Rivera said the team has not pushed Turner, 29, because he’s a veteran who understands the system. The team will try to get him back on the field “within the next 10 days,” Rivera said.
“We’d like to get him in at least one [preseason game],” he added. “Get a nice series, get himself ready, because conditioning’s very important.”
Defensive end Chase Young (ACL), tight end Logan Thomas (knee) and center Tyler Larsen (Achilles’) remain on the physically unable to perform list, and offensive lineman Cornelius Lucas remains on the non-football illness list.
Wide receiver Curtis Samuel (conditioning) and cornerback William Jackson III returned to team drills Wednesday.
First fight of camp
During the final practice period, defensive end Shaka Toney took exception to the blocking of tight end Curtis Hodges and started jawing at him. Hodges did not back down. Toney punched Hodges in the helmet with his left hand and then removed it with his right.
Several players ran into the scrum, including tight end Sammis Reyes and defensive end Montez Sweat. The scuffle died down quickly. Toney ran to the sideline, and Zgonina pulled him aside.
Young players to watch on offense Saturday
Four depth players on offense — running back Jonathan Williams, wide receiver Kyric McGowan and tight ends Armani Rogers and Hodges — have impressed in camp and are worth watching in the preseason opener Saturday against Carolina. They are likely to get plenty of snaps after the first team exits.
Those four could be competing for the same roster spot. Washington may have to choose in its final cuts among keeping a fourth running back, a fourth tight end or a sixth wide receiver, and all four players have hinted at promise worthy of a spot.
Washington seems to like Williams’s hands out of the backfield, and McGowan, an undrafted rookie from Georgia Tech, has made several splashy catches. Rogers (6-foot-5) and Hodges (6-foot-8) are large, athletic targets who have flashed during first-team reps while other tight ends have been hurt.