Even in hindsight, it’s odd to think that Washington last year lost starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on the season’s 16th snap, that newly signed wide receiver Curtis Samuel missed almost the entire season and that star pass rusher Chase Young went down in Week 10 with a torn ACL.
Injuries and the coronavirus left Washington in shambles in the latter half of 2021, and the offensive line acutely felt it. Yet somehow it played through the decimation and became one of the team’s most consistent units.
This year, despite a growing list of injuries across the roster, including on the O-line, Coach Ron Rivera is still confident the front five and its reserves can be just as consistent and deep as they were in 2021.
“We do things with intent,” he said. “We’re looking at how many offensive linemen we can keep on the [53-man roster] and how many of those guys will we be able to get back on the practice squad and rotate them.”
Last year, the Commanders lost starting center Chase Roullier to an ankle injury that required extensive surgery. Then they lost his backup, Wes Schweitzer, who doubled as a guard and center, to a nasty ankle injury. His backup, Tyler Larsen, went down soon after with an Achilles’ injury and is still recovering. And at one point late in the year, the team practiced with its fifth center, Jon Toth.
What’s more: Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. was new to the team, and right tackle Sam Cosmi was a rookie and played only nine games because of ankle and hip issues.
Players from the bottom of the depth chart had to be subbed in, and they did so without a drop-off. Pro Football Focus ranked Washington’s offensive line as the sixth best in the league at the end of the season.
At training camp this year, the Commanders have been without right guard Trai Turner, who was signed to replace Brandon Scherff but is nursing a quad injury. Swing tackle Cornelius Lucas has been on the non-football injury list for all of training camp, Roullier has been working his way back from his injury, and Larsen is still on the physically unable to perform list.
So Washington’s vaunted line is essentially a rotation at key positions, which raises questions about whether some starters will be ready for the season opener — and also gives young players chances to prove themselves with more reps and key depth roles.
“We try to have 10 guys that we feel good about,” Rivera said. “And we do; in fact, we feel like we have 12 guys that we feel really good about as far as that group’s concerned. We did that on purpose. Last couple years, we’ve had really good line play in spite of the amount of the injuries we’ve had on the offensive line. It’s a credit to the coaches. What [offensive line coach John] Matsko and [assistant offensive line coach Travelle] Wharton have done with those guys has been really good.”
Much of Rivera’s confidence stems from the experience of the line. All but one player (rookie Chris Paul) among the top 10 offensive linemen on the Commanders’ unofficial depth chart have experience in coordinator Scott Turner’s system. There are also three other reserves who were on the roster or practice squad last year.
Trai Turner was with Rivera for six seasons in Carolina and knows the system. Left guard Andrew Norwell is also a former Panther and is beginning his ninth NFL season. Roullier is still ramping up, but he has been in this offense for two seasons and in the league for five.
“Chase progressed very well,” Rivera said. “In fact, yesterday we got a little carried away, and we had him out there a little bit longer. . . . He came in, and he said, ‘I’m glad we did that.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘We did it by accident,’ but we pushed him a little bit and he came out, felt great, felt great this morning.”
Roullier has been involved in team drills, albeit on a limited basis, in camp recently. He has become accustomed to playing with a rotation of players around him, and this year is no different. Norwell is favored at left guard and, when healthy, Turner is in the lead at right guard.
“I’m not always playing with the same two guards,” Roullier said. “I’m playing with eight different guards on every practice, which allows me to build a lot of confidence with a lot of different guys and also get to know them on the field, which allows me to get to know them off the field better as well. You build a lot of camaraderie that way. I think Coach Matsko understands that through his years of coaching and does a very good job with it.”
With Roullier back, Turner has been the only starter missing on the line. Rivera said the team expects Turner to be back within the next 10 days and would like to see him get at least a series in the preseason. But his quad injury has sidelined him for two weeks — he did some side-field work for the first time Wednesday — and he fills a significant role in replacing Scherff, widely considered one of the best guards in the NFL.
“If he were a younger guy, he’d probably be doing a lot more than he’s done right now,” Rivera said. “Because he’s a veteran guy, he knows our system. He knows the techniques that we need. There’s not a need to push him out there a lot sooner.”
Multiple players, as well as Rivera and Wharton, lauded Matsko’s coaching for keeping the group consistent amid injuries. Cosmi has said that though he plays alongside different players, they’re all taught the same techniques and the same responsibilities.
“[Matsko] demands everybody to have a starter mentality,” Wharton said. “Don’t think you are two or three; you are a starter. That’s the expectation in our room — that at any given moment you have to be ready to play. . . . Whether it’s footwork, hand placement, hat placement, he sees it all. . . . But it’s the coaching, letting you know, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together; we’re going to coach you hard and go out there and play hard.’ ”