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Carson Wentz, Commanders starters to play 15 to 20 snaps vs. Panthers

Notes from training camp

Commanders QB Carson Wentz and the rest of the team's healthy starters will see 15 to 20 reps in Saturday's preseason opener. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

If they’re healthy, they’ll play — for the most part.

Coach Ron Rivera intends to play his starters, including quarterback Carson Wentz, on Saturday in the Commanders’ preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers at FedEx Field. The goal is to get the first unit about 15 to 20 snaps with maybe an eight- or nine-play drive, Rivera said.

Rivera’s focus is on how players perform in situational football — third down, red zone, two-minute, short-yardage and so on. He’ll evaluate every position, but “the biggest question is always going to be quarterback,” he said.

“Everything comes back to that position,” Rivera added. “I’m just excited with the fact that we will have game situations. We will play against some different folks, so I am really just looking forward to it as a whole.”

The Commanders did not have any joint practices with other teams this year. Practicing only against teammates can be tedious and often difficult when players begin to see the same thing again and again. So Saturday’s game (a 1 p.m. kickoff) will be the first gauge of how close this team may be — and what holes are still obvious.

Carson Wentz’s training camp performance has been consistently inconsistent

“You want to see some consistency out there,” Rivera said. “You want to see them get in the huddle, breaking the huddle, getting to the line of scrimmage, being successful with the plays that are called, operating things, doing things well. I hope we get all kinds of situational football going. We’d love to see a couple of third downs. We’d love to see some red-zone stuff, obviously, and then short yardage and goal line. You hope for that in your first game.”

Rivera added that all three quarterbacks will see time. After Wentz starts, Taylor Heinicke will take the field and maybe play into the third quarter before rookie Sam Howell closes out the game.

“What would be really good — it was the last thing we worked on today — is I’d love to see Sam get a two-minute at the end of the game. . . . He’s still got a lot to learn, but consistency is what you’re looking for,” Rivera said. “Hoping he has some success, hoping he controls things and is consistent with his ball placement when he throws it.”

Not all starters will be out there, though.

The Commanders’ list of injured or recovering players is extensive, and even those who have begun to ramp up their returns will be held back. Center Chase Roullier, who is working his way back from an ankle injury, will not play, nor will tight ends Cole Turner and Sammis Reyes.

Wide receiver Curtis Samuel, however, will play, giving him his first live snaps of any kind since Week 14 last season against Dallas. In 2021, Samuel dealt with a groin injury and a hamstring injury; that limited him to five games and 84 snaps.

‘Stealing’ punts

Punter Tress Way, the longest-tenured Washington player at eight seasons, said this offseason he worked a bit more on the basics of “a winning punt” — or directional punts.

“There are multiple types of winning punts,” Way said. “But when [special teams coordinator] Nate Kaczor showed up, he really helped me hone … my ability to not tip the returner on which way I’m punting.”

Way playfully admitted he studies other punters who are known for their effective directional punts to see how they do it.

“I stole from a couple of punters across the league,” Way said. “Johnny Hekker . . . he had this ability a few years back that nobody had ever really seen, where he’d stand in this one spot and he’d punt it all over the field from there.

“Brett Kern was the punter for the AFC in the Pro Bowl the year I went [2019], and I stole the way he drops the ball like a golfer, and you play a cut shot, like, inside out. And literally, on his jersey he asked me to sign, I said: ‘Hey, Brett. Thanks for your drop. I stole it and made the Pro Bowl.’ ”

The Commanders will face Hekker, who is now with the Panthers, in the preseason opener.

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Way said much of his work on technique comes from film study. He recalled former Washington special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica, who’s now the Minnesota Vikings’ assistant special teams coach, telling him some four years ago that “your production does not match your talent, and you have to find a way to get to the next level.”

Now that Way is a veteran, younger players ask him how he does it — and he joked that he refuses to divulge his secrets.

“I lie every time,” Way said with a smile.

A mentor on the sideline

After practice Thursday, former Washington defensive end Ryan Kerrigan stayed on the field late with Montez Sweat, Chase Young and a few of the younger defensive linemen to talk to them and show them some pass-rushing techniques. Kerrigan has been shadowing coaches at practice, and Washington’s players still view him as a trusted teacher.

“He’s kind of trying to feel things out and get a feel for what he wants to do,” Rivera said. “… It’s interesting because both Chase and Sweat gravitate to him, and they spend a lot of time talking. It’s kind of good to watch. Somebody who has a tremendous amount of knowledge and vast experience like his, I think it’s good to have him around.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Warren Sapp was also at practice, showing some pass-rushing tips and helping newly appointed defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina.

Returner competition narrowing?

The Commanders’ returner competition seemingly has been whittled to two, maybe three, players, Rivera said. But because it’s still early, the three preseason games will weigh significantly in determining the starter.

Alex Erickson, who was signed primarily to be that guy, and Dax Milne, a second-year wide receiver, have been taking the bulk of the reps in practice on special teams. Depending on the roster split with other positions, those two could be taking the final one or two jobs in the receivers room if they’re appointed returners.

“You want a guy, first of all, that can secure the catch. We know both of those guys can do that; they both have done that in NFL games,” Rivera said. “Don’t discount the opportunity for us to use [rookie Jahan Dotson] as well. That is something that we talked about and something that we are going to continue to discuss as we get closer and closer to the regular season.”