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Dynamic on paper, Commanders wideouts have plenty to prove on the field

Commanders receivers Dyami Brown, left, Terry McLaurin, center, and Jahan Dotson line up during training camp at the team's facility. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Terry McLaurin has signed a onesie for a baby who has yet to be born. He has been asked to sign kids’ shoes and jerseys and towels and footballs and virtually any memorabilia anyone could think of at training camp. And, oh, the selfies. So many selfies.

McLaurin is, by all accounts, a face of the Washington Commanders, especially after he recently signed a three-year contract extension worth about $71 million.

Across the NFL, wide receivers have been paid handsomely this year, and 14 of them now earn at least $20 million in average annual salary. McLaurin, a former third-round pick whom some analysts viewed as a future special-teamer, has joined the top talent at his position — and he’s also the top talent among a receiving corps some have described as one of the best to come through Washington.

On paper.

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Though everything comes back to the quarterback, as Coach Ron Rivera has said, the Commanders have turned their receiving corps into a group loaded with potential and talent. As the team prepares for its first preseason game against the Carolina Panthers on Saturday, many will be looking to see if that potential can lead to production.

“Each guy brings something different to the table,” Rivera said of the wideouts. “Each guy’s done some pretty unique things … [in] camp. And again, it is one of those tough things that we will still have to see how they play to help make up our minds. These three games will be really important to a lot of guys.”

Shortly after Washington traded for Carson Wentz, Rivera stressed the importance of surrounding the quarterback with a stout offensive line and dynamic playmakers. Rivera believes the line, with coach John Matsko’s teachings, will be deep and consistent, much like last season. The group of tight ends is intriguing, with Logan Thomas, John Bates and Cole Turner — if they can get healthy. The running backs room is well-rounded, with rookie Brian Robinson Jr. joining starter Antonio Gibson and veteran J.D. McKissic.

And the Commanders wideouts have size and speed. They can flex out wide and move inside to the slot and catch passes out of the backfield. But that was the case last season, too, and as injuries and covid-19, among other things, ravaged the roster, only McLaurin and former slot receiver Adam Humphries averaged more than two catches per game.

This year, the emphasis is the same, but the hope is for a different result.

“I think it was definitely an emphasis to have as many weapons on our offense as possible,” McLaurin said. “And when you have a lot of versatile guys — like, we have young nucleus guys who are hungry but humble — I think it’s really cool to be a part of a group like that.

“If you get pigeonholed into ‘this guy can only play this, this guy can only play that,’ it hurts not only the player, but it hurts the offense and the team. So I think we’re just trying to breed that competitiveness in our room and come out here and make plays and give Carson as many options as possible to throw the football.”

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Washington’s top three wide receivers are already set, barring injury or some other roster-altering event; McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and rookie Jahan Dotson make up the core group. Veterans Cam Sims and Dyami Brown have so far rounded out the top five.

The final spots will depend partly on the health and needs elsewhere on the roster. Dax Milne and Alex Erickson are competing for the returner job, and they could secure a wide receiver spot based on their special teams play. Or maybe Kelvin Harmon or Marken Michel will put on a strong showing in the preseason and make it too difficult for the team to leave him off the initial 53-man roster.

“Marken is a guy that’s a professional, that understands how to do things, how to practice, how to prepare,” Rivera said. “It is interesting because he’s a very savvy guy, and for him, it’s just about getting the opportunity more so than anything else. … I hope we can get an opportunity or two for him during the preseason. I hope he gets a lot of opportunities, and hopefully he can show us what he’s capable of doing.”

Washington’s healthy starters are expected to play 15 to 20 snaps against the Panthers — just enough to get a feel for another defense and their own offense.

As Rivera and his staff evaluate the wide receivers and find the best candidates for those final roster spots this month, much of their analysis will be tied to the quarterback.

Wentz has drawn criticism for his inconsistency during camp, but Rivera said he’ll be looking for communication and timing, for the quarterback to make the right reads, for the receivers to run the right routes and for the offense as a whole to come together.

Throughout camp, Wentz has been seen talking with his receivers on the sideline about certain reps and nuances of the offense. He’ll often go over to a receiver after an incompletion to discuss what might’ve gone wrong. Being in sync over the littlest details during the preseason will determine roster spots, and for some it will serve as a gauge after dealing with injury or time off.

Samuel, who played only 84 snaps over five games last season because of groin and hamstring injuries, is expected to play Saturday. Though he’s seemingly a lock to make the team, as one of the top wideouts, he too will be scrutinized for his route running and timing.

Rivera noted one rep during camp in which Samuel was attempting to time out a ball across the middle with Wentz. He was trying to get a feel for the quarterback, and vice versa.

“But when you watch him, you watch him get from one zone to the other, impacting the defense as he goes through,” Rivera said. “I mean, you have to pay attention to his speed, and it causes certain things to happen with the defenses. Then when you see him with the ball in his hand, you see just how dynamic he is.”