In the four months since the NFL draft, buzz has been building around Washington Commanders wide receiver Jahan Dotson. It has picked up in training camp, where the 22-year-old has been mature on the field (polished routes) and off (poise and professionalism with fans and media). He has flashed big-play ability, recently catching a pass between his legs for a touchdown. Even the bombastic defensive backs had to admit he had reeled in a tough one.
But beyond the buzz: What are realistic expectations for Dotson’s rookie year?
In interviews, Coach Ron Rivera, Dotson and others have hesitated to harness their positive expectations to numbers. Why would they? Some teammates, including quarterback Carson Wentz, have simply expressed confidence in Dotson and echoed Rivera’s sentiment: “I just want him to go out and be who he is.”
“I feel like I’m progressing very well,” Dotson said. “Not looking too far ahead in the future. Just coming in and working every day. That’s all I can do.”
In the past decade, as passing rates have continued to climb, teams have increasingly forsaken running backs to invest in pass-catchers. After the wideout market exploded this spring, teams drafted 13 wide receivers in the first two rounds, which is tied with 2020 for the most since at least 2000, and the Commanders bet on the undersized-but-advanced Dotson.
The influx of talented wideouts over the past two years has redefined what teams can expect from rookies. In 2020, Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson had more receiving yards (1,400) than any first-year wideout in NFL history, and the next year, Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase used one extra game to outdo him (1,455) while helping carry the Bengals’ offense to the Super Bowl.
In Washington, expectations for Dotson must be lower. At 5-foot-11 and 178 pounds, he may sometimes struggle against bigger, stronger defensive backs, and he isn’t the Commanders’ top target. When the offense is fully healthy, coordinator Scott Turner must divvy up roughly 60 to 65 touches per game among Dotson, Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Logan Thomas, Dyami Brown, Antonio Gibson, J.D. McKissic, Brian Robinson Jr. and others.
But Dotson should be on the field often. Turner uses three or more wide receivers at one of the highest rates in the league — 75 percent of the time last year, according to Sharp Football — and will continue to do so this season. Turner’s approach combined with Dotson’s advanced skill set and rapport with Wentz should help coaches feel comfortable with him on the field in most situations despite his inexperience.
“Carson [and] the quarterbacks like throwing the ball to him,” Turner said during the team’s second offseason workout. “There's a lot of things we'll be able to do with him.”
History suggests the odds are decent that Dotson will have a successful rookie campaign. In May, Peter Engler of the 33rd Team, a football publication, studied the past decade of rookie wideouts and found most of the top performers followed a strikingly similar trend: They were four- or five-star high school recruits who attended blue-chip college programs and compiled multiple years of elite production.
Engler also found some factors mattered less than expected — size, quarterback, agility tests at the NFL scouting combine — but there were always outliers who defied the trends, such as Los Angeles Rams wideout Cooper Kupp.
In his conclusion, Engler identified a few rookies likeliest to break out, including Drake London of Atlanta, Christian Watson of Green Bay and Garrett Wilson of the New York Jets. But the findings still bode well for Dotson, who was a four-star recruit and had two years of elite production at Penn State.
So how good should Dotson be this season? Among the 43 wide receivers who were drafted in the first round in the past decade, there are booms (Chase and Jefferson) and busts (Minnesota’s Laquon Treadwell and Washington’s Josh Doctson), but the 38 who played a qualifying number of snaps averaged a solid 13 games, 84 targets, 49 catches, 672 yards and four receiving touchdowns, according to TruMedia.
The stat line is similar to the totals of Houston’s Will Fuller in 2016 and San Francisco’s Brandon Aiyuk in 2020.
If Dotson had produced similar figures for the Commanders last season — roughly three catches and 40 yards per game — he would have been the team’s second-most productive pass-catcher by a comfortable margin. He would have finally delivered to Turner a reliable No. 2 wideout to help alleviate the attention on McLaurin.
This season, Washington won’t put that pressure solely on Dotson. The Commanders upgraded at quarterback and hedged their pass-catcher bets, so if Dotson hits a rookie wall, as Brown did last year, the team has weapons to complement him. But if his first three weeks of camp are more signal than noise, Dotson seems to have the mind-set for the rigors of an NFL season, when it probably helps not to care about the numbers.
Recently, Dotson said the insights he cared about most came from his peers, such as McLaurin.
“You can never stop learning, so any information or knowledge that guys are giving to me … I’m taking it,” he said. “I’m using it so I can help better myself.”