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The first 53: Projecting the Commanders’ active roster as cut day nears

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 27: Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell (14) scrambles with Baltimore Ravens safety Ar'Darius Washington (29) on his tail in the third quarter at M&T Stadium August 27, 2022 in Baltimore, MD. The Baltimore Ravens beat the Washington Commanders 17-15 in the last preseason game for the Commanders. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Washington’s future might actually be bright at quarterback.

In the third and final preseason game, a 17-15 loss to the Ravens in Baltimore, the Commanders rested their starters to give players on the roster bubble — or those simply in need of more reps — one last tryout.

Third-string quarterback Sam Howell played the entirety and put on a show, with third-down scrambles, deep completions and a moxie rarely seen from a rookie. He finished 24 for 35 with 280 passing yards and a touchdown. His passer rating was 102.1, and he added 62 yards on eight carries.

Known for his mobility from his time at North Carolina, Howell appeared poised in the pocket, still going through his reads before tucking and running on undesigned run plays. He told reporters after the game that his pocket presence “hasn’t always been great,” but it has been an emphasis throughout his career.

Washington’s biggest offensive issue Saturday — and for the entirety of the preseason — was finishing. The Commanders made it to Baltimore’s red zone three times but scored only one touchdown and otherwise had to settle for field goals. On a long drive that started in the third quarter, the Commanders committed four penalties, losing 35 yards, and Howell was sacked on third and six.

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The Commanders’ quarterbacks have been set since the draft, really, and the team settled most of its starting jobs early in camp. But Coach Ron Rivera said Saturday four to seven roster spots are still up for grabs. Washington has to pare its roster to 53 players by 4 p.m. Tuesday, giving it limited time to figure out its wide receiving corps, finalize the last tight end spot (should it keep four), round out the depth on both lines and decide on the final players at defensive back.

The safety battle might have gained clarity with Jeremy Reaves’s performance. Reaves had a massive tackle in which he went low to send Ravens running back Nate McCrary airborne for a loss of four yards. Then, in the third quarter, Reaves held Baltimore’s Demarcus Robinson to a mere two-yard gain on a punt return.

Elsewhere on the secondary, miscues could hurt some on the bubble. A blown coverage in the second quarter led to Baltimore’s first touchdown. Quarterback Anthony Brown launched a deep over-the-shoulder pass to Robinson, who ran a slant-and-go to draw cornerback Danny Johnson inside before slipping back outside toward the sideline. If Johnson had help over the top, the Commanders might have prevented the touchdown, but rookie safety Percy Butler bit on the route, too, leaving Robinson a clear lane to the end zone.

Washington’s defense fared better overall than it did in the first two preseason games, holding Baltimore to nine first downs (compared with the Commanders’ 22), 21 rushing yards and one third-down conversion in eight tries.

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Rivera has noted that special teams will determine some jobs on the 53-man roster. Wide receiver Dax Milne, who caught all four of his targets Saturday, has been a regular in the mix for returners. Safety Darrick Forrest impressed throughout camp with his speed and big hits, which could give the special teams ace a bigger role on defense.

Who else will make it? It’s worth noting that Washington’s roster could undergo multiple iterations before the Sept. 11 opener against Jacksonville. Players waived or cut from other teams might intrigue the Commanders enough to make some swaps.

Until then, here’s our projection for the Commanders’ initial 53-man roster:

Offense (26)

Quarterback (3): Carson Wentz, Taylor Heinicke, Sam Howell

Wide receiver (6): Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson, Cam Sims, Dyami Brown, Dax Milne

Tackle (3): Charles Leno Jr., Sam Cosmi, Cornelius Lucas

Guard (5): Andrew Norwell, Trai Turner, Wes Schweitzer, Saahdiq Charles, Chris Paul

Center (2): Chase Roullier, Keith Ismael

Tight end (4): Logan Thomas, John Bates, Cole Turner, Armani Rogers

Running back (3): Antonio Gibson, Brian Robinson Jr., J.D. McKissic

Milne beats out Alex Erickson for the last spot in the wide receiving corps, largely because of his contributions on special teams as a returner. If there’s a notable absence here, perhaps it’s running back Jaret Patterson, the Commanders’ lone undrafted free agent last year who played all 17 games. The addition of Brian Robinson Jr. squeezes him out, but Robinson’s injury in a shooting Sunday night in Washington could change that.

Position flexibility is key on the line. Only two centers stay as Tyler Larsen recovers from an Achilles’ injury, but Schweitzer and Charles have gotten reps at the position and can help.

Defense (24)

Defensive line (10): Montez Sweat, Casey Toohill, James Smith-Williams, Shaka Toney, Daron Payne, Phidarian Mathis, Justin Hamilton, Jonathan Allen, Daniel Wise, David Bada*

Linebacker (4): Cole Holcomb, Jamin Davis, David Mayo, Milo Eifler

Cornerback (6): Kendall Fuller, William Jackson III, Benjamin St-Juste, Corn Elder, Christian Holmes, Danny Johnson

Free safety (3): Bobby McCain, Percy Butler, Jeremy Reaves

Strong safety (2): Kam Curl, Darrick Forrest

The defensive line has to adjust while Chase Young is out (for at least four games). It’s possible Washington will go with six defensive ends, but it’s expected to mix in more five-man fronts, and it will want size on the interior. Hamilton, or “Big Ham” as his coaches call him, is 311 pounds and has six years of NFL experience.

At linebacker, Eifler gets the nod over Khaleke Hudson for his consistency, and on the back end Washington keeps six cornerbacks because they play primarily in subpackages with an extra defensive back.

* Bada does not count against the 53-man roster cap because he signed through the International Player Pathway Program. Thus, Washington technically can keep 54 players after Tuesday’s cuts.

Specialists (3)

Punter/holder: Tress Way

Kicker: Joey Slye

Long snapper: Camaron Cheeseman

No surprises here. But the hope is Slye worked out any kinks in his motion so he doesn’t miss like he did in the preseason.