Friday, August 12, 2022

Commanders training camp observations: Kendall Fuller paces defensive dominance, Curtis Samuel flashes, more

ASHBURN, Va. — For the first time in several years, it’s the offense that’s garnered a lot of the attention entering training camp. That’s the side of the ball with the big-name quarterback in Carson Wentz, the young and versatile receiving group led by Terry McLaurin, and what could be a dynamic trio at running back with the addition of third-round rookie Brian Robinson Jr

The defense, with a lot of the same pieces from an underwhelming 2021, has been overlooked. But on the team’s second day of training camp, that same group reminded the media and fans in attendance of its potential.

More on that, plus other observations from Thursday’s session below.

Kendall Fuller, Montez Sweat pace defense

The Commanders fiery defensive backs coach, Chris Harris, had plenty to hoot and holler about Thursday morning. The secondary was seemingly all over the place, blanketing receivers in coverage and breaking up passes thrown their way. 

Veteran cornerback Kendall Fuller had an especially solid day, the highlight of which was a battled ball that landed in the hands of linebacker Cole Holcomb for an interception off Wentz. The seventh-year, homegrown veteran will play a significant role as Jack Del Rio’s unit attempts to bounce back in 2022.

“I thought the back seven had a real nice day,” Rivera said. “A lot of it had to do with the communications. We are working on some things and a little bit new. And I think that catches people by surprise as far as the offense is concerned. But like I said, I was really pleased what we got on the defensive side.”

Speaking of integral defenders, Montez Sweat hounded Washington’s quarterbacks for the second straight day. On one play, the offense had rookie quarterback-turned-tight end Armani Rogers attempt to block Sweat. The 2019 first-rounder did not take kindly to that. He blew past Rogers, getting in the face of Wentz for a would-be sack, and then let anyone remotely associated with the offense know of his disapproval with their tactic. “Don’t put no f—— tight end on me!”

It hasn’t really mattered who’s been lined up opposite Sweat since the beginning of training camp; he’s been productive regardless, and with Chase Young still rehabbing a November ACL tear, a strong start to the season from Sweat would take pressure off of the other, more unproven edge rushers.

Wentz airs it out

It wasn’t a great day for the 27-year-old signal-caller. A good amount of his passes were either off target or knocked away, and those he completed went for minimal gain.

But during the final 11-on-11 session, Wentz got into a mini groove. It started with a strong throw down the left sideline to Dax Milne, who made a twisting grab for a sizable pickup. On the very next throw, Wentz again went deep down the left side, this time for first-round wideout Jahan Dotson. Off his back foot, Wentz delivered a beautiful ball that landed cozily into the arms of the No. 16 overall pick, who made the catch in stride for perhaps the prettiest offensive play of the day.

The last throw worth mentioning was actually an incompletion, and if it were a game, Wentz would have been sacked long before getting it off. Still, it was a reminder of how Wentz differs from the hodgepodge of quarterbacks who have waltzed through Washington in recent years. 

It was a bomb from Wentz, maybe 60 yards in the air, that McLaurin should have come down with even though Troy Apke had tight coverage. That arm strength is part of what should elevate the offense to new heights in 2022.

“I really like his aggressiveness,” McLaurin said of Wentz. “When he’s trying to give us chances down the field, I think that’s something that all of us, as an offense, know we want to improve on. Taking those shots down the field, but also connecting on them. And so the only way you get better at those is taking them in practice and connecting on them. I think whether it’s me, Jahan [Dotson] made some good plays down the field, Kelvin [Harmon], that not only increases your confidence in those plays, but it gives [offensive coordinator] Coach [Scott] Turner the confidence to continue to call those. And that could really help open up our offense even more.”

Samuel sighting

Somewhat lost behind McLaurin’s lucrative extension and Dotson’s potential is the return of a healthy Curtis Samuel — the same Samuel who racked up more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the Panthers in 2020. He’s a versatile playmaker who can turn a five-yard gain into a 50-yard touchdown, and one play during Thursday’s session showcased that ability.

After catching a routine pass from Wentz, Samuel put a nasty juke on promising young cornerback Benjamin St-Juste before sprinting up the field for more yardage. The offense was buzzing from the sequence, and both Rivera and McLaurin mentioned it when discussing Samuel’s outlook for 2022.

“That showed in space with the ball how dynamic he can be, and that’s what we need,” Rivera said. “That’s the kind of explosiveness that you’re looking for is if we can get guys with the ball in their hands in space and create, there’s an opportunity for us to win some football games and that’s what we have to do. That’s where we got to get to.”

“That gave me flashbacks of college and seeing what he can do with just with the ball in his hands,” McLaurin added about Samuel. “His versatility after the catch. Most guys catch that ball on a five-yard pass and they may get two or three extra yards, and the move that he made on a dime that gets you 10-to-12 extra yards with his ability. So, it’s cool for other people to see that, get to feel that. He looks like he has a good spring in his step. And I know he just wants to take it a day at a time and continue to build on that and stay healthy. So far, he’s doing a really good job.”

Early retirement

Rivera began his press conference Thursday by announcing that 24-year-old Antonio Gandy Golden is retiring. The 2020 fourth-round pick played wide receiver during his first two NFL seasons but was transitioning to tight end this offseason. That never fully materialized, however, as Gandy-Golden has plans to go back to school and continue his education.

“He’s a heck of a young man, he did a nice job for us,” Rivera said. “Really do appreciate who he is and who he was for us as a football player and as a young man. Because he is a bright young man, I really do believe he’s got a bright future ahead of him and wish him all the best as he goes forward in his life.”

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