Monday, August 15, 2022

Commanders training camp stock watch: Montez Sweat, offensive rookies impress; injuries limit other playmakers

The Washington Commanders weren’t even in full pads, but there’s still plenty to glean from the team’s first four sessions of training camp. So, who has made a name for themselves so far? And who’s value has decreased?

Montez Sweat and the secondary have stood out on a defense that must improve from a poor 2021, while Chase Young and Logan Thomas are still rehabbing injuries. Let’s dig into these players and more after the first week of camp.

Stock up

Montez Sweat

Chase Young gets a lot of the attention as a former No. 2 overall pick, but Montez Sweat has similar size, athleticism and explosiveness — all three of which have been on display early in camp. A first-round pick in 2019, Sweat is settling in to his second home: the offensive backfield. No matter who has lined up against Sweat, he has consistently found ways to blow up run plays and harass quarterbacks dropping back to pass. 

Sweat is still looking for his first double-digit sack campaign — he’s put up seven, nine and five (in 10 games) during his first three seasons — and 2022 might be the year where the Commanders’ best healthy edge rusher showcases his full potential.

“Well, he looks explosive already,” head coach Ron Rivera said after Day 1 on Wednesday. “He’s a tremendous athlete and his athleticism shows very quickly.”

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Communication in the secondary

The Commanders secondary is ALWAYS talking. And I’m not just talking about defensive backs coach Chris Harris hyping up his players and chirping to the offense after positive plays. Starting cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and William Jackson III are in constant communication with safeties Kamren Curl and Bobby McCain — all of whom started at least 14 games together a season ago.

Those results were certainly underwhelming — Washington finished 29th in passing defense and 31st in third-down defense — but this group is off to a strong start in 2022. The secondary dominated Thursday’s session, the highlight being Fuller’s pass breakup that resulted in a Cole Holcomb interception, and bounced back with a strong finish to Friday’s practice after the offense looked as though they were going to keep slinging the ball all over the field. 

Add in promising young defensive backs Benjamin St-Juste, Darrick Forrest and Percy Butler, and this group could look a lot more like the one that performed very well two seasons ago. Communication will be a significant part of achieving such a rebound.

“That’s one thing we’re preaching in the room, man, just communicating,” McCain said Friday. “If you’re all wrong,

you’re all right. So if you communicate and everybody gets it across the board, you know, there’s not too many teams that’ll beat you athletically.

“A lot of times you get in the room, and you see bad plays and it’s not necessarily the guy just making a crazy play. It’s more or less, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I had help. Oh, I didn’t get that call. Oh, I didn’t know this.’ So that’s all on communication. That’s all everybody doing just their piece to let the next guy know like, ‘Hey, this is where I’m at. This is where your help is. And this is where the weaknesses are.'”

Jahan Dotson

Everybody entered training camp wanting to see the chemistry between Carson Wentz and recently extended Terry McLaurin, and the two have gelled nicely during the early portion of camp. The connection that has stood out, however, has been Wentz and first-round rookie Jahan Dotson.

Dotson garnered strong reviews during OTAs and minicamp for his smooth route-running and reliable hands, and he continued to make plays against whoever he was matched up against over the past week. On Thursday, he caught a deep ball from Wentz despite St-Juste blanketing him in coverage. On Saturday, he hauled in another pass from Wentz, this time for a touchdown on fourth-and-10 from the 20-yard line during red zone drills.

There’s a lot for fans to be excited about when it comes to Washington’s offense. McLaurin is a solid No. 1, Curtis Samuel is a versatile playmaker (when healthy), Logan Thomas is steady at tight end, and there seems to be three running backs (Gibson, Robinson and J.D. McKissic) capable of producing when called upon. Still, Dotson’s skillset can really make this unit dynamic, and the early returns on the No. 16 overall pick have been exciting.

Brian Robinson

It’s hard to judge a running back during training camp, especially before the pads come on, but Robinson makes the cut for two reasons: first, he received many of the first-team reps during the first four sessions as Antonio Gibson nursed a hamstring injury; and second, he’s been a fluid receiver out of the backfield.

Rivera described the third-round rookie out of Alabama as a “big, strong, powerful, downhill runner, more so than anything else,” and the team will certainly utilize that skillset by running Robinson between the tackles and in short-yardage situations, similar to the role Peyton barber assumed in 2020. But Robinson has already showed in camp that he has the necessary traits to adequately execute whatever is asked of him in Year 1.

Stock down

Injury news

The Commanders got some good news Thursday when center Chase Roullier was activated off the Physically Unable To Perform (PUP) list, but other key players are either sidelined or still working back from previous injuries.

The biggest of the bunch is Chase Young, who Rivera said will definitely miss time to start the regular season as he recovers from a torn ACL that he suffered in November. Rivera said the 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year will probably start off on the PUP list, which means he won’t be able to practice or play for the first four weeks of the year (vs. Jaguars, at Lions, vs. Eagles, at Cowboys). The reserve edge rushers on the depth chart are 2020 seventh-round picks James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill, so one or both of them is going to have to step up in Young’s absence.

It’s also unclear when Logan Thomas will return. The former quarterback broke out for Washington in 2020 but had his 2021 campaign cut short in December because of a knee injury. The tight ends behind him are very inexperienced yet intriguing. Fifth-round rookie Cole Turner caught two touchdowns during a red zone drill on Saturday, while undrafted rookie Curtis Hodges has received praise from coaches so far and also had a touchdown Saturday. However, the frontrunner to take Thomas’ reps is sophomore John Bates, a former fourth-round pick who made 20 catches for 249 yards a year ago. He’ll be TE1 in camp once he returns from a minor injury of his own that has kept him out the past couple practices.

The two other playmakers worth monitoring are Curtis Samuel and Antonio Gibson. The team continues to be cautious with Samuel after he spent all of last season battling a nagging groin injury, which limited him to five games. He has been limited the past few days, but Rivera said that’s all a part of the plan for the former Carolina Panthers Swiss Army knife.

“Trying to ramp him up, get him going, then be careful,” Rivera said. “He’s missed a lot of football and you don’t just wanna

throw guys out there and all of a sudden expose them to too much. So, you’ve gotta kind of work your way into it.”

As for Gibson, who’s been battling a hamstring injury, he made his training camp debut Saturday, joining the fellow running backs for individual drills. He did not participate in any of the team sessions, but just him being out there is a good sign as he looks to build on a 1,300-plus-yard sophomore campaign.

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