Welcome to 32 teams in 32 days. To get us through the offseason, we’ll be taking a closer look at every team in the league, in order of projected 2023 win totals. Next up: the Commanders.
It’s a new day for the Commanders and their fans.
The biggest offseason move? New ownership. But while the excitement of a new owner might mean long-term happiness in Washington, the short term could still be problematic.
Washington has talent on the defensive side, especially up front with pass rushers like Montez Sweat, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen and Chase Young. However, there are real questions about the back seven, especially in an NFC East that is loaded with skill-position players.
Offensively, the clear question mark is quarterback Sam Howell. The second-year man is getting a chance to start, with veteran backup Jacoby Brissett waiting should anything go awry. Howell gets to work with new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who won two Super Bowls in the same role with the Chiefs.
Around Howell, the Commanders have some talent. The receivers are three deep and led by fifth-year star Terry McLaurin, who, despite subpar quarterback play, has posted three 1,000-yard campaigns. He’s helped by Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel, along with running backs Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson.
All told, the Commanders have enough juice to be a tough out, but only if Howell proves to be the answer under center.
Biggest gamble this offseason: Giving the ball to Howell
Few teams are taking bigger gambles than Washington is with Howell.
The Commanders selected Howell out of North Carolina in the fifth round last spring, and he started only one game after that, in a meaningless Week 18 affair against the Cowboys. In that game, he went 11-of-19 for 169 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Somehow, that showing—along with a season’s worth of practice reps—earned enough confidence to give Howell the most important job on the team.
Howell was a three-year starter with the Tar Heels, throwing 92 touchdowns against 23 picks while also completing 63.8 percent of his attempts. Now Howell will get his chance in the big league. But if he struggles, Washington can go to Brissett, who has started 48 games over his NFL career, including 11 with the Browns last season.
However, it’s hard to argue Brissett is capable of leading the Commanders to a playoff spot, putting the onus on Howell to perform immediately and consistently.
Toughest stretch of the season: Weeks 7 to 12
The Commanders have a brutal stretch at midseason. After a road game with the Falcons in Week 6, Washington will stay on the road for a date with the Giants before a quick stop at home to face the NFC champion Eagles.
Come Week 9, it’s another two-game road trip, with Bill Belichick and the Patriots on the schedule followed by a trip to the Pacific Northwest for a tilt against the Seahawks. Finally, it’s a return to the nation’s capital for another engagement with the Giants before finishing this six-week gantlet with a road trip to Dallas.
Breakout player to watch: Jahan Dotson
A first-round pick from Penn State last spring, Dotson immediately showed why the Commanders had so much faith in him as a partner across from McLaurin.
In Dotson’s first four games, he had four touchdowns, including two in a Week 1 win over the Jaguars at FedExField. After missing the next five contests, Dotson finished strong, totaling 35 catches on 61 targets for 523 yards and seven touchdowns.
While Dotson didn’t put up the numbers of Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson, he was a productive rookie who should continue to ascend if quarterback play isn’t a hindrance.
Position of strength: Defensive line
Despite having Chase Young for only three games last year, the Commanders still finished 13th in sacks with 43.
Now with Young healthy and surrounded by the aforementioned group of Sweat, Payne and Allen, Washington can give any offensive line fits. In 2022, Payne led the way with 11.5 sacks, while Sweat and Allen combined for another 15.5.
Few teams can match the four-headed monster Washington possesses up front. That should allow defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to win along the line without blitzing, giving help with numbers to the Commanders’ pass coverage.
Position of weakness: Quarterback
How could it be anything other than quarterback?
Maybe Howell will prove to be great, but right now he’s a major question on a team with enough talent to compete for a playoff spot if he’s decent. While three years of collegiate experience is a plus, it doesn’t mean much in the NFL, especially when sharing a division with three 2022 postseason teams.
If Washington is going to succeed, Howell has to be—at minimum—a game manager who can disperse the ball to McLaurin and Dotson or hand it off to Robinson and Gibson. Can he be that player? Time will tell.
X-factor: Chase Young
The saga of Young in Washington has been one of the strangest in recent years. After posting eight sacks and winning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020, he tore his ACL in Week 10 of the following season and didn’t return until December of last year.
As a result, the Commanders declined Young’s fifth-year option, making this year an audition for either his second deal in Washington or a deal elsewhere. If he returns to the form that made him a special player in his first season, the Commanders have an elite edge-rushing duo with Young and Sweat. Otherwise, the group lacks punch against opposing offensive tackles.
Sleeper/fantasy pick: WR Jahan Dotson
Dotson showed flashes of fantasy potential as a rookie, scoring seven touchdowns while also putting up 14-plus points five times. Dotson will open the season as the Commanders’ No. 2 wideout behind McLaurin. In a best-case scenario, Dotson could bring back No. 3 wideout or flex value. —Michael Fabiano, SI Fantasy
Best bet: Look toward the over when Robinson’s rushing futures are released. The young running back ranked fourth in carries and had more than 70 rushing yards per game last season. Gibson may get the passing work, but Robinson will lead the ground game with an inexperienced quarterback under center. —Jennifer Piacenti, SI Betting
Final record: 6–11, fourth in NFC East