During the off-season before the 2018 season, Washington opted not to keep starting quarterback Kirk Cousins on a big money long-term contract, after franchise tagging him in back-to-back years. It might have been smart to avoid paying a non-elite quarterback like Cousins a top level contract, but Washington really has had a tough time replacing Cousins since he left, starting ten different quarterbacks over the past four seasons. They’ve tried everything from trade acquisitions (Alex Smith, Case Keenum), free agent signings (Ryan Fitzpatrick), to first round draft picks (Dwayne Haskins, RIP), with a bevy of backups mixed in and none have had any prolonged success while in Washington.
Arguably the most effective quarterback who has played for Washington over that stretch is career backup Taylor Heinicke, who made 15 starts last season, most by a Washington starting quarterback since Cousins’ final season in 2017. Heinicke performed surprisingly decent for a journeyman who had previously been with four teams in five seasons and made just one regular season start, finishing the 2021 season with 65.0% completion, 6.92 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, but he had the 2nd most dropped interceptions in the league with 12, led the league in adjusted interception rate, and finished 33rd out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF.
Heinicke proved himself to be a solid backup, but Washington was in the market for another quarterback this off-season and found one by once again going the trade route, sending a pair of third round picks to Indianapolis for Carson Wentz and taking his 28.3 million dollar salary for 2022. In hindsight, it looks like a panic move for a Washington team that added Wentz right at the start of the off-season, only to see a slightly cheaper and better quarterback in Matt Ryan go for just a single third round pick in a trade and a much cheaper and comparably talented quarterback in Baker Mayfield become available for minimal draft compensation.
Wentz seemingly broke out as a long-term elite quarterback in his second season in the league in 2017, when the 2016 2nd overall pick finished as PFF’s 6th ranked quarterback, but that season was ended by a torn ACL and it proved to be the peak of his career. Wentz had another two solid seasons in 2018 and 2019, finishing 14th respectively among quarterbacks on PFF in both seasons, but again saw those two seasons ended by injury and then he bottomed out in 2020, finishing 34th among 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF, leading to him being traded to the Colts for a first and a third round pick, before his 4-year, 128 million dollar extension with the Eagles had even technically begun.
With the Colts, the idea was that Wentz would bounce back with his former offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who was with Wentz in 2017 and then left to become the Colts head coach following that season. However, the Colts proved to totally overpay for Wentz in that trade, as he didn’t bounce back in a meaningful way, finishing 23rd among 39 quarterbacks on PFF, and the Colts were lucky to get back the draft compensation that they did for Wentz this off-season, while also not having to eat any of Wentz’s contract. In total, Wentz completed 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.91 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in his lone season in Indianapolis.
Now in Washington, Wentz is on his third team in as many seasons in the league, having worn out his welcome with the previous two in the locker room, as well as on the field, and, now going into his age 30 season, it’s becoming increasingly less likely he’ll have bounce back to his previous above average form, whether for physical or mental reasons. Wentz isn’t a bad starting quarterback, but the Commanders are giving up a lot of resources between salary and draft picks for a quarterback that they should be hoping can be an average starter.
Heinicke remains as the backup and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him make more starts in 2022, whether by Wentz getting hurt or struggling and getting benched. The Commanders also used a 5th round pick on North Carolina’s quarterback Sam Howell, who will compete to make this roster as the third quarterback. Washington is probably hoping he can be a developmental starting option long-term, with Wentz’s contract not getting any cheaper any time soon, but they’d probably be lucky for Howell to end up as a long-term backup and he shouldn’t supplant Heinicke as the #2 quarterback this season. It’s an underwhelming quarterback room overall.
Terry McLaurin once again led this team in receiving (77/1053/5) in 2021, something he has done in all three seasons he’s been in the league since being selected in the 3rd in 2019, surpassing 900 yards receiving in all three seasons and 1,000 yards receiving in back-to-back seasons, despite suspect quarterback play. However, McLaurin once again was also Washington’s only wide receiver with more than 500 yards receiving for the third straight season. In fact, you have to go back to 2017 to find a wide receiver other than McLaurin with more than 600 yards receiving in a season for this team.
That has a good chance to change this season, in part because the Commanders used the 16th overall pick on Penn State wide Jahan Dotson, who has a good chance to make an immediate impact, but also because they should get a healthier season out of Curtis Samuel, who was signed to a 3-year, 34.5 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season to upgrade this receiving corps, but wound up playing just 85 underwhelming snaps in 5 games in a lost season due to injury in 2021. Samuel is reportedly healthier now and, still only in his age 26 season, has a good chance to bounce back and be a useful receiver for this team, starting in 3-wide receiver sets with McLaurin and Dotson.
Samuel was PFF’s 31st ranked wide receiver in 2020, finishing with a 77/851/3 slash line and 1.94 yards per route run, despite being the third most targeted wide receiver on a middling passing offense. He also added another 200 yards and 2 touchdowns on 41 carries (4.88 YPC), to push him over 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the season, despite a relatively limited role. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Samuel averaged just 1.14 yards per route run with just 31 carries in the first three seasons of his career prior to 2020, so he’s a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played at in 2020 and he is far from a guarantee to bounce back, especially coming off of a significant injury, but he’s developed significantly since his rookie season and could easily be at least a solid starting option if healthy.
The Commanders drafted Dotson to pair with Terry McLaurin long-term, but there’s a possibility that he ends up replacing McLaurin, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal and wants to be paid among the highest wide receivers in the league, which would mean a minimum of 25 million annually. It’s hard to argue McLaurin doesn’t deserve it, given how productive he’s been, despite all the different quarterbacks he’s played with, averaging 1.90 yards per route run, while finishing 5th, 28th, and 19th among wide receivers on PFF in the three seasons respectively.
Washington will have the franchise tag available next off-season if it comes to that and it’s still more likely than not that McLaurin ends up signed long-term in Washington, but McLaurin is putting pressure on the front office to get a deal now by skipping minicamp and, if a deal can’t be reached before the start of the season, it wouldn’t be a shock to see McLaurin be the latest top wide receiver to change teams in the NFL. Most likely, McLaurin will be headlining a promising three wide receiver package with Dotson and Samuel, but there’s at least a possibility something changes here.
Veterans Adam Humphries and DeAndre Carter were their de facto #2 and #3 receivers last season and both were very underwhelming, but they’re no longer with the team, leaving Cam Sims and Dyami Brown, also underwhelming players, as their top depth options if something happens to one of their top-3 receivers. Brown was a 3rd round pick in 2021 and still has upside long-term, but his 0.82 yards per route run average as a rookie suggests he has a long way to go before he can be a viable starting option.
Sims, meanwhile, was an undrafted free agent in 2018 and has a mediocre 1.19 yards per route run average in his career, with a total of just 49 career catches in 37 career games. Both Sims and Brown would likely be liabilities if forced into significant action, so the Commandeers need McLaurin to end his holdout, Dotson to make a positive impact as a rookie, and Samuel to stay healthy, because their other options are very underwhelming.
Along with the mediocre play Washington got from their other receivers besides McLaurin in 2021, they also didn’t get much out of the tight end position, but that could change in 2022, with starting tight end Logan Thomas expected to return after an injury plagued 2021 season. A converted college quarterback, Thomas was a late bloomer who didn’t have more than 16 catches in a season before breaking out with a 72/670/6 slash line in his 7th season in the league in 2020, but he seemed to his way to a similar season in 2021, catching 18 passes for 196 yards and 3 touchdowns in 5 healthy games, which extrapolates to a 61/666/10 slash line over 17 games.
Thomas is not an efficient target, averaging just 6.09 yards per target and 1.10 yards per route run in his only full season as a starter 2020, and he figures to have a smaller target share than he’s seen over the past two seasons, with Washington now having better wide receiver talent, so I would expect his statistical production to go down from what he’s averaged per game over the past two seasons. Also a limited blocker, Thomas is going into his age 31 season, coming off of a torn ACL, and could start to slow down significantly soon, but his return should still be at least a little bit of a boost for a team who got minimal receiving production from the tight end spot in Thomas’ absence last season.
John Bates played the best of any of Washington’s other tight ends last season. He only averaged 1.19 yards per route run, but that’s not terrible and the 2021 4th round pick was PFF’s highest graded blocking tight end on a per snap basis, so he has a good chance to win the #2 tight end job in 2022. That’s primarily a blocking role, which he should excel in, and it’s possible he has some further untapped potential as a receiver, now in his second season in the league. Bates could see starts if Thomas is not ready for the start of the season, recovering from his torn ACL.
Bates’ primary competition for the #2 tight end job is 5th round rookie Cole Turner, but Bates likely has the edge on the unproven rookie, by virtue of the talent he showed in limited action last season. This isn’t a great wide receiving corps, but they could be above average and they should be much improved from a year ago, with Samuel and Thomas returning from injury and Dotson being added in the draft, to give them other reliable pass catching options besides McLaurin. This would once again become a position of weakness if McLaurin ended up getting traded though, which is at least a possibility right now.
Along with pass catchers missing significant time with injury last season, Washington also had serious injury problems on the offensive line last season, with three of their expected week 1 starting five missing at least 6 games with injury each. They should have better injury luck upfront in 2022, but the best of the three players who missed time last season won’t be returning to the team this season, with Brandon Scherff signing a 3-year, 49.5 million dollar contract with the Jaguars this off-season, making him the highest paid guard in the league.
Scherff only played 11 games last season, but he was PFF’s 14th ranked guard when he was on the field, so he’ll obviously be missed. The Commanders also made their other starting guard Ereck Flowers a cap casualty this off-season. Flowers was PFF’s 19th ranked guard last season in 16 starts at left guard, but he was set to make 10 million this season and they were able to find a pair of comparable guards in free agency for significantly cheaper, signing Trai Turner (1 year, 3 million) and Andrew Norwell (2 years, 10 million), one of whom will be their replacement for Scherff.
Turner and Norwell have been teammates before, actually entering the league together with now Commanders head coach Ron Rivera’s Carolina Panthers in 2014, where they started opposite each other for four seasons until Norwell’s departure in 2017. Turner and Norwell were one of the best guard duos in the league together, including a 2015 season in which they both finished in the top-10 among guards on PFF for a Panthers team that went 15-1 and made the Super Bowl, but there’s a good chance they’re not as good together this time around.
Norwell is the older of the two, going into his age 31 season, and he’s coming off the worst season of his career, finishing a middling 45th among guards on PFF after finishing in the top-25 in each of his first seven seasons in the league prior to last season, leading to the Jaguars releasing him ahead of the 13 million he would have been owed in the final year of the 5-year, 66.5 million dollar deal Norwell signed with Jacksonville after leaving Carolina. It’s possible Norwell could bounce back a little bit in 2022 and he’s not totally over the hill yet, but he could also continue declining, in which case he’d likely be a below average starter.
Turner is a couple years younger, in his age 29 season, but he’s had a lot of injuries, missing 16 games in 4 seasons from 2017-2020, and those injuries have caused his play to decline from the high level he played at earlier in his career, when he had top-16 finishes among guards on PFF in 2015 and 2017. Turner’s worst season came in 2020, when he played just 536 snaps in 9 games with the Chargers and finished as PFF’s 90th ranked guard out of 92 eligible.
Turner finished average or better on PFF in every season prior to 2020 though, despite injuries, and he bounced back nicely in 2021 with the Steelers, making every start for the first time since the 2016 season and finishing 23rd among guards on PFF, his best finish since 2017. Turner is still relatively young, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had a comparable season to last season again in 2022, but he comes with some risk and his best days are probably behind him, even though he’s not 30 yet.
The Commanders also have veteran Wes Schweitzer, who has started 54 games in 6 seasons in the league and played well in the absence of Brandon Scherff last season, and he could also be in the mix for a starting role. Last season was the highest single season PFF grade of Schweitzer’s career, but he’s also finished above average on PFF in 4 of the 5 seasons in which he’s seen action in his career, including a 19th ranked finish among guards on PFF as a 13-game starter as recently as 2020. Still relatively young in his age 29 season, Schweitzer could probably start for at least several teams in the league and, even if he can’t win a starting role in Washington, he should provide great depth for them at guard, while also having the ability to kick to center in a pinch if needed.
Center Chase Roullier also missed significant time with injury last season, breaking his leg in week 8 and missing the rest of the season, a big loss because he was in the middle of the best season of his career, ranking 5th among centers on PFF through week 8. Rouiller isn’t a one-year wonder though, making 61 starts in five seasons in the league since being drafted in the 6th round in 2017 and finishing above average on PFF in every season in the league. In 2020, he made all 16 starts and was PFF’s 6th ranked center. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had a similar season again in 2022, even coming off of a serious injury, and it would be a huge boost to this offensive line for him to be out there for all or most of the season.
Expected right tackle Sam Cosmi is also coming off of an injury plagued season, making just 9 of a possible 17 starts, but, despite being a rookie, the 2021 2nd round pick was not overmatched in his limited action, actually earning an above average grade from PFF, finishing as PFF’s 32nd ranked offensive tackle overall. He’s still unproven, but he showed a lot of promise as a rookie and, if he can avoid injuries, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he developed into an above average starting option long-term. Having him healthy for all or most of the season should be a boost to this offensive line.
Left tackle Charles Leno is the only offensive lineman to start all 17 games for this team last season, coming off a very impressive season in his first season in Washington, finishing 12th among offensive tackles on PFF, making him a great value on the 1-year, 4 million dollar deal he signed last off-season after being released by the Bears ahead of a non-guaranteed 9 million dollar salary for 2021. Leno was on the wrong side of 30, but he was still PFF’s 30th ranked offensive tackle in 2020, while making all 16 starts, so it was a surprise the Bears did not bring him back at that salary and their loss was Washington’s gain.
The Commanders had to pay up to keep Leno beyond 2021, extending him on a 3-year, 37 million dollar deal, which is somewhat risky because of his age, now in his age 31 season, but he’s finished above average on PFF in 6 of 7 seasons as a starter (110 starts) and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, based off last year’s strong performance. He might not repeat the best PFF grade of his career again in 2022, especially since he’s on the wrong side of 30, but it would be a surprise if it wasn’t at least an above average starter.
As much as Washington missed the key offensive linemen who they were without due to injury last season, they actually had a pretty deep offensive line and got reasonable play from their backups. The Commanders will be hoping they can be healthier upfront in 2022, but they should have good depth again in case they can’t. I already mentioned Wes Schweitzer, who is talented enough to start for a lot of teams, but swing tackle Cornelius Lucas also finished above average last season in 7 starts as a fill-in for Cosmi and Lucas has generally been a solid starter when forced into action in his career (31 starts in 8 seasons in the league). He’s going into his age 31 season, but should remain at least solid depth. He could also probably start for several teams.
Replacement centers Keith Ismael and Tyler Larsen also weren’t bad either, in place of Rouiller when he went down for the season last year. Larsen is a 8-year veteran who has mostly been a reserve in his career (21 career starts), but he’s generally been decent when forced into action. Ismael, meanwhile, was a 5th round pick in 2020 and was PFF’s 20th ranked center on 382 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2021. He’s still unproven, but he’s a good backup option to have and he has the upside to potentially develop into a future starter down the line. With a solid starting five and good depth, this is an above average offensive line, even if they will miss Brandon Scherff, who has been their best offensive lineman for years.
Washington’s running game wasn’t bad last season, but lead back Antonio Gibson was underwhelming, averaging just 4.02 YPC on 258 carries, with 7 rushing touchdowns. Gibson played through leg injuries for most of 2021 though and the 2020 3rd round pick was a lot better as a rookie, averaging 4.68 YPC on 170 carries and finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked running back in rushing grade, before falling to 52nd out of 64 eligible in 2021, so Gibson could easily bounce back in 2022 if he’s healthier.
Gibson is unlikely to have the same workload as a year ago though. Already ceding passing down snaps to converted wide receiver JD McKissic, having averaged a middling 1.26 yards per route run average for his career, Gibson now will have to compete with third round rookie Brian Robinson for early down work and, while Robinson is probably not a threat to Gibson’s starting job, he could easily take a significant amount of carries from Gibson, with head coach Ron Rivera comparing the duo to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart from his Carolina days.
In addition to showing promise as a runner, Robinson also caught 35 passes in his final season at the University of Alabama in 2021 and could easily take even more passing game work away from Gibson, but McKissic is likely to remain the primary passing down back either way, re-signing on a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal this off-season, originally committing to an identical deal with the Bills and then spurning them at the last second to return to Washington. McKissic has just 221 carries with a season high of 85 carries in six seasons in the league, but he has an impressive 1.50 yards per route run average for his career, including 1.81 yards per route run in 2021, and he is likely to remain an asset in the passing game again in 2022. He’s part of a solid, but unspectacular trio of backs in a crowded backfield.
In 2020, Washington’s strength was their defense, which was one of the best in the league, finishing 2nd in defensive efficiency, but they fell off in a big way in 2021, finishing just 26th in defensive efficiency. Part of that is just that elite defenses tend to have a much harder time repeating that performance the following season than an elite offense does, but Washington also had key players miss significant time with injury in 2021, most notably their edge defender duo of Chase Young and Montez Sweat, which was arguably the best in the league in 2020, who only played 477 snaps in 9 games and 483 snaps in 10 games respectively in 2021 due to injuries.
Young’s injury is the bigger concern because he tore his ACL in week 10 of last season, but he should be back in the lineup for week 1 and, even if the highly talented 2020 2nd overall pick doesn’t quite play at the level he’s played at thus far in his career, he’s played well enough that even slightly less than his best could make him one of the better players in the league at his position. Young was PFF’s 6th ranked edge defender as a rookie in 2020 and was on his way to another strong season in 2021 before getting hurt, ranking 23rd among edge defenders on PFF through week 10. Still only in his age 23 season, Young has the potential to develop into one of the best defensive players in the league long-term, even if his long-term projection is clouded by last season’s torn ACL. Even if he’s not 100%, his return should still be a big boost for this defense.
Sweat, on the other hand, mostly missed time last season with a broken jaw and, having not missed a game at all in his career prior to last season, the 2019 1st round pick has a great chance to play all or most of the season in 2022, barring a fluke injury. Sweat is a better run stopper than pass rusher, finishing 3rd and 6th among edge defenders in run defense grade on PFF over the past two seasons, but he’s also added 14 sacks, 20 hits, and a 10.5% pressure rate in 26 games, while finishing 12th and 24th among edge defenders over the past two seasons respectively. Still only in his age 26 season, I would expect his play to be at around the same level and for him to be significantly more available.
Making the absences of Young and Sweat worse was the fact that Washington didn’t have good depth at the position behind them, with none of their other edge defenders finishing even average on PFF. That’s not surprising because they went into the season with a pair of 2020 7th round picks with minimal experience in James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill as their top reserves and they predictably struggled when forced into larger roles, finishing 102nd and 121st respectively among 129 edge defenders on PFF across 388 snaps and 361 snaps respectively.
The Commanders didn’t add any edge defenders of note this off-season, so Smith-Williams and Toohill will likely remain the top reserves, though they could face competition from a pair of 2021 7th round picks Shaka Toney and Will Bradley-King, who played just 117 snaps and 59 snaps respectively as rookies, but could potentially still be better options than Smith-Williams or Toohill. However the reserve roles shake out, the Commanders are obviously hoping that they don’t need them as much as they did a year ago, with Young and Sweat expected to return from injury. Young and Sweat have as much potential as any edge defender duo in the NFL, but their lack of depth is still a notable concern, as it was going into last season.
The Commanders also have a pair of former first round picks starting on the interior of their defensive line as well, as they actually used a first round pick on a defensive lineman in four straight drafts, taking interior defenders Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne in 2017 and 2018 respectively, before taking Sweat and Young in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Like Young and Sweat, both Allen and Payne have panned out, with Allen actually coming off probably the best season of his career in the absence of Sweat and Young, finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked interior defender and dominating as a pass rusher from the interior, with 9 sacks, 15 hits, and a 13.7% pressure rate.
Allen was more of a middling player earlier in his career, but he was also PFF’s 15th ranked interior defender in 2020, while totaling 2 sacks, 12 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate, and he’s still only in his age 27 season, so he should remain a high level player again in 2022. Payne, on the other hand, is more of a middling player, but he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in all four seasons in the league. The 6-3 319 pounder is at his best against the run, but has also added 14.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 6.7% pressure rate as a pass rusher in 64 career games. He’s never finished higher than 46th among interior defenders on PFF overall, but that came last season and he’s only going into his age 25 season, so it’s possible he could have more untapped upside. He and Allen should remain a talented starting duo.
Depth is also a concern at the interior defender position though and that wasn’t the case last season, prior to losing Matt Ioannidis (608 snaps) and Tim Settle (210 snaps) this off-season, after a 2021 season in which they finished 40th and 29th among interior defenders on PFF. The Commanders did use a second round pick on Alabama’s Phidarian Mathis and he’ll play a key reserve role, but he’s just a rookie and their only other player at the position with any experience is Daniel Wise, a 2019 undrafted free agent who was underwhelming on the first 139 snaps of his career in 2022. Just as is true with Young and Sweat on the edge, the Commanders badly need Allen and Payne to stay healthy on the interior.
Washington also used a first round pick on a linebacker recently, taking Jamin Davis 19th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. Cole Holcomb was still their top off ball linebacker in 2021 though, playing almost every snap in the 16 games he played, averaging 63.8 snaps per game. Holcomb was only a middling starter, but the 2019 5th round pick finished 11th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2020 on 50.5 snaps per game and has finished with at least an average or better grade in all three seasons in the league. He’ll remain a starter in 2022, going into the final year of his rookie deal. He’ll be due a significant raise within the next year.
Davis was actually limited to 581 snaps as a rookie, despite playing in 16 games, but that’s because safety Landon Collins played a lot of linebacker in sub packages and he’s no longer with the team, leaving Davis to play every down in 2022. Collins mostly struggled in his sub package role last season, but Davis had a tough season of his own, finishing his rookie year 71th among 94 eligible off ball linebackers. He obviously has the upside to be a lot better going forward and could easily take a big step forward in year two, but he has a long way to go before even being a solid starting linebacker.
With Collins gone, veteran David Mayo is expected to be their top reserve, for lack of a better option. He’s been a solid run stopper when called on in his 7-year career, but he’s not as good in coverage and has only once played more than 200 snaps in a season in his career. He would almost definitely be overstretched if forced into a larger role, but their only other option is 2020 5th round pick Khaleke Hudson, who has played just 76 defensive snaps in two seasons in the league. Both would likely be a big liability if they had to take over for an injured starter. Holcomb and Davis could be a solid starting duo, but Davis is still a raw player and their depth is questionable.
Getting rid of Landon Collins also thins them out at safety a little bit, he struggled last season and the Commanders still have good depth without him. Bobby McCain and Kamren Curl return as the starters after finishing 30th and 33rd respectively among safeties on PFF as the starters last season. For Curl, it was his second straight season around there, with the 2020 7th round pick finishing 30th among safeties on PFF as a 11-game starter as a rookie. Still only in his age 23 season, he could have more untapped upside and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had his best season yet in 2022. He was a steal as a 7th round pick, even if he never develops beyond being a solid starter.
For McCain, it was his best season since 2017 and the second best season of his 7-year career. He’s been mostly a capable starter in his career though, first at cornerback and now at safety since making the position change following the 2018 season, and, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was a year ago, he shouldn’t be a liability as a starter. The Commanders also have Jeremy Reaves as a reserve option and, while he’s only played 571 snaps and made 8 starts in 4 seasons in the league, he’s shown some promise in limited action and is only in his age 26 season. On top of that, the Commanders added a Percy Butler in the 4th round of the draft to give them additional depth, along with 2021 5th round pick Darrick Forrest (26 rookie year snaps).
At cornerback, the Commanders have a pair of highly paid veterans, with William Jackson and Kendall Fuller on contracts worth 40.5 million over 3 years and 40 million over 4 years respectively. Jackson had a down year in his first season in Washington in 2021 though, finishing 91st among 134 eligible cornerbacks while being limited to 748 snaps in 12 games by injury, after finishing above average on PFF in three of four healthy seasons in Cincinnati, including a 26th ranked finish in 2020. Jackson is going into his age 30 season with a concerning injury history, having played in every game once in six seasons in the league, while missing 26 games total over that stretch, but he was PFF’s 17th ranked cornerback from week 10 on in 2021 (6 games) and has a good chance to bounce back and at least be better than he was a year ago.
Fortunately, Kendall Fuller picked up Jackson’s slack in 2021, finishing as PFF’s 6th ranked cornerback. Last season was Fuller’s best finish since 2017, when he was PFF’s 2nd ranked cornerback, but he’s also finished average or better on PFF in five straight years, so he’s a reliable starter at the very least and, still only in his age 27 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had another above average season, even if he isn’t quite as good as a year ago. Fuller may regress a little, but Jackson has a good chance to be better, so they’re at least a solid cornerback duo.
Depth was a problem at the cornerback position last season though and figures to be a concern again in 2022. Benjamin St-Juste (318 snaps) and Danny Johnson (336 snaps) were their top reserves last season, but St-Juste finished 115th out of 134 eligible cornerbacks and, while Johnson was decent, he’s a 2018 undrafted free agent who had barely played in his first three seasons in the league (141 defensive snaps total), so it would be hard to rely on him in a bigger role. St-Juste was a 3rd round pick in 2021 and he has a good chance to be better in year two, so he’s probably the favorite for the #3 cornerback job, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued struggling. It’s a concern for an otherwise solid secondary.
The Commanders are coming off a 12th ranked season in special teams DVOA, but they lost DeAndre Carter in free agency without replacing him and he was PFF’s 7th ranked return man last season, so they’ll likely struggle more in that aspect than they did a year ago. Options to replace Carter include Jahar Dotson, who returned 25 punts and scored a 81-yard touchdown in his collegiate career, Brian Robinson, who returned 11 kicks in his collegiate career, and veteran Alex Erickson, who has experience as a kickoff and punt returner, but who also has been underwhelming, has returned just 10 kicks in the past three seasons, and would require the Commanders to carry an extra receiver who likely would not contribute much on offense.
The Commanders do bring back their best kicker from a year ago Joey Slye, a capable punter in Tress Way, and their two best core special teamers Khaleke Hudson and David Mayo, who were both top-50 special teamers on PFF, so this probably won’t be a bad group, but they are likely to struggle in the return game and Slye has a history of inconsistency, now on his fifth team in four seasons in the league. I would expect them to be below average, but probably only slightly.
The quarterback position is still a problem for the Commanders, but this is a pretty solid overall roster, with an upgraded, healthier receiving corps, an offensive line that is likely to be healthier, a likely improved running game, and a healthier defense, particularly their two star edge defenders Chase Young and Montez Sweat. They’re still behind the Cowboys and Eagles in the division, but they’ll likely win at least a couple more games than a year ago and compete for a wild card spot, which it wouldn’t surprise me if they ultimately got, playing in the weaker of the two conferences in the NFC. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Final Prediction: The Commanders chances at a wild card spot will take a hit with Chase Young not healthy enough to return for the start of the season, but they should still be a competitive team this season.
Prediction: 9-8, 3rd in NFC East