Who Should Be Worried?
The Washington Commanders enter the 2022 NFL season with a starting lineup almost totally predetermined by the depth chart from last year. Of the 22 opening day starters from a year ago, 16 will return this season.
Having that type of roster carry-over presents the question; should we be focused on anyone threatening to take a starting role from any of those 16 players?
Players Not Returning
Six starters from last season’s opening day game against the Los Angeles Chargers are no longer on Washington’s roster. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Adam Humphries, Ereck Flowers, Brandon Scherff, Jon Bostic, and Landon Collins were not brought back this year.
Fitzpatrick, Collins, and Bostic all lost their roles last year due to injury. The injury to Collins gave defensive back Bobby McCain a chance to slide over and spend time in the starting lineup at free safety. McCain finished the year with 63 tackles, nine pass defenses, four interceptions, and one touchdown.
Washington uses a lot of three safety sets which opens things up to the possibility of four players rotating.
McCain’s role should be a bit different in 2022 if players like Jeremy Reaves and rookie Percy Butler step up. Reaves played well in 2020 when given the chance to start, but spent most of his time last year caught up in roster rotation and only started two games in five appearances.
Commanders head coach Ron Rivera has given big praise to Butler whenever asked this offseason. “Percy’s speed really shows,” Rivera said after a mini-camp practice. “You watch him move around, and you go, ‘Wow. That dude can flat-out run.’”
Should those players step up, McCain can then be used more in what is his best position, slot-corner. He can get the job done at free safety, but if Rivera wants to get the most out of McCain he’ll look to develop others or keep the rotational approach going. With Washington using a 4-2-5 set more frequently these days, the slot corner becomes one of the most important positions on the field.
Should Any Returning Starters Worry?
Looking at the 16 returning starters on the roster, there’s not much chance they’ll lose their jobs. There are, however, a couple of exceptions to this as extenuating circumstances could lead to a couple of them having someone else step into their role.
For example, Curtis Samuel was listed as the opening day starter before having an injury-plagued campaign last year that allowed him to appear in just five games. If Samuel can’t stay healthy this season rookie Jahan Dotson should be willing and able to step up. While Dotson is expected to be the slot receiver, it should not surprise anyone if he starts the year as the number two across from Terry McLaurin.
Another example could be determined by how much Antonio Gibson improved his ball-carrying skills this offseason. Gibson has now fumbled eight times in his career, six times last year alone (losing four).
It’s not just that Gibson fumbles, it’s also been a major issue about when he fumbles. A running back’s first priority will always be holding onto the ball, regardless if he’s a homerun threat every time he touches it or not.
The reason he remains the starter despite his issues is without a doubt his playmaking ability. In 30 games (24 starts) Gibson has put up 1832 yards rushing on 428 attempts and scored 18 times. He’s also recorded 78 catches for 541 yards with three touchdowns receiving.
According to ESPN’s John Keim, Gibson worked on his fumbling issues with trainer Kerry Bennett at his facility in Katy, Texas this offseason.
To address his fumbling, Gibson ran plays with Bennett carrying a three-pound ball (about two pounds heavier than a regulation ball). With the added weight, Gibson could better feel when the ball wasn’t tight against his body. Bennett also challenged Gibson by placing a series of five-foot hurdles made of PVC pipes that he had to run under while cutting.
Beyond Gibson’s fumbling issues, his spot as the team’s starting running back is by no means 100% secure heading into camp. Rookie Brian Robinson can get the job done and should be viewed as a threat.
Robinson is more of an ‘inside the tackles’ type of back, which means Gibson could already be in line for fewer goalline carries. Mix that with the team wanting to get Gibson more touches in the passing game, and the fact they have J.D. McKissic looking for touches as well, and you could see fewer carries for the back we currently assume is the starter.
This is one situation we should pay attention to heading into training camp. If Gibson has any issues holding onto the ball during preseason, a shift to someone new is possible.