BALTIMORE — The Washington Commanders couldn’t end the Baltimore Ravens’ preseason streak. But in Saturday’s 17-15 loss, coach Ron Rivera and his staff got one last game to evaluate those fighting for a roster spot before cuts are due Tuesday.
To get the most out of the evaluation process, Rivera sat almost all of his starters — giving him an extended look at his backups. That mattered more to the coach than trying to top the Ravens, who have now won 23 straight exhibition contests.
“There were … somewhere in the neighborhood about four to seven,” Rivera said when asked how many spots were up for grabs entering the weekend. “Guys that we felt were really battling it out, whether it be the last or second to last guy at each position. We just felt there was a pretty good battle going on.”
With the preseason over, here’s a projection of how Washington will scale down from 80 to 53 players in the coming days.
Quarterback (3): Carson Wentz, Taylor Heinicke, Sam Howell. This trio was set from the moment that Washington drafted Howell in April, so let’s use this space to briefly discuss the fifth-rounder’s development. The rookie showed real flashes in the preseason, including against the Ravens when he threw for 280 yards and rushed for 62 more. Howell’s toughness, in particular, stands out every time he escapes the pocket and is willing to take on a defender or two to gain an extra yard. But in the future, he’ll have to be better at avoiding contact as he was sacked nine times in three preseason games. Five of those hits came against the Ravens.
Still, make no mistake, the starting job belongs to Wentz, whose performance seemed to turn a corner after the team’s Aug. 6 stadium practice. Washington’s success this season will likely come down to whether Wentz plays well. Buckle up.
Running back (3): Brian Robinson, Antonio Gibson, J.D. McKissic. The most significant development of the Commanders’ camp was arguably that the pecking order for this position changed. After Gibson fumbled in the first preseason game, Washington has appeared to use Robinson, a third-round rookie out of Alabama, more as its lead back. Gibson will still be involved, but Rivera said Thursday that the running back will likely be the starting kick returner — marking another sign of Robinson’s emergence.
The notable cuts here are Jonathan Williams and Jaret Patterson. Williams could easily make it if the team elects to keep four. Patterson, last year’s fan favorite, didn’t have nearly the same type of camp as he did when he made the 53-man roster in 2021.
Wide receiver (6): Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson, Cam Sims, Dyami Brown, Dax Milne. The battle of Milne versus Alex Erickson appears to be one of the closer competitions on the roster as both have overlapping skill sets. Erickson and Milne traded turns as the punt returner in Saturday’s finale, with Erickson performing slightly better. But Milne, a 2021 seventh-rounder, has been more consistent as a receiver and can hold his own in the return game. His upside should give him the edge to make it.
The Commanders kept seven receivers last year, so maybe it’s a possibility they do so again. But it would be a surprise if that happened.
Tight end (4): Logan Thomas, John Bates, Cole Turner and Armani Rogers. Injuries wrecked this position over the summer with Thomas (ACL), Bates (calf) and Turner (hamstring) all missing significant time. Fortunately for Washington, all three seem to be progressing with Thomas returning to practice and Bates and Turner getting healthier. Rivera told NBC Sports Washington that at least two of the three should be ready for Week 1.
In any event, the absences created a great opportunity for Rogers — an undrafted free agent who played quarterback in college. The 24-year-old has had a strong summer.
Offensive line (10): Charles Leno, Andrew Norwell, Chase Roullier, Trai Turner, Sam Cosmi, Wes Schweitzer, Saahdiq Charles, Cornelius Lucas, Chris Paul and Keith Ismael. The biggest question with this group is whether Turner or Schweitzer start at right guard. That position battle rarely got off the ground, with Turner (quad) missing most of camp. The five-time Pro Bowler returned to individual drills in practice last week and is working his way back, but it’s unclear if he’ll be available for the opener.
Elsewhere, Ismael, a 2020 fifth-rounder who missed Saturday’s game because of an injury, could be in jeopardy of missing the roster, but pencil him in for now since Rivera prefers depth in the trenches.
Defensive line (9): Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, James Smith-Williams, Phidarian Mathis, Casey Toohill, Efe Obada, Daniel Wise, Shaka Toney. Chase Young won’t count as a roster spot to begin this season after Washington placed the defensive end on the reserve/physically unable to perform list. That creates room for Washington to keep someone like Wise, a stout lineman who can on both the interior and the outside. David Bada also gets to stick around, though he won’t count toward a roster spot as he’s part of the International Player Pathway Program.
Linebacker (4): Cole Holcomb, Jamin Davis, David Mayo, Khaleke Hudson. It was a strange sight to see Davis play in Saturday’s game as Washington rested all but three of its normal starters. The second-year linebacker played in two series before sitting the rest of the contest. Rivera said afterward he wanted to see Davis get an extra few reps. Regardless of the reason, this is perhaps the Commanders’ weakest position. It wouldn’t be surprising to see if Washington adds another linebacker to its roster shortly after every team’s 53-man rosters are set Tuesday.
Washington kept only four linebackers last year after cut-down day, only to add a fifth (Mayo) days later.
Cornerback (6): Kendall Fuller, William Jackson III, Benjamin St-Juste, Danny Johnson, Corn Elder, Christian Holmes. Washington will need this unit to perform better in 2022, despite keeping the group largely the same. The Commanders allowed the fourth-most passing yards in 2021, but the team is banking on continuity to help improve in that area. Holmes, a seventh-rounder out of Oklahoma State, is the only new addition among the cornerbacks projected to survive cuts.
Safety (5): Kam Curl, Bobby McCain, Darrick Forrest, Percy Butler, Jeremy Reaves. After being released the last three seasons on cutdown day, Reaves has made a strong argument to finally make the opening day 53. The safety has performed well all summer, including Saturday when he delivered a thumping four-yard tackle for loss on third-and-2 for the stop.
Forrest, meanwhile, is in line for a lot more playing time this season. The 2021 fifth-rounder appeared in only eight of 17 games last year — and mostly on special teams — but he has now carved a role as the Commanders’ third safety after Landon Collins was released in the offseason.
Special teams (3): kicker Joey Slye, punter Tress Way, long snapper Camaron Cheeseman. Slye solved Washington’s kicking problems last year when he was acquired midseason, going 12 of 12 from field goal range and 9 of 10 on extra points. But the 26-year-old had a shaky preseason, missing a 43-yarder against the Ravens and an extra-point attempt in the team’s preseason opener against Carolina. Slye will almost assuredly make the 53, but the situation bears monitoring to see if the issue continues into the regular season.
• Matthew Paras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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