Positioning

Commanders OTAs: Under-the-radar standouts include Bobby McCain, new veteran O-linemen – The Athletic

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Maybe it’s because the most incredible fantasy football league feud ever is still wafting in the air, but a common draft strategy came to mind when pondering the Washington Commanders.
Specifically, “stars and scrubs,” an auction-league approach where the fantasy owner spends big on top talent and then fills in the gaps on the cheap. This isn’t about slapping the Commanders’ roster, their salary-cap situation or their Terry McLaurin conundrum. Rather, it’s about which players receive the most media attention during the offseason program. Swap out “scrubs” for rookies, and you get the point.
We spend oodles of time on Carson Wentz’s journey, Chase Young’s rehab, McLaurin’s contract, Jahan Dotson’s arrival and other prominent players for good reasons. As these talents go, so go the Commanders’ fortunes for the season. Also, fans care about the stars and rookies. These are the jerseys they buy, the autographs they seek, the stories they read. But these players alone don’t win games.
Not in the ultimate team sport with 22 starters, special teams contributors and a 53-player roster. Many, if not all, of these low-key starters, rotation pieces or deep reserves will receive shine by the time Washington finishes training camp in August. Why wait? Here’s a look at some of the others doing their thing during organized team activities.
Washington signed the former cornerback-turned-safety signed to a one-year deal during the OTA period last year following his release from the Dolphins to provide stability to a position room rarely finding any through the years. McCain quickly went from new guy to old hat with a no-nonsense presence and efficient game. The pairing with Kamren Curl provided Washington with its most reliable safety tandem in years.
That’s why it seemed logical Washington would seek to retain McCain this offseason. Obviously, those in charge agreed, as the two sides inked a two-year deal, meaning the four starters in the secondary would be back. For a group that struggled with on-field communication, such familiarity is needed. By all accounts, it’s working.
“It helps a lot, man, just knowing the brothers, knowing your guys next to you,” said McCain, now a clear defensive leader in the secondary. “You’re able to talk to them and talk to them confidently. Some guys, you come in, and if you’re a new guy, you can’t talk to everybody the same way. But we all know each other pretty well, so it’s pretty easy.”
At 28, McCain is tied (he and linebacker David Mayo were born on the same day) for the third-oldest member of the defense behind lineman Efe Obada (30) and cornerback William Jackson III (29). His seven years of NFL experience tops the other main safety roster contenders — Kam Curl (two), Darrick Forrest (one) and rookie Percy Butler — combined.
“We got a lot of young guys in the room, so just trying to just be myself and be there for them,” McCain said following Wednesday’s OTA session. “I told them, I said, ‘I’m here to help you guys, as always.’”
The versatile McCain revealed he’s also here to potentially help the Commanders in a different role. Washington is experimenting with how it uses the 11th defender. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio deployed three safeties often last season. That’s in play for 2022, even after releasing Landon Collins, with Butler or Curl in the “Buffalo” nickel role — and McCain at slot corner.
“I would like to think so,” McCain said of frequently using three safeties. “It helps when you have guys in the back ends. Like last year, with me, ‘Lando’ and Kam, (we) can do all things. This year, we got guys that can do all things, so it definitely helps. It definitely makes it a lot easier on the D-coordinator for calling plays ’cause you got guys that can do anything.”
That do-anything list starts with the dynamic Curl, who ranks among Washington’s breakout candidates.
“He’s growing, man, it’s his third year. People tend to forget he’s young,” McCain said. “So him just playing how he’s been playing and doing what he’s been doing so early in his career, it’s really good for him. Now he’s able to sit back and things are slow, and you can tell he’s become more of a leader and he’s become more vocal, and that’s really big for us and really big for him.”
Rivera often cited the offensive line’s high ranking with a prominent analytics website as an attractive aspect for a prospective new quarterback. Then Washington lost Scherff in free agency and took a calculated risk by releasing left guard Ereck Flowers in another cap-related move.
They did the latter knowing Norwell was set to sign in free agency. Turner arrived post-draft. Both guards have decorated resumes and ties to Rivera from their days at Carolina. The pair are also past their prime, which is why guard play ranked high on the list of concerns for analyst Logan Paulsen this offseason. Then he watched them in practice.
“So if you’d asked me (about roster fears) before OTAs, I would have said Norwell and Turner,” Paulsen, a former NFL tight end, said during the first week of OTAs. “But after watching them in practice, I think that’s going to be actually — I don’t want to say an upgrade, but a very, very solid group of interior players. Just the way they’re competing … and the way they move and the way they’re executing the runs and the way they understand the scheme.
“In some ways, it might be an upgrade because they understand the scheme at such a high level.”
Trai Turner, a 17-game starter for Pittsburgh last season, worked with Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner in Carolina. He and Norwell, released by the Jaguars this offseason, played under OL coach John Matsko with the Panthers.
“Those guys are both physical guys,” Turner said. “Highly accountable. Leadership-type players. They know what to expect from Coach Matsko — all of our guys do that have been with him for a couple of years now. They’re both top-level, former All-Pro guards. Anytime you can add guys like that to your team, you want to do that.”
(Editor’s note: Norwell was first-team All-Pro in 2017 in Carolina, while Turner was a five-time Pro Bowler with the Panthers but was never first- or second-team All-Pro.)
Speaking of the interior linemen …
The Commanders released Matt Ioannidis and Collins for salary-cap savings this offseason. They could have held onto Ioannidis or saved another $4.8 million with only $1 million in dead cap by cutting ties with Schweitzer, who was signed in 2020 as part of the first free-agent class under Rivera. Instead, Washington kept the climbiest of offensive linemen for a couple of reasons.
The most obvious is because longtime right guard Brandon Scherff now plays for Jacksonville. Schweitzer served as a viable replacement when the five-time Pro Bowler missed games with injuries last season. Schweitzer may line up next to right tackle Sam Cosmi rather than Turner when Scherff and the Jaguars visit FedExField for the opener. That is unless he’s positioned one spot over at the pivot.
Chase Roullier (fibula) and Tyler Larsen (Achilles), Washington’s top two centers last season, are in rehab mode. They have worked on the side field with the training staff during OTAs while Schweitzer has manned the middle of the line. It’s unclear when either will return. Roullier would resume his starting role once healthy, but Larsen faces a roster battle, especially with Schweitzer showing he can handle the role.
Speaking of centers, Chase Roullier continues his recovery from that Week 8 leg/ankle injury with an eye toward participating in training camp, I'm told. https://t.co/GC3kobvsD7 https://t.co/Clhp37AqAx
— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) March 14, 2022

There’s quite the hodge-podge of reserve defensive linemen, the bulk of whom have limited NFL experience or status. Smith-Williams, along with Shaka Toney and William Bradley-King, were late-round selections, the kind of players destined to be overlooked. But the 2020 seventh-round pick emerged as the primary backup defensive end to Montz Sweat and Chase Young last season. Based on early camp work, he’s showing no intention of letting go of that role.
With Young on the mend from last season’s ACL tear, Smith-Williams has lined up with the first-team at left end. Not a natural edge rusher, the 265-pounder wins with athleticism, quickness and strength, plus the play-to-play discipline he flashed when thrust into the starting lineup last season. Smith-Williams and Obada can also slide inside on passing downs.
Washington reportedly tried to claim ex-Falcon defensive lineman John Cominsky this week, a sign it is still seeking depth upgrades.
Let’s say Logan Thomas returns in nine months from his December ACL tear. That means September. Maybe sooner, but Week 1 is in some doubt until we’re told otherwise. That would leave Bates in the starting role, and the second-year tight end is showing he should be fine with the extra responsibilities.
The unflashy Bates remains a low-key figure in camp, but the 6-foot-6 tight end made an impressive contested catch during Wednesday’s practice. The 2021 fourth-round pick’s broad draft evaluation highlighted his blocking skills, but Bates has exceeded initial expectations as a pass catcher. He hauled in 20 of the 25 targets thrown his way during his rookie season for an average of 12.5 yards per game.
Bates isn’t typically mentioned when running down the list of Washington’s passing-game targets. Fifth-round pick Cole Turner, a curly-haired receiver in a tight end frame, is. The latter appears warranted, but nobody should sleep on Bates’ potential.
The 2021 fifth-round pick arrived with the strong special teams credentials but was a work-in-progress as a safety. Then the University of Cincinnati alum landed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Forrest played in eight games but took only 25 defensive snaps. Then the Commanders drafted Butler in the fourth round, which in turn dropped Forrest down the depth chart and certainly from any rotation discussion.
That hasn’t necessarily changed through two weeks of OTAs. Though Forrest’s athleticism and aggressiveness have popped at times, he’s also been on the wrong end of plays down the field.
Troy Apke appears to have shifted back to safety after a year at cornerback, and holdover Jeremy Reaves offers some depth. The coaches have let those two work ahead of Forrest in position drills, likely in deference to their veteran status rather than an indication they are in the lead for the fourth safety spot.
(Top photo of Bobby McCain: Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

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