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State of the 2023 Washington Commanders: Pivotal year for Ron Rivera, Sam Howell and Co.

Where does your squad stand in 2023? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Commanders organization, Commanders fans around the world and those who kind of actually liked "The Washington Football Team" (I'll admit, I was one of them) ...

The football team that has represented our nation's capital was once the model of consistency. Annual playoff contender. Super Bowl champion -- multiple times, actually. The envy of franchises across the league. The last few decades, though? Not so much. But there is new optimism on the horizon, as a new ownership group is expected to take the reins. While that will have long-term ramifications, what about this year? Can Washington log its first winning season since 2016? Well, before we look forward, it's important to look back.

2022 rewind

One high from last season: Catching fire midseason. You know, I famously make predictions for the NFL Media group. I'm sure you've seen the memes. I had Washington missing the playoffs last year, and Commanders fans came after me on Twitter before the season started. Then Washington started 1-4, and those fans magically disappeared. But somehow, they all returned when the club won six of seven games to improve to 7-5 before facing off against the Giants just prior to the bye week. In a stunning development, those fans would soon disappear again.

One low from last season: Crumbling down the stretch. The Commanders tied the Giants, then came out of the bye week and lost three consecutive games to fall out of the playoff race. They beat the Cowboys in the season finale, which was fun, but ultimately didn't mean much.

2023 VIPs

Quarterback: Sam Howell. Ron Rivera seems committed to going with the 2022 fifth-round pick to start the season. Does this strike you as risky business? Well, it's worth pointing out that Brock Purdy's stunning emergence last season in San Francisco has given life to late-round QBs. Of course, Tom Brady kinda did that first. Shoot, Tony Romo wasn't even drafted. And Mike White enjoyed modest success last year as a former fifth-rounder. To his credit, Howell made one start last season and was actually pretty good, guiding Washington to a 26-6 win over Dallas in Week 18. So why not give him a shot at this point, eh? I'm into it.

But the question I keep coming back to for Rivera: Is this really the best way to get after it if you're trying to save your job? That's why the signing of journeyman QB Jacoby Brissett is so interesting. Brissett is an A+ backup quarterback, but isn't a franchise guy. It will be fascinating to see how long a rope Howell gets. If the kid struggles, how quickly will Rivera look to bring in the veteran reliever?

Projected 2023 MVP: Terry McLaurin, wide receiver. He's one of the most underappreciated players in the league right now, having logged three straight 1,000-yard seasons despite Washington's revolving door at the game's most important position. It's like vintage Allen Robinson, where McLaurin's production is all the more amazing when you consider the number -- and caliber -- of quarterbacks delivering him the football. Can Howell-to-McLaurin become the connection that sticks?

New face to know: Tim Demorat, quarterback. Here is an undrafted free-agent signee who made some noise at rookie minicamp by throwing bombs to receivers. There is a scenario -- remember last year in Washington? -- where the fans turn on the top two passers on the depth chart and demand Demorat gets in a game. And if you're scratching your head because you've never heard of this guy, he went to Fordham. FORDHAM!

2023 breakout star: Jahan Dotson, wide receiver. I know it's kind of weird to have McLaurin as the MVP and Dotson as the breakout star -- especially given the question mark at quarterback -- but here we are. Just look at that Week 18 game against the Cowboys. Now, our guy Terry was a stud, hauling in three receptions for 74 yards and a touchdown (that score wasn't even the 52-yard reception, either). But Dotson's three receptions for 72 yards really stood out to me. He jumped off the film and was out there just blowing past Cowboys defenders. This is what the Commanders need this season.

2023 braintrust

Table inside Article
Head coach Ron Rivera
General manager Martin Mayhew
Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio
Special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor
  • Ron Rivera is a great guy. Great human being. And it makes plenty of sense to keep him around as the team goes through an ownership change. But Rivera -- again, great guy -- gives off a Jeff Fisher vibe. And not knowing his team's playoff standing toward the end of last season wasn't a great look. The thing that really concerns me is Rivera hasn't coached a winning season since 2017. In fact, over 12 years as a head coach, he's only finished above .500 three times. There is no doubt he's coaching for his job in 2023. And there's a chance he might not make it to the end of the season, but I'll touch on that in just a moment.
  • Like everyone else, I hope Eric Bieniemy gets a chance to prove himself as a head coach someday. It appeared that he wasn't going to get that opportunity if he stayed in Kansas City, with the perception that he was in the play-calling shadow of Andy Reid. (A perception, by the way, which made no sense, considering Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy got head-coaching opportunities after serving as Reid's offensive coordinator in K.C. But I digress.) I do find it interesting that Bieniemy joined a staff with a head coach on the hot seat. I mean, if this team starts out 1-5, would GM Martin Mayhew hesitate to make a switch, giving Eric a chance to audition for the long-term gig? That's something to keep an eye on, for sure.

Roster reshuffling

Below is a rundown of the Commanders' most notable roster developments for the 2023 season, including this year's draft class, as well as key acquisitions and departures via free agency and trade.

Table inside Article
Draft class (round-pick) Key additions Key departures
Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Mississippi State (1-16) Jacoby Brissett, QB Taylor Heinicke, QB
Jartavius Martin, DB, Illinois (2-47) Andrew Wylie, OL Carson Wentz, QB
Ricky Stromberg, C, Arkansas (3-97) Nick Gates, OL Wes Schweitzer, OG
Braeden Daniels, OL, Utah (4-118) Cody Barton, LB Trai Turner, OG
KJ Henry, Edge, Clemson (5-137) Cole Holcomb, LB
Chris Rodriguez Jr., RB, Kentucky (6-193) Bobby McCain, S
Andre Jones Jr., Edge, Louisiana (7-233)

2023 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 4 at Philadelphia Eagles. The Commanders open with the Cardinals, Broncos and Bills. They have a chance to be 2-1 headed into this showdown with the Eagles. And hey, the Commanders have won two of their last three in Philadelphia, including last season's 32-21 triumph on a Monday night in mid-November.
  • Week 5 vs. Chicago Bears (Thursday night). This matchup was the game that kick-started the Commanders' midseason revival last season. And with this Thursday Night Football tilt coming right after the aforementioned huge game against the Eagles, it will be interesting to see if the Commanders can recapture the magic.
  • Week 12 at Dallas Cowboys (Thanksgiving). The Commanders and Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day is always a treat. Especially when the roadies end up winning convincingly. I mean, I'm probably taking the Cowboys, but this should be a fun contest. The Commanders also close the regular season at home against the Cowboys (again), a game that could have playoff implications. Or both teams could be eliminated.

Will the Commanders be able to ...

... win a bunch of games in the trenches? The Commanders have, what, like 20 guys on the defensive line who were drafted in the first round? They have invested heavily in the position group. It's like owning a house with the most amazing floors ... but the drywall has been replaced with balsa wood. The foundation is great, but the rest is rather flimsy. I do love that the defensive line is led by Jonathan Allen; if Terry McLaurin is the MVP on the offensive side of things, Allen is the defensive dude. What's interesting is the Commanders' offseason work on the offensive line. Free-agent signees Andrew Wylie, Nick Gates and Trent Scott aren't names that scream championship, but they are notable additions for a team that let Wes Schweitzer leave in free agency and released injury-riddled center Chase Roullier. The team also selected pivot Ricky Stromberg with a top-100 pick in the draft. The Commanders could be in business if the offensive line can match the production of the defensive line. That's a huge IF, though.

And wait, what about Chase Young? These things always find a way to work themselves out. They always do. I expect Young -- who hasn't been attending OTAs after Washington chose not to exercise his fifth-year option -- to be a Commander when the season starts. It makes too much sense. This is a contract year for the former No. 2 overall pick, after all. And with the uncertainty at quarterback, Washington needs this defense to carry the load. But like the situation with the head coach, what happens if this season goes south? I don't mean to be so dour, because it could work out. But it could also be like when Von Miller was dealt to the Rams before the trade deadline a couple of years ago. Could Young be traded away for draft capital at some point? It's a possibility.

... significantly improve in the secondary? We know about the defensive line. It's great. But is there a chance the defensive backfield rises to the occasion? It was a mild surprise when the Commanders took Emmanuel Forbes at No. 16 overall, making him the second cornerback selected. He was Daniel Jeremiah's CB5. The knock on the 6-foot-1 Forbes is that he's rather thin, checking in at 166 pounds, but the dude is absolutely electric when you watch the tape. And Forbes stood out at rookie minicamp, drawing rave reviews all May. The team also used its second-round pick on Jartavius Martin to help rebuild the secondary. Will these highly drafted rookies hit the ground running?

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overlook: What Eric Bieniemy will do with these talented running backs. Brian Robinson Jr. was very good as a rookie, racking up nearly 800 rushing yards with three total touchdowns in 12 games. I'm really interested to see what could happen with Antonio Gibson, the talented former receiver from Memphis. I know it's really lazy to just look at Gibson, who had 195 touches for 899 yards and five touchdowns in 2022, and feel like he can play a pivotal role similar to what Jerick McKinnon provided in Kansas City last season. Or is it? Coach Rivera even stressed that wants to get Gibson more involved in the offense, saying he's excited to see what Bieniemy can unlock with this running back. I'm here for it. The Commanders have some interesting offensive weaponry -- which, again, underscores the boldness of not bringing in more of a marquee quarterback this offseason.

For 2023 to be a success, the Commanders MUST:

  • Be good enough to make the playoffs or bad enough to secure a top-five pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. About the worst thing Washington could do is finish 7-10, not make the playoffs and have to move a bevy of picks to potentially draft a quarterback of the future. I don't know. I feel for you, Commanders fans. You've been through so much over the last decade, including two name changes. It feels like you're almost through the storm.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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