WASHINGTON, DC (AP) — The Washington Commanders go into a critical season with new owners watching closely. Josh Harris and his group figure to use the next several months to decide what changes to make since taking over the storied franchise. Ron Rivera goes into his fourth season as coach and head of football operations with yet another new starting quarterback. That job falls to 2022 fifth-round pick Sam Howell to run new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy’s system. The offense keeping up with the defense that has big expectations is the key to Washington contending for a playoff spot in the NFC.
WASHINGTON COMMANDERS (8-8-1)
EXPECTATIONS: Under new ownership, there’s an eye toward the playoffs internally, even if from the outside the Commanders are being picked to finish last in a loaded NFC East. The pressure is certainly on fourth-year coach Ron Rivera to show a group led by Josh Harris and including Magic Johnson that he deserves to stick around beyond this season. To try to make that happen, he has hired Eric Bieniemy as offensive coordinator, fresh off the longtime assistant winning the Super Bowl again with Kansas City. Rivera and Bieniemy are also putting faith in another new quarterback, 2022 fifth-round pick Sam Howell, to be the starter after just one game of NFL experience. The offense keeping up with the defense, which ranked third in the league last year and again should perform at a high level, is the key to whether Washington can contend for a wild-card spot.
NEW FACES: Bieniemy, QB Jacoby Brissett, OT Andrew Wylie, C Nick Gates, WR Byron Pringle, LB Cody Barton, CB Emmanuel Forbes, DB Quan Martin, quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard.
KEY LOSSES: QB Taylor Heinicke, QB Carson Wentz, LB Cole Holcomb, S Bobby McCain, RB J.D. McKissic, C Chase Roullier, offensive line coach John Matsko.
STRENGTHS: The Commanders may have the best defensive line in football, led by tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne and featuring edge rushers Montez Sweat and Chase Young. If Allen, Payne and Sweat repeat anything close to their 2022 performances and Young returns to his 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year form 20-plus months removed from ACL surgery, Washington’s defense should be a difference-maker again. The secondary should also improve after drafting Forbes in the first round.
WEAKNESSES: The remade offensive line is a huge question mark, and in turn that affects how well Howell might handle being a starter in the pros for the first time. The North Carolina product has plenty of talent around him in wide receivers Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson and running backs Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson and should be helped by Bieniemy’s expertise. Washington’s offense has to prove it before anyone will believe this unit can take a step forward.
CAMP DEVELOPMENT: Forbes, despite being the leanest player on the field, has stood out as one of the feistiest and strongest players on defense. Very generously listed at 180 pounds, the 16th pick out of Mississippi State has earned spot as one of the three starting cornerbacks.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: McLaurin, as long as a preseason toe injury doesn’t slow him down, should be good for another season of 1,000-plus receiving yards. Despite a revolving door of quarterbacks, McLaurin has done that each of the past three years. If Dotson continues to progress in his second season and Samuel stays healthy, that’s even more reason to believe in McLaurin producing a significant number of yards, catches and touchdowns.
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK SAYS: Win Super Bowl: 65-1. Over/under wins: 6 1/2