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2023 Player Outlooks: Washington Commanders

By Nick Caron | 6/15/23 |

QB Sam Howell
(2022 QB Rank – No. 60, 22.0 FPts/G)

At this point, Washington is a perennial “not-quite-good-enough to be contender / not-quite-bad-enough to have a high draft pick” franchise, and that, along with some ancillary personnel decisions, has really hurt the team’s ability to land a true difference-making quarterback. The Commanders’ 2022 quarterback situation was all over the place, with three different quarterbacks starting games, two of whom are no longer with the franchise after the team moved on from Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke.

Now heading into his second professional season, Sam Howell appears most likely to be the Commanders’ Week 1 starter despite having only started one game as a rookie in 2022. Howell threw for 169 yards, a touchdown, and an interception in that start, a Week 18 victory over the Cowboys who were headed to the playoffs. Notably, Howell also added 35 yards on the ground, which is certainly in line with how he played during his final season at North Carolina prior to being drafted, in which he rushed for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns. That season, however, was a far stretch from what we saw from him as the Tar Heels’ starter in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, which saw him rush for a total of just 181 yards and six scores in those two seasons combined.

Howell should be in line to start this season, but head coach Ron Rivera has seemingly taken steps back in declaring Howell as the official starter despite the fact that he is operating as the team’s QB1 thus far. Rivera has stated that it is an open competition and that he would be comfortable if veteran Jacoby Brissett came out on top. We’ve seen this situation play out many times throughout recent history and teams almost always end up going with the younger, higher upside option as long as it’s not a complete landslide victory in the veteran’s favor, but fantasy managers should beware that the Commanders have shown a propensity to move on from their quarterbacks—even young ones— if they’re not performing at a satisfactory level. That could mean a shorter-than-expected leash for Howell if things don’t go well out of the gate.

On a positive note, Howell does step into an offense that is better than many casual fans believe, with some truly impressive pass-catchers at just about every level. His under-the-radar rushing upside makes him an interesting late-round dart throw in two-QB and SuperFlex leagues. He’s unlikely to deliver high-end fantasy production, but a campaign like Daniel Jones’ 2022 season is not out of the question.

Antonio Gibson

RB Antonio Gibson
(2022 RB Rank – No. 36, 8.0 FPts/G)

The Commanders’ three-headed backfield situation in 2022 was an absolute nightmare for fantasy, but things got a lot more interesting when the team moved on from pass-catching specialist J.D. McKissic this offseason. While the Commanders did draft Chris Rodriguez in the sixth round of the 2023 NFL Draft, they have not otherwise addressed the position throughout the offseason and it seems likely that the duo of Gibson and Brian Robinson Jr. will split touches in this backfield.

While it was Robinson who out-scored Gibson on a per-game basis in 2022, it’s Gibson who possesses the skill set that is more likely to benefit from McKissic’s absence. Gibson himself has caught 36, 42, and then 46 passes in his three seasons as a pro. His reception total in 2022 put him at 13th among all running backs—a ranking that would’ve almost certainly been higher had he not missed the final two games of the season.

Gibson is a size-speed specimen like few others in the league which really gives him the potential for a breakout season here in 2023. The biggest thing holding back Gibson is that Robinson did show himself to be at least a viable NFL grinder as a rookie, which will almost certainly mean that he’ll continue to have a significant role even if Gibson is performing better on a per-touch basis. Nevertheless, from a strict fantasy standpoint, we should tend to prefer players who have the physical upside of commanding 40 percent or more of the team’s carries while also seeing 70-plus targets. That’s what Gibson provides and it’s why fantasy managers should take the discount on him as the Washington running back to own, even if he ends up technically starting fewer games than Robinson.

RB Brian Robinson Jr.
(2022 RB Rank – No.39, 8.6 FPts/G)

The Brian Robinson comeback story was one of the bright spots of the entire 2022 NFL season. The former Alabama running back was shot during a car-jacking prior to the start of his rookie season, but he was somehow able to get onto the field in Week 5. By Week 6 he was listed as the team’s starter and he would go on to see at least 12 carries in all but one of his final 11 games, including five games in which he carried the ball 20 or more times. His 3.9 yards per carry average was admittedly ugly, but the confidence that his coaches showed in him was undeniable.

It’s easy to see why Robinson is being prioritized by fantasy drafters when you simply take a look at his carry totals and the fact that he “started” almost every game for the team once he saw the field in 2022. But a deeper dive into the pass-catching situation in Washington will show you that his upside remains capped as long as he remains almost exclusively an early-down back. Robinson caught just nine passes on the year, a total that is almost unprecedently bad in today’s NFL. Even notable non-pass-catchers like Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb are typically catching double that total over the course of a full season. While Robinson’s numbers likely would’ve gone up a bit had he played every game, it’s tough to deny that as of right now he might be the league’s most one-dimensional running back, at least from a usage standpoint.

J.D. McKissic’s removal from the backfield will have an effect on how things play out in this Washington, but all indications seem to point toward the pass-catching role expanding for Gibson while Robinson remains the early-down back. The early-down role was good enough to make Robinson a decent fantasy option during the weeks when he got into the end zone, but things got ugly when he didn’t. Robinson scored 12 or fewer PPR fantasy points in nine of his 12 games played. Unless he sees an increase in goal-line touches that he converts into touchdowns, or he becomes significantly more involved in the passing game, look for Robinson to remain a frustrating fantasy asset in 2023.

WR Terry McLaurin
(2022 WR Rank – No.14, 8.9 FPts/G)

Can we please get this man a quarterback?

It’s been four seasons of the Commanders trotting out who’s-who of garbage quarterbacks, yet Terry McLaurin has managed to average over 1,000 receiving yards per season. His 21 touchdowns are a disappointing total, but that’s to be expected when he’s been practically the only viable downfield threat for the team prior to them drafting Jahan Dotson this past season. Despite a carousel behind center for yet another year, McLaurin managed to set career highs in receiving yards and air yards while tying a career low with just three drops in 2022. What’s perhaps most impressive is that McLaurin had some of his best games when being matched up against some of the league’s best cornerbacks, including Stephon Gilmore, Darius Slay, and Jaire Alexander.

It would be great if we could somehow tell the story that Washington’s quarterback situation looks like it’s in for a significant improvement, but that’s just not likely to happen with Sam Howell behind center. Howell does, however, add a bit of mobility and might be able to breathe some life into this offense as a whole. Additionally, a glance at his college highlight reel indicates that he throws a fairly accurate deep ball which could benefit McLaurin in particular.

Another fantasy season in the WR2 range looks like the most likely outcome for McLaurin, so don’t expect some huge breakout season for the fifth-year wideout, but he’s a safe player who should provide relatively consistent numbers even with mediocre quarterback play.

WR Jahan Dotson
(2022 WR Rank – No.45, 7.9 FPts/G)

Touchdown totals are oftentimes fluky, but it’s hard not to look at 2022 rookie wide receiver Jahan Dotson’s seven touchdowns in 12 games and dream about what a healthy full-season total might look like. Dotson somehow managed to catch a touchdown on one out of every five receptions—a percentage that will almost certainly be unsustainable going forward—but one that makes him an intriguing compliment to teammate Terry McLaurin.

While McLaurin has been a perennial 1000-yard receiver as a pro, he is yet to score more than seven touchdowns in any of his four professional seasons. He’s a downfield playmaker with impressive hands, but his usage in the red zone simply hasn’t been great even when you account for the bad quarterback play he’s had to deal with. Dotson, however, caught 12 touchdowns as a senior at Penn State, on a team that threw for just 25 total touchdowns on the year. Then as an NFL rookie, he managed to score seven touchdowns in just 12 games, on a team that threw for just 24 total touchdowns. Needless to say, he’s proven himself to be red zone weapon both at the collegiate and professional level, so the upside is there for him to become a double-digit touchdown scorer if he has decent quarterback play.

Unfortunately, he’s dealing with Sam Howell or Jacoby Brissett, so the true breakout year for Dotson isn’t likely to happen here in 2023, but his price also doesn’t necessitate a breakout to pay dividends. If he can simply stay healthy and score at even half of the rate he did in 2022, Dotson will be a value in the middle rounds in fantasy drafts, particularly in best ball formats where you don’t have to try to guess the weeks that he gets into the end zone.

WR Curtis Samuel
(2022 WR Rank – No.31, 7.7 FPts/G)

Curtis Samuel made his move to Washington prior to the 2021 season, but he spent most of that season battling injuries and we really didn’t get to see much of him. It was bad enough that many had completely written him off as even a usable fantasy asset heading into the 2022 season, particularly after the Commanders used a mid-first-round draft pick on Jahan Dotson. Dotson himself suffered an early-season injury as a rookie, which ended up allowing Samuel to remain relevant throughout the first half of the season. In fact, through the team’s first five weeks, he had actually out-scored both Dotson and Terry McLaurin and was looking like the potential steal of the fantasy season. Unfortunately, the ride didn’t last much longer than that and Samuel eventually slid back into fantasy irrelevancy in the second half of the season, much of which corresponded with Dotson’s return to the field.

Samuel’s chances of ever being a true difference-maker in fantasy are very low at this point, especially when he’s on a team with multiple pass-catchers who are simply better at making big plays. However, he plays the slot in an offense that always manages to perform better than their personnel seems like it should. He’s an impressive runner with the ball in his hands which is why both the Panthers and Commanders have opted to give him carries out of the backfield in most games. He doesn’t often see more than five carries in any one game, but he’s scored six rushing touchdowns on just 114 carries while averaging nearly six yards per carry throughout his career, so even a few carries here and there can sometimes result in a nice bonus for fantasy managers.

One thing that’s flying a bit under the radar in Washington is that while Antonio Gibson is the most likely player to see an increased pass-catching role out of the backfield after J.D. McKissic’s departure, there’s a non-zero chance that Samuel ends up eating into that. Samuel actually played running back in college at Ohio State and while his skill set didn’t project for him to play that position in the NFL, his transition to wide receiver as a pro has resulted in him being a player who catches passes closer to the line of scrimmage than most. This allows him to get the ball and then make smaller players in the secondary miss on tackles. Again, Samuel taking over the McKissic role is not the most likely outcome, but it’s one that we should be aware of during draft season because Samuel is being drafted very late and he possesses some interesting upside if he ends up being a bigger focal point in the Washington offense here in 2023.

TE Logan Thomas
(2022 TE Rank – No.39, 2.9 FPts/G)

Injuries have derailed Logan Thomas’ career in recent seasons and the tight end appeared to be on his last legs in 2022. Thomas saw his yards per reception, receptions per game, catch percentage, and yards after catch per reception all take a dive. That led to a pretty ugly fantasy finish overall—one in which he scored just one touchdown in 14 games played.

That type of performance from a veteran typically leads to an NFL team prioritizing the position in the draft, but the Commanders completely avoided drafting a tight end and they will seemingly roll into the 2023 season with no one of note behind Thomas on the depth chart. Of course, that was the situation last year when Thomas was unable to even be a TE2 for fantasy, so there’s not much to be excited about here.

Like many others beyond the top eight or so at the position, Thomas is essentially a touchdown-or-bust player on a weekly basis. Unfortunately for him, he plays on a team where he’s likely the fourth or even fifth option on most passing plays. Worse yet, his team doesn’t possess the realistic potential of ascending into a truly elite offense. That means he’s someone who fantasy managers should be avoiding here in 2023, at least to start the season. If we watch the games and find that he’s both healthy and much more involved than we initially believed, then sure, we should be willing to pounce on him and add him from waivers, but otherwise, the tight end position in Washington is one to avoid in most fantasy leagues.

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