2022 Washington Commanders Fantasy Preview
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2021 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 5,502 (21st)
Offensive Touchdowns: 34 (23rd)
Offensive Plays: 1,070 (17th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 593 (22nd)
Rush Attempts: 477 (10th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 18 (26th)
Ron Rivera heads into his third season with Washington after going a combined 14-19 in his first two seasons with one playoff appearance. Winners of a down-bad NFC East in 2020 (7-9), the Commanders entered 2021 with high hopes anchored in large to a defense that ranked fourth in the league in 2020 (20.6 points/gm) and Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young.
With hopes that free agent quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick would end his career on a high note by leading Washington to a winning season and a playoff berth, fans instead saw Fitzpatrick attempt six passes in Week 1 against the Chargers before a hip injury brought his season (and career) to an end.
Instead, Washington rode with journeyman Taylor Heinicke on the way to a 7-10 record. An offense that struggled to the tune of 19.7 points per game (23rd) was only amplified by a defense that allowed 25.5 points per game (25th) while surrendering the most passing touchdowns of any team (32) and the fourth-most passing yards (4,333). Despite his best efforts to be a big-time playmaker, Heinicke was ultimately limited by underwhelming arm strength and an inability to make the requisite throws required of an NFL-caliber quarterback. A 6-6 record heading into Week 14 kept Washington on the cusp of a playoff appearance, but a 1-4 record to close the season all but shut the book on any chances of the Heinicke Experiment being repeated in 2022.
The clock is nearing midnight for Rivera and his tenure with the team if 2022 doesn’t feature a reversal of fortunes. Boasting a career record of 90-82-1, Riverboat Ron’s winning record is buoyed by a 15-1 season with the Panthers in 2015. That season, MVP Cam Newton led the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance against the Denver Broncos, but in 11 seasons at the helm of an NFL franchise Rivera has managed to string together just three winning seasons. When you have Superman as your quarterback and one of the best linebackers of our generation in Luke Kuechly, showing up to work every day is easy. But a few bad decisions on draft day and seemingly no long-term plan at quarterback can leave one sailing upstream rather quickly.
Throughout the work day, local radio serves as my company. From 6 AM until 6 PM I listen to takes on the hometown Washington Commanders. When the story isn’t centered around Dan Snyder, workplace scandals or a broken-down stadium that defecated on fans and nearly crushed Jalen Hurts last season, the X’s and O’s of the game are often the topics of conversation.
Arguably the hottest topic on air is newly-acquired quarterback Carson Wentz, who the Commanders acquired from the Colts in exchange for some draft picks. Oh, and they willingly ate his $28 million salary for the season.
The hope, of course, is that the Wentz we’ve seen over the last few seasons is a massive improvement over what Heinicke offered last season. However, there’s a chance those buying into that dream may be disappointed. Below is a per-game look at Wentz’s numbers from 2019-2021 and Heinicke’s 2021 numbers.
If this was Twitter, I’d accompany these numbers with the Spider-man pointing GIF. However, the best I can do is say the biggest difference between Wentz and Heinicke appears to be their career arcs and 2022 salaries.
Last season with the Colts, Wentz threw for 3,563-27-7 while completing 62.4% of his passes. With Jonathan Taylor in his backfield, Wentz was used more out of necessity than want. The Colts ranked 23rd in early down pass rate (42.8%) and had a pass frequency over expected of -4%. From an efficiency standpoint, Wentz ranked 17th in EPA/play (0.084), 19th in success rate (46.9%) and 26th in completion percent over expected (-2.0%).
During the 2017 season, Wentz played outside his mind on his way to a near-MVP finish. That season, the Eagles ranked second in EPA/play (Weeks 1-14) at 0.243 while Wentz ranked eighth in success rate at 49.6%. Unfortunately, his EPA/play since then (0.053) aligns much closer to his 2021 numbers and ranks 33rd among qualified quarterbacks (min. 500 plays) since 2018, suggesting his MVP-caliber play was far more an outlier than the norm.
From a fantasy standpoint, it’s unlikely Wentz offers more upside than that of a bye week flier. He finished as a top-12 quarterback in 35% of his games last season and was the overall QB20 in points per game (17.9).
One key component of Wentz’s arrival is the impact it could have on Terry McLaurin. Fresh off a three-year, $71 million contract extension, McLaurin has built a solid career for a guy who has yet to meet a good quarterback in his locker room.
One of the premier deep threats in the league, McLaurin narrowly missed three straight 1,000+ yard seasons to start his career. Since entering the league in 2019, McLaurin ranks 13th among receivers in receiving yards (3,090) and is sixth in total air yards (4,331). He saw a career-high 33 deep balls last season, ranking third among receivers, but his 33.3% conversion rate on those targets put him outside of the top 50. There’s hope that will improve under Wentz, who saw a career-high adjusted completion percentage of 47.5% on deep balls last season. Wentz has ranked top-15 or better in adjusted completion percentage on deep balls four times since entering the league in 2016 -- in 2017 he ranked as high as eighth (44.6%).
Despite an underwhelming cast of characters at the quarterback position, offensive coordinator Scott Turner hasn’t shied away from the pass. Since 2020, the Commanders rank eighth in neutral pass rate (57%) and are also sixth in pace of play. Going as a mid-WR2 in drafts, McLaurin may be getting drafted close to his ceiling. But Rivera’s willingness to play at a high rate and throw often could bode well for McLaurin’s production if Wentz can elevate the offense this season. I’m still fading him at ADP compared to other weapons in this offense.
If there’s any value to be had in Washington’s receiving game it could be in 2022 first-rounder Jahan Dotson and veteran Curtis Samuel. Washington traded back in the first round of this year’s draft and selected Dotson with the 19th-overall pick, placing lofty expectations on the former Penn State product.
During his time at Penn State, Dotson turned in a career receiving line of 183-2757-25 and finished 2021 with 91 receptions for 1,182 yards and 12 scores. Working primarily as an outside receiver, Dotson saw 83.6% of his snaps come out wide and should make for a great compliment to McLaurin’s field-stretching abilities. A well-established target hog, Dotson is just one of seven receivers drafted this year who boast a 30%+ college dominator rating and a 20%+ receiving market share. A look at the RotoViz Box Score Scout paints very favorable comparisons for the first-round rookie as well.
Going as a low-end WR5 in PPR drafts, Dotson has a real shot to outperform his offseason ADP. While he’s unlikely to outproduce McLaurin anytime soon, any consistent target volume could make him a worthwhile start in the flex.
Last year’s big free agent signing Curtis Samuel is also looking for a bounce-back season after his first year in Washington landed short of expectations. Brought in on a three-year, $34.5 million deal, Samuel spent much of 2021 on the sideline with groin and hamstring issues. Samuel earned the lucrative deal in his final season with the Panthers when he broke out for 211.4 PPR (WR25) while totaling 77-844-3 through the air and also rushing 41 times for 200 yards and another two scores.
A versatile chess piece that can be moved all around the formation, Samuel’s 2020 breakout came in a year in which he saw a career-high 71.4% of his snaps in the slot. It’s worth noting this was also his first season under a new head coach after spending his first three seasons under Rivera, under whom he never saw more than a 33.8% slot rate. During his breakout season, Samuel averaged a career-high 1.93 YPRR -- good for 18th best among slot receivers -- while also posting a career-best 4.9 YAC/REC. Whether or not Rivera moves Samuel to the slot this season is to be determined, but the addition of Dotson should allow him to be used where best fit. Samuel is yet another receiver who is virtually free in drafts but could prove to benefit from a healthy season and optimal deployment by the coaching staff.
At tight end, the Commanders will hope to see a quick return for Logan Thomas (ACL/MCL), who could open the season on injured reserve. In mid-December, Thomas suffered a torn ACL and would be roughly nine months removed from his surgery to repair said injury. Since earning the starting tight end role in 2020, the 31-year-old vet has been a reliable option at tight end. From a fantasy standpoint, Thomas has turned in a top-12 week in 55% of his games over the last two years, totaling 90 receptions for 866 yards and nine touchdowns in the progress. Playing at a position that offers little fantasy upside outside of the truly elite, Thomas’ 39.4 yards per game ranks 12th among tight ends, while his 4.1 receptions per game rank eighth. It’s a truly dismal position to fill, but Thomas has proven to be rather dependent when healthy. His questionable injury status shouldn’t put him on anybody’s redraft radar even if you are fading the elite options. Healthier, higher upside players can be had at this time.
Second-year tight end John Bates (20-249-1) is the likely replacement should Thomas miss any time, but can be added via waivers if he shows meaningful fantasy production.
Antonio Gibson has spent the last two seasons as a darling of the fantasy community. Banking on replication of his hyper-efficient days at Memphis, drafters have invested meaningful draft capital into Gibson only to see him finish as the RB19 and RB18 in points per game. It’s not an awful return on Gibson, who last season played through shin and foot injuries on his way to 1,038 rushing yards and seven touchdowns while posting a receiving line of 42-294-3. A former receiver turned running back, Gibson has the ideal size and speed (4.39 40-time) for a three-down back.
Among running backs with 150+ carries last season, Gibson ranked sixth in yards after contact (728) and was tied for 18th YCO/ATT at 2.82. He ranked fifth in total red zone opportunities (53) among running backs but runs the risk of losing valuable touches this season -- more on that in a moment.
Currently being drafted as a low-end RB2, Gibson’s path to success feels muddied by the return of J.D. McKissic and the arrival of third-round pick Brian Robinson. How Rivera plans to distribute his backfield touches remains a major question. It’s easy to envision a scenario in which Gibson outperforms his ADP and those who faded him are left with regret. However, any loss of volume in the passing game or near the goal line could torpedo drafters’ return on investment. As much as I want to believe in Gibson’s fantasy upside, I often find myself hesitant to pull the trigger on him in drafts.
The return of J.D. McKissic comes to the delight of Washington fans, who nearly lost him via free agency to the Buffalo Bills. The near-departure of McKissic temporarily shook the nation’s capital to its core, with some fans phoning local radio threatening to turn in their season tickets after the news broke. One of the premier satellite backs in the league, McKissic’s pass-catching upside makes him an immediate PPR darling.
Since 2020 he ranks second among running backs in targets (163) and receptions (123) while his 986 yards rank third. Had he not missed six games last season (concussion), McKissic would likely lead in each of these categories -- and by a substantial amount.
Washington unlocked McKissic in Alex Smith’s last season when the passing game relied largely on dump-off passes to move the chains. He’ll never be called on to shoulder the rushing workload should Gibson go down, but he’s a Grade A nuisance to Gibson’s fantasy upside as a receiver. McKissic has caught five or more passes in 14-of-27 games with Washington, turning in a top-24 PPR performance in 48% of his games. He’s averaging 11.4 points per game in 25 games played with Gibson. The kind of player who can annoy your fantasy opponents, McKissic has that PPR dawg in him and has a good shot at outperforming his current RB50 price tag.
Perhaps my favorite running back of this group is Brian Robinson -- who I’ve drafted on so many teams that you’d think I’m related to him. Robinson is the rare five-year Alabama player to earn early draft capital and didn’t get a chance to break out with the Tide until his fifth season. As the lead back of the 2021 Tide, Robinson rushed for 291-1343-14 and caught 35 passes for 296 yards and two scores. Looking again at the RotoViz Box Score Scout, which draws player comparisons based on statistical comps, we see a more underwhelming prospect profile than what we saw in Jahan Dotson.
Funny enough, one of Robinson’s closest comps is former Alabama teammate Damien Harris, who spent four seasons in college but rushed for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons as a sophomore and junior.
At 6-foot-2, 225-pounds and boasting a 4.53 40-yard dash, Robinson has good size for a between-the-tackles runner but didn’t test well in explosiveness or agility drills at the combine. Nevertheless, Washington invested third-round capital in Robinson, and Rivera has already gone on record with how he wants to mix him into the backfield.
Ron Rivera likened the potential 1-2 punch of Antonio Gibson and Brian Robinson to the Jonathan Stewart/ D'Angelo Willians pairing he used in Carolina. That's his hope.— Grant Paulsen (@granthpaulsen) May 5, 2022
Stewart & Williams were a terrific tandem in Rivera's Panthers backfield together from 2011 to 2014.
Potentially the third running back in a committee, Robinson’s upside in a healthy backfield has been baked into his ADP. He’s still going undrafted in some best ball leagues.
With that being said, Robinson vulturing goal line touches from Gibson at some point would not be surprising, and he’s the likely lock to take early-down work should Gibson miss time. In a format like best ball, Robinson is an easy late-round pick. Only in deep redraft leagues is he worth a stash at this point, but he could turn into a popular waiver add at some point in the season.
PointsBet Over/Under: 7.5
Desperate for a 2023 quarterback he can ill-afford to tank for, Ron Rivera has hitched his wagon and perhaps future with the Commanders to Carson Wentz. Post Wentz trade, Washington did little to address team needs in free agency. They also lost All-Pro RG Brandon Scherff to the Jaguars and cut LG Ereck Flowers to free up cap space -- but did sign LG Andrew Norwell as a replacement. Questions remain about the team’s defense, which feels one linebacker short and has Chase Young on the PUP to open camp. Despite this, there’s optimism in Washington that the team can win 10 games with Wentz after winning seven with Heinicke last season. Being gifted the sixth-easiest schedule in the league per Sharp Football Analysis has also been baked into this optimism.
What’s interesting is that Sharp Football also has the Giants with the easiest schedule in 2022 and the Eagles with the second-easiest schedule -- Dallas has the 10th-easiest what it’s worth. Dallas and Philadelphia had 12 and nine wins respectively last season and are favored to finish first and second in the division again. I’m willing to take the over on Washington at 7.5 wins in 2022, but don’t see them unseating Dallas or Philly, who I think will both reach double-digit wins.