Ron Rivera has recently pushed the idea that the Commanders have "a good nucleus of young players," and while Rivera's words can sometimes come off as hollow, the team does have a handful of up-and-comers that are worth building around.
Here's a list of five such contributors who were either rookies or second-year pros in 2022 and who really improved their stock across the fall and winter...
1) Darrick Forrest
The 2021 fifth-rounder was essentially invisible in his first go-round in the league, as he only suited up for eight games and produced just seven combined tackles.
Saying he made a leap in 2022 after that initial quiet effort might not be a strong enough descriptor.
Forrest was involved at safety a lot in training camp — that was a bit of a surprise considering both his reputation as a premier special-teamer and lack of rookie reps there — but he quickly proved why his coaches were entrusting him on defense when he intercepted a pass and forced a fumble in Week 1 versus Jacksonville.
Overall, Forrest picked off four passes — Kendall Fuller was the only other defender to register multiple takeaways through the air — caused a pair of fumbles and recovered a fumble for the Commanders. Stars like Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne made more consistent impacts than Forrest did, yet Forrest might've created the most splashy and critical highlights for the unit.
"I would say that I did accomplish a little bit more than people hoped out of me," Forrest told reporters during locker clean-out day after Week 18. "I'm just proud of that. I came out there and showed that I can ball."
Forrest and Kam Curl have the makings of a serious combo at safety for Rivera's squad, and if Forrest can clean up the handful of mental mistakes he committed in coverage and further grasp when to dial back his go-go-go aggressiveness, he's got a chance to emerge as a mega-draft steal.
2) Benjamin St-Juste
St-Juste's durability was once again an issue in 2022 — injuries have limited him to nine and 12 contests respectively since he entered the NFL — but there was still plenty to like about his growth at cornerback.
While his first career interception will have to wait until 2023, St-Juste used his length and physicality on numerous occasions to deflect throws that came his way, especially when the departure of William Jackson III allowed him to occupy one of the outside corner spots.
It was at that juncture that St-Juste transitioned from an intriguing athlete to a possible long-term starter.
"I think I found my true potential in terms of, like, a CB1," he said before departing for the offseason. "Being matched up against the star receiver and performing well and stepping up in big-time moments — that was kind of like a little coming out moment for me to just realize I had the talent to do this consistently every week."
Sure, it's frustrating that Washington's staff first tried to enlist St-Juste as a patroller of the slot. However, with what he displayed upon the switch, there should be no doubt about where he's deployed in the future.
His health, plus his penchant for drawing penalties, are areas of concern, though there are far more positives than negatives to discuss when evaluating BSJ.
3) Jamin Davis
After his debut campaign with the organization, Davis was trending toward Bustville. That's not a good place to be trending toward, for your information.
Fortunately, he was drastically better in 2022, which has officially put his trip to Bustville on pause.
Davis' understanding of what to do at linebacker more closely matched up with his natural ability this past year and that allowed him to tally 20 more solo tackles, six more tackles for loss and two more sacks than he did in 2021.
Those numbers definitely act as proof of his increased knowledge, but the fact that Rivera and Jack Del Rio passed him the "green dot" for the defense down the stretch — which means he was the man in charge of relaying the calls and getting everyone set — might be an even clearer summation of his mental jump.
Whether it's in the form of a re-signed Cole Holcomb or a new piece entirely, the team must pair Davis up with another linebacker that's rangier than the backup veterans he had to work with in November and December. That said, he's absolutely worth keeping, and few believed that'd be the case after his disappointing 2021.
4) Brian Robinson Jr.
Robinson Jr. was a third-round choice out of Alabama, and between the investment the Commanders made in him and the school he was coming from, he was expected to be an immediate factor.
Turns out he was more than that.
What he accomplished following his recovery from his frightening August shooting isn't best defined by his individual stats (his 3.9 yards-per-rush, for example, suggests he was a below-average runner). Instead, the club's resurgence record-wise and the identity the franchise cultivated once Robinson worked himself into shape are truer indicators of his influence.
It's rare for a non-Derrick Henry-led offense these days to center its attack based on what its top running back can do, and due to the presence of Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel, it's probably in Washington's best interest to up its passing output. Rivera, however, is a run-game fanatic, and in Robinson, he's scored himself a powerful ball-carrier.
5) Sam Howell
Yes, he owns a sample size of four measly quarters. Still, it was an encouraging four quarters.
Once the Commanders were eliminated from the playoff hunt, Howell was inserted as the starting quarterback for the finale versus the Cowboys. He ultimately completed just 11 passes, but the quality of those connections along with his rushing has a section of fans desperate to see Howell as the top signal-caller when 2023 commences.
Now, while reports of Rivera presenting Howell as that guy in chats with prospective offensive coordinators should be taken lightly, him even being mentioned in the vicinity of such conversations is wild since he didn't even crack the lineup until January.
When it comes to making a first impression, Howell did his part.