At the near midway point of the 2021 NFL season, the Washington Football Team is 2-6 and in the basement of the NFC East. Barring an epic, unforeseen turnaround over the team's final nine games, it will be watching the postseason from home.
But, just because Washington is quickly falling out playoff contention doesn't mean the team's second half of the season isn't important. This next stretch of games will be vital for several players, especially those on the younger side who hope to prove they belong in the NFL long term and should be part of the new culture head coach Ron Rivera is trying to build.
"It takes three to five years to completely change a culture," Rivera said Monday. "Futility doesn't just disappear overnight. And to create a positive environment, it takes time. It's just not going to happen overnight."
Some of Washington's younger players have already been counted on plenty, such as tackle Sam Cosmi, cornerback Benjamin St-Juste. That doesn't even include last year's rookie class, as Chase Young, Kam Curl and Antonio Gibson have already emerged as some of Washington's best players.
However, there are still many younger players waiting for their chance. Here are a group of players Rivera and his staff should consider playing more during the second half of the 2021 season...
Perhaps the most obvious player on this list is linebacker Jamin Davis, who was Washington's first-round pick this past April. The 2021 19th overall pick is physically gifted and has natural instincts, but is raw at the position after starting just one year at Kentucky prior to entering the NFL.
At the beginning of the season, Davis played sparingly behind linebackers Cole Holcomb and Jon Bostic. Over the first six weeks, he never played more than 56% of Washington's defensive snaps.
Whether it's due to injuries or for other reasons, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and his staff have begun to play Davis more over the past two weeks. In Week 7, Davis played 98% of defensive snaps. This past weekend, he played 79% of such against Denver.
"He’s shown us some very good improvement," Rivera said last week. "You see him really getting more and more comfortable playing with more confidence. It had a lot to do with game planning. We really felt good about some of the things that we were going to do, and it really suited him very well.”
The linebacker unit is Washington's weakest position group on defense. It's part of the reason Rivera felt the need to use his first-round pick on one in Davis. By playing the 23-year-old more during the second half of the season, Davis will have the chance to grow and develop with the rest of the defensive core the team is trying to build.
Growth and development is exactly what Rivera is looking for, so there's no reason for Davis to not see substantial playing time the rest of the season.
Sticking with the linebacker theme, second-year veteran Khaleke Hudson is another player that Washington should consider playing more moving forward. Hudson played both linebacker and safety in college at Michigan and has the position flex the coaching staff craves.
Linebacker was Washington's weakest position group entering the season, a unit that has only gotten thinner following Bostic's season-ending injury. At many times this season, Del Rio has deployed five or more defensive backs on the field at once. Heck, even Landon Collins is pretty much a full-time linebacker now.
As a rookie, Hudson started two games for Washington. His best performance came against Seattle, where he totaled eight tackles while playing 49% of defensive snaps. This year, Hudson has played just 13 defensive snaps, but an uptick could be coming soon.
The undrafted running back was a feel-good story throughout training camp, as he grew up in Prince George's County, Md., and as a Washington fan. But once the preseason games started, Patterson quickly proved he's an NFL-caliber running back.
Through the beginning portion of the season, Patterson had a limited role in Washington's offense, if any. But last week against Denver, Patterson saw the most action of his NFL career, carrying the ball 11 times for 46 yards.
With starter Antonio Gibson nursing a lingering shin injury, Washington's coaches wanted to limit his workload last week. Patterson took advantage of his opportunity and showed that he's more than capable of performing when called upon.
Washington's wide receiver room has been significantly hampered by injuries this season, as Dyami Brown, Cam Sims and Curtis Samuel have all missed multiple games. That has led to other guys deeper on the roster getting significant playing time, such as Adam Humphries and DeAndre Carter.
Yet, there's one other wide receiver that has shown a little bit of flash every time he's gotten the chance: Dax Milne.
Milne, a seventh-round pick, was Zach Wilson's favorite target last year at BYU and was one of the best slot receivers in all of college football last season. He doesn't necessarily have elite speed, but he's a crisp route runner and knows how to get open. Last week against Denver, Milne converted a crucial third down for Washington.
"I think Dax [Milne] is a guy that can really come on and do some of the things that we're looking for at that position because he's a good young guy," Rivera said Monday.
As it stands now, Milne is currently behind Humphries on the depth chart. But, with the veteran a free agent to be after the season, it wouldn't be surprising at all to see Milne get more playing time in the second half of the season.