Football Team

Hailey: 10 things I learned during WFT's 2021 training camp

Football Team

My main office for the last 31 days or so has been a sun-baked sideline, first in Richmond, Va. and then in Ashburn, Va., as the Washington Football Team has pushed its way through training camp. 

Below, you'll find my 10 most pressing takeaways after seeing this collection of players grind, grind and — what's the word I'm searching for? — oh yeah, grind since July 28.

1) Ryan Fitzpatrick will make the offense better — except when he’s making it worse

Fitzpatrick and his main predecessor, Alex Smith, are older quarterbacks who were drafted in 2005 and are right-handed. 

And that's basically where their similarities stop.

Even in something as simple as 9-on-9 drills in Ashburn, the difference between a Fitzpatrick-led unit and a Smith-led one was stark. Fitz has total belief in himself and his favorite options and that belief shows on many of his attempts. Smith, on the other hand, wouldn't so much as look at the places his replacement often is throwing to.

When he's locked in, Fitzpatrick will do wonders for coordinator Scott Turner, who couldn't use much of his playbook last year, especially the pages that featured downfield passing. He'll also be beloved by his targets because he'll give them ample chances to win in tight coverage.

As you know quite well by now, though, Fitzpatrick isn't always locked in. Sometimes, he's far from it — or not even in the same universe as it. You'll realize when he's in that sort of anti-rhythm when he's sailing balls over the middle or chucking one right to a linebacker that's directly in front of him. 

 

The 38-year-old is insanely popular among ex-and-present teammates because of his calm demeanor and willingness to teach his younger peers. Whether Washington fans come to appreciate him like that will come down to how much he helps and hurts this offense. 

2) Chase Young and Montez Sweat are about to unleash hell 

This pair's potential is one of the more common conversations brought up by people who care about the Burgundy and Gold. Well, the talk about all the havoc they're about to cause is going to be even more fun.

Young is fully healthy going into 2021, which wasn't true for his rookie go-round. A groin injury limited him more than outsiders thought, he explained a few months ago. He's also had an offseason to refine and add to his repertoire of pass rush moves and mature when it comes to play recognition, an area that he's personally emphasizing.

The NFL's most devastating edge threats — studs like Khalil Mack and Von Miller — tend to explode in their second campaigns. Young should be the next to do so.

Then there's Sweat, who spent camp devouring running backs in the backfield and deflecting numerous tosses at the line in addition to his routine visits to the QB. He might've been the loudest trash-talker on the field as well, which suggests that he's got newfound confidence in his own ability (and rightly so).

Sacks will be the primary statistic that these two are measured by, but they will find tons of other ways to ruin opponents' days beyond that single column. Best of luck, non-Washington coordinators and passers.

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3) Terry McLaurin is going to be a Pro Bowler

Everyone in Washington understands how talented McLaurin is, and he’s a name that most nationally are at least aware of. However, after 2021, he will no longer be an afterthought in the discussion of best wideouts in the sport. Instead, he’ll be firmly in the middle of it. 

While Pro Bowl berths haven’t been that meaningful in a long time, they still tend go to the game’s most productive stars and largely indicate who stood out in a given season. That can be especially true at a crowded position like receiver where breaking through and notching a first-time nod requires a serious collection of stats.

Be ready for McLaurin to do just that this year.

The 25-year-old has become an impeccable route runner as a pro and over the summer he’s been perfecting his off-the-line releases. Should that work pay off, he’ll only put more distance between himself and his matchups on every passing snap.

Plus, McLaurin will hopefully be paired with Fitzpatrick for most, if not all, of the schedule and those two should see their already-impressive trust grow by the week. And lastly, McLaurin scoring just four touchdowns in 2020 doesn’t feel like something that’ll repeat itself again.

 

Yes, Washington’s offense is much improved in terms of skill players. No, no one in that crew of players is as skilled as McLaurin. Expect him to become even more of a force than you’re used to him being.

4) Jamin Davis may be quiet as a rookie, at least early on

Don’t take this as a jab at the selection of Davis or what his career will ultimately become. That said, the linebacker might have more growing to do until he starts to resonate as a first-round pick.

Jack Del Rio’s scheme can ask a lot of its defenders in the middle. As he recently told the media, he put on tape of Cole Holcomb and Jon Bostic from last year to remind himself of exactly that and to show Davis that it’s OK to be a bit unsure of himself, which was something that was evident in camp and the exhibition slate.

While Davis’ speed will allow him to thrive in pass coverage and when tracking down foes in the open field, his instincts and recognition need sharpening. So, until those things are corrected, he may cede reps to the likes of Holcomb and Bostic and struggle to pop against the run, where reading and reacting in a heartbeat is essential.

Fortunately, Davis is physically gifted, mentally mature and very locked in on developing into a difference-maker as soon as possible. That will come to fruition, too. It just may not be noticeable until, say, November of this season.

5) Washington’s third-round success is primed to continue

Two years ago, the franchise snagged McLaurin in the third round of the draft. After him came Antonio Gibson. Ding and ding.

This past April, the team double-dipped on Friday night of the event, landing both Benjamin St-Juste and Dyami Brown. Prepare to hear two more dings once the cornerback and wide receiver finish up as rookies.

St-Juste brings unusual size to the secondary, which he uses to body his assignments and create chaos at the point of the catch. He isn't afraid to mix it up in run support, either, and together, those attributes cause Rivera to think of longtime corner Charles Tillman. 

Brown, meanwhile, arrived with the intentions of proving he isn't just a straight-down-the-sideline deep threat — and he's doing an excellent job of that. His hands aren't the most reliable yet, but he's had no trouble getting open at all levels of the defense. Oh, and he'll definitely haul in a couple of momentum-changing 50-yarders like he did on the regular at North Carolina.

St-Juste and Brown will probably open up 2021 in decent but not enormous roles due to the names that are above them on the depth chart, but don't be surprised if their involvement skyrockets as the schedule progresses. 

 

What's the only thing better than one third-round gem? Two third-round gems. Rivera and company will be able to relate to that shortly.

6) Left guard is worth keeping an eye on

Washington is projected to have two new starting tackles in 2021, yet those spots don't appear to be the offensive line’s most worrisome piece. That distinction belongs to left guard.

Between Wes Schweitzer and Ereck Flowers, the vibe entering camp was that one of those two veterans would take charge of the starting gig while the other would represent a respectable backup. With September fast approaching, however, that hasn’t really been the case.

Rivera and the coaching staff have handed each player a sizable opportunity to mix it up with the first-stringers, but neither Schweitzer nor Flowers has fully solidified themselves as the top choice. So, whoever mans left guard come Week 1 won’t have necessarily “earned” the title of starter.

The offense will deploy the reliable-if-not-fantastic Charles Leno Jr. at left tackle, the always-solid Chase Roullier at center, the always-dominant Brandon Scherff at right guard and the blossoming Sam Cosmi at right tackle. But the chunk of the line between Leno Jr. and Roullier might be a leaky one over the next four months or so.

7) How well William Jackson III fits in remains to be seen

For those wondering how this story has made it this far without mentioning Curtis Samuel, your confusion is warranted. Samuel, essentially, did nothing over the past month, after all.

Yet Jackson III, another high-dollar and highly-skilled free agent, might've had an even more distressing recent stretch with his new squad, which is why he's the main focus of this takeaway.

Jackson III thrived with the Bengals as a man-to-man defensive back, but Washington was one of the more zone-heavy groups in 2020. That means Jackson III's in the middle of a steep learning curve, and he's admitted as much during a couple of sessions at the podium.

Plus, a leg injury has pushed him to the bench for the second half of August, so that's only halted his process. And when he was healthy, McLaurin owned their individual battles.

Now, don't launch into your "He's Josh Norman 2.0" takes prematurely. The coaches aren't going to force Jackson III to only play zone — their hope is that he'll let them be more balanced on the back end — and he, just like Davis at linebacker, will ascend as their reps increase. Don't forget, too, that this'll be the most stacked supporting cast he's shared a huddle with on Sundays. 

Consider Jackson III's situation as one that should be monitored, though. He's not going to automatically shut down everyone right away just because of his reputation, and there could be some mishaps that lead to ugly gains while he settles into a new scheme. 

8) Aside from Fitzpatrick, Landon Collins might be the biggest X-factor on either side of the ball

If the Collins who was present at camp and in a couple of flash plays in the preseason shows up for Weeks 1 through 17, then he'll rapidly change the minds of fans who have viewed his first two years with the team as underwhelming.

 

Thanks to his relentless rehab from that 2020 Achilles tear and a slight loss of weight, the safety is moving as smoothly as he ever has for Washington, if not smoother. On this takedown, for example, No. 26 comes from off the screen and smashes into Cincy's tight end with startling explosiveness:

Collins has to bring that kind of burst and physicality on a more consistent basis to win his doubters over. Remember, he was one of the defense's most spotty tacklers before landing on I.R. last October.

Having acknowledged that, it's legitimately exciting to imagine what a back-at-his-peak Collins could do for Rivera and Del Rio. He's still just 27 years old and was once regarded as one of the sport's top defensive backs. Perhaps he's ready to reclaim that distinction. 

9) These field goal struggles are real and they're scary

When Washington released Nick Sundberg, it was inevitable that the next long snapper would have chemistry issues with Dustin Hopkins and Tress Way.

Unfortunately, whatever's going on between those two and Camaron Cheeseman is more severe than a bit of unfamiliarity.

First, in the preseason opener, the operation among the specialists was out of sync, which resulted in two errant kicks. Then, in the exhibition finale, Hopkins himself was rattled and lost track of his keys on one second quarter try.

On Sunday, Rivera reiterated that he'll "ride with" Hopkins to begin the year. The 30-year-old has shown a propensity to get hot and be a useful kicker before, and Rivera's banking on him getting back into a groove. For that to happen, a host of minute flaws must be fixed in only a couple of weeks. 

10) There's enough on this roster to make it to, and win in, the playoffs

The nine things listed above are a combination of both positive and negative thoughts, but overall, Rivera and Washington have a postseason-caliber roster and can realistically aim to capture the division title again.

Fitzpatrick will be up and down, yet his ups should be thrilling thanks to what's around him. McLaurin, Gibson and tight end Logan Thomas are all poised to post major numbers.

Young and Sweat, of course, won't be alone on defense. The interior defensive line will be boosted by the return of Matt Ioannidis, while Davis and Jackson possess the tools to raise the ceiling of their respective positions.

And as the leader of it all, Rivera is healthier after a cancer bout and another step deeper into his rebuild of the organization. The front office has been reshaped in order to make his life a tad easier and the roster is stronger top to bottom.

Repeating in the NFC East hasn't been accomplished by any division champion since 2004, and then securing a victory in the postseason is only possible with a mostly-healthy lineup, a few out-of-nowhere contributors and plain luck. Washington supporters should enter September feeling like they're rooting for a team that can check off those two boxes and be relevant far into the winter.