ASHBURN, Va. -- For many teams, training camps open with excitement and end with a sense of settling in -- an embrace of the day-to-day grind that we can expect going forward.
That's not the case with the Commanders. Washington's training camp opened with excitement with and will end with a bang this week as the team has a pair of joint practices with the Ravens on Tuesday and Wednesday before facing Baltimore in the second preseason game Aug. 21.
"We're there to play against somebody and learn and grow and develop and I was very direct about that," Rivera said Monday. "I'm going to be very direct in the next couple meetings that we have leading right up to practice. We don't want to go around and bullshit. We want to come, we want to get around, we want to learn, we want to grow, we want to be able to work our offense and defense and special teams against a very good football team, very well coached football team.
As the final and most important week of camp arrives, here's whose stock has gone up, whose stock has gone down, key questions and practice notes ahead of the joint practices.
Sam Howell entered training camp as the starting quarterback and has done nothing to lose that distinction. The second-year North Carolina product has shown steady improvement, though not necessarily always in a straight line. He's had good days and bad, but the : 9-12 for 77 yards, capped off with a touchdown pass to Jahan Dotson on the third series.
More than those numbers, though, Howell was poised and smart with the football. He threw the ball away when things weren't there. He picked up a third-and-6 with his legs, getting out of the pocket to his left and skipping away from a would-be tackler to reach the line to gain. Howell's best play also came on the run: a fourth-and-3 laser to Cole Turner for 13 yards while rolling to his right. Behind an iffy offensive line -- more on that in a bit -- Howell showed he can use his mobility.
The Commanders showed up to camp with a clear top three wide receivers, all with plenty of production to back up their spots in that hierarchy. Early in camp, Dyami Brown proved he belonged in a top four, and it seems like Byron Pringle has the fifth spot. Brown showed his impressive speed in the opening weeks of camp and hauled in an impressive ball along the sideline from Jacoby Brissett against the Browns.
Pringle followed with a 32-yarder up the opposite sideline. Pringle and Brissett have had other good moments together in camp, but Pringle is also getting some time with the first team in practices. Add in the fact that he can be a returner, and Pringle -- who signed on the eve of camp -- has made a quick, positive impression.
A seventh-round pick in 2022, Christian Holmes lowered the boom on all three defensive plays in which he was involved, breaking up passes to Anthony Schwartz and Cedric Tillman with well-timed hits and making a sure tackle on John Kelly. Like Pringle, Holmes also plays special teams. The secondary should a strength this season, and Holmes looks like he'll be part of it.
The Commanders brought in Michael Badgley to compete in camp, and while much of kicking practice takes place out of view for media members, Joey Slye doesn't look like he'll lose his job. He nailed a 49-yard field goal with room to spare and also made his extra point -- an area of concern last season -- against the Browns.
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It's hard for Andrew Wylie stock to be too "down," per se. He's going to be the starting right tackle, so neither his roster spot nor his playing time are at risk. But he struggled in the preseason opener, committing a pair of holding penalties (including one that resulted in a safety) and allowing a pair of pressures. Wylie steadily improved over the course of the Commanders' three drives, but the early mistakes cost his team points and yards. In practice, Wylie has had trouble with Montez Sweat.
The rest of the offensive line: Though Wylie was the easy scapegoat, the rest of the offensive line struggled, too. On the first play of the game, Charles Leno Jr. got beat inside, and instead of having a one-on-one in the hole, Brian Robinson Jr. was dropped for no gain. A few plays later, Howell was sacked after Martin Emerson came untouched from the secondary.
"I think early on there probably were a couple of things that needed to be corrected," Rivera said. "Especially some of the techniques, some of the individual techniques, about making sure we're getting a good vertical set. We're not opening our hips, we're lowering our targets, stuff like that. Those are detailed things that I think as these guys continue to work and work their techniques and work their communication together, I think they're going to improve. ... When you look at the third drive they were out there for, you saw some positive things, especially the way they finished it."
Rivera's right: The line did show good things on the third drive: Samuel Cosmi was able to block two different players on a seven-yard Antonio Gibson run, for example, and on a fourth-and-3 conversion, Nick Gates wrestled his assignment to the ground, giving Howell time to extend the play.
The depth is also an issue. The Commanders have recently tried Ricky Stromberg at guard as well as his normal center spot, and he had a tough practice Monday. Fourth-round pick Braeden Daniels has struggled at tackle throughout camp. Nolan Laufenberg played some center Monday, too, even though he hasn't played there in college or the NFL. He was practicing extra snaps after practice.
Cornelius Lucas seems to be the most sure thing as a swing tackle, but there are depth issues pretty much everywhere else. It's a very young group, too.
The bumps and bruises: Rivera has used the word "cautious" in just about every media availability over the past week. Logan Thomas remains out with a calf issue. Phidarian Mathis -- who missed almost all of his rookie season with a knee injury -- hasn't practiced fully since tweaking his calf in the Cleveland game, and neither has Chase Young, who self-reported a stinger. On Monday, Benjamin St-Juste was out with an ankle tweak, and Cosmi left briefly with what appeared a knee hyperextension but returned later.
On one hand, that caution will allow the team to learn more about more players. On the other hand, having to be cautious with too many key players adds up quickly, especially for an offense trying to learn a new scheme under a new coordinator with a young quarterback.
What to watch at joint practices with the Ravens
The right guard battle: After dealing with a troublesome calf, Saahdiq Charles appears to be back at full strength or close to it, finally returning to 11-on-11 padded drills Monday. He's now battling Chris Paul for the starting gig at right guard, and both are getting first-team reps.
"Me and Chris are real close, great friends, great teammates towards each other, and we just help build ... build each other," Charles said Monday. "The team will need all of us."
Charles, a fourth-round pick in 2020, has talent the coaches have raved about, but has struggled to stay healthy, battling a bevy of lower-body injuries, including a knee issue that landed him on IR his rookie year. He has appeared in just 24 games (eight starts).
The defense against Lamar Jackson: The Commanders' ballyhooed defense wasn't particularly impressive in its lone drive against the Browns, allowing Cleveland (sans Nick Chubb and Amari Cooper) to march all the way to the 1-yard line before standing strong. Deshaun Watson posed a bevy of problems especially with his legs, gaining 20 yards on three runs. The Commanders' challenge over the next two days is an even tougher dual-threat in Jackson.
"He's a baller, man," safety Jeremy Reaves said Monday. "He's a well-known name, and we know what he's fully capable of as far as out of the pocket and with his arm -- you know, that doesn't get talked about enough -- and they got weapons over there now.
"It really challenges our rules and our principles on defense as far as playing sound football, because you gotta be gap-sound, you gotta be responsible in the passing game, because they're gonna test you, 1,000%."
Sam Howell: How could we not include Howell? He has made steady progress, but getting lots of reps against opposing defenses will be invaluable for him and telling for us. Rivera has preached seeing Howell take command of the huddle, be consistent and display growth. Howell has delivered in the first category: Pre-snap penalties and Eric Bieniemy-demanded re-huddles at practice have gone way down. The consistency will be key over the next two days, and the growth will be something Howell will hope to achieve every day.
After a light practice Sunday, the Commanders had the pads on Monday. Here are some observations:
- K.J. Henry has started to flash more often and displayed a couple of good inside moves Monday. The fifth-round rookie out of Clemson showed some speed off the ball, winning against Stromberg on one rep that earned applause from assistant defensive line coach Ryan Kerrigan.
- Andre Jones Jr. won't go quietly in the defensive end depth battle, either. He rotated in early in some team drills and had a clear one-on-one win over Daniels.
- Emmanuel Forbes broke up passes to both Terry McLaurin and Dotson. He continues to impress with tight coverage and active hands. He arguably should have had an interception on the breakup against McLaurin.
- Robinson and Chris Rodriguez had some strong runs in team settings Monday, though it's sometimes hard to tell without live tackling. Rodriguez built off a good game against the Browns (five carries, 39 yards) with a couple of solid practices.
- Howell struggled with accuracy near the end of the day, missing high to Curtis Samuel (incomplete) and Cole Turner (intercepted by Reaves) on consecutive plays. He also had some good moments, including zipping several passes to Brown, one on an absolute rope on a slant route between two defenders.
- Bieniemy wasn't especially pleased with the effort in final team drills. As the team changed over to special teams drills to end practice, he yelled, "Special teams on the jog. We can at least do that shit right!"