ASHBURN, Va. -- After 13 training camp practices, the Commanders finally get the chance to meet an opponent when they visit the Browns on Friday. It's the preseason opener for Washington but not for Cleveland, which won the Hall of Fame Game over the Jets last week.
It's been mostly a very good offseason for Washington, headlined by Josh Harris . Harris brought immediate goodwill -- he and then gave them stands from which to watch training camp, for example -- but his team has plenty of on-field questions.
Head coach Ron Rivera did not disclose how much the starters will play, but Friday will present some opportunities for the Commanders to start answering some of those questions. Here are five that will be top of mind:
1. How does Sam Howell look?
If you looked at Sam Howell's resume without knowing who it belonged to, it would read like that of a guy who will play a lot this preseason with the backups, mopping up snaps and hoping to make the team: fifth-round pick a year ago, one career game, by far the youngest quarterback on the roster. Howell evenas camp began.
Instead, he's the starter. His training camp has been up and down, but Rivera and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy have liked what they've seen from the North Carolina product. Bieniemy said Tuesday that Howell has been overthinking less as camp has progressed and added that when Howell throws with confidence, it's "a thing of beauty." In Wednesday's unpadded but lengthy practice, Howell showed the arm strength and accuracy that allow the coaching staff to have confidence. He also had the mistakes and misses that serve as reminders that he's a young late-round pick learning a new offense.
To begin camp, Rivera said he was looking for "consistent play and growth" from his 22-year-old signal-caller. Has he gotten it?
"The last couple of practices, I've really emphasized that you start to see the consistency in the decision-making, you start to see the consistency in the throws, where they need to be placed," Rivera said Wednesday. "You see the handling of the calls. It's that type of growth that you look for, and we're starting to see that."
Practice highlights and positive comments matter not in competition, though. With a larger focus on thethis season, the Commanders hope to see their playmakers out in space more, and Friday will be a chance, at long last, to show it in game action.
2. Can the offensive line hold up, and what's the rotation like?
The Commanders are working in four new starting offensive linemen.
At left guard, coaches have raved about Saahdiq Charles' potential, but a calf injury led to Chris Paul getting first-team reps recently. Regardless, it's a major question. Charles has eight career starts. Paul has played in one career game: last year's relatively meaningless Week 18 win over the Cowboys, which also happens to be Howell's only career game.
At center, Nick Gates arrives from the Giants. Gates suffered a gruesome compound leg fracture against Washington in 2021 and finished fifth in Comeback Player of the Year voting last season after seven surgeries and 410 days between games. The Commanders had in the practices refs were present, and a new system, a new center and a new quarterback is a lot of newness -- with not a lot of time to get on the same page.
Sam Cosmi slides from right tackle to right guard, and he has been a positive in camp. He's a terrific athlete, something players on both sides of the ball have noticed. And for the screen game to work, big, athletic guards are a requisite.
"I think it's a really good package," Cosmi said last week. "I think it's going to be very beneficial for us in the season and opening up drives and doing that type of stuff. I'm a big fan of screens. Hearing that, knowing that, it's big time."
At right tackle, Andrew Wylie arrives from Kansas City as the player who knows Bieniemy's system best. But Wylie also allowed a 6.8% pressure rate over the last two seasons, fourth-highest among 104 offensive linemen who have played at least 800 snaps over that span.
Then there's the depth issue. Undrafted free agent guard Mason Brooks has , which speaks to his good work and the lack of proven depth pieces as a whole. If Howell is the most important question because of the position he plays, the offensive line might be the biggest question considering just how many uncertain spots there are.
3. How do Washington's recent first-round defenders look?
The Commanders have gone defense in three of the last four first rounds, and the three players bear watching for different reasons.
Chase Young was the second overall pick in 2020 and immediately lived up to the hype, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year. Then came a down 2021 season that ended prematurely due to a major knee injury that cost him most of 2022 as well. But this training camp, Young no longer has a bulky brace on that right knee and has looked more explosive.
Jamin Davis, a first-round pick in 2021, has been in the news mainly for off-the-field reasons. He had an offseason knee procedure and is currently dealing with a reckless driving case, with a hearing scheduled for Aug. 31 according to The Washington Post. On the field, Davis has been quieter. He was rotating in with the starters early in training camp, though he has consistently been with the starters recently, and he blew up a couple of run plays to open team drills Tuesday. Davis has all the physical tools to live up to his first-round billing, and playing behind this defensive line should be a massive advantage. Friday could provide the first indications of whether Davis has made a third-year leap.
Finally, rookie Emmanuel Forbes has been a star of camp. The Mississippi State product holds the FBS record with six career pick-sixes, and his aggressive play has been on display in both individual and team drills against the Commanders' top receivers, including starters Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Dyami Brown.
"You see him adapt to who he who he's playing," Rivera said Tuesday. "I mean, Terry you see him play a certain way because of Terry's quickness off the ball. Because of Dyami's long stride and his power, you see him work a little bit differently against him. ... It makes sense, and you see that this is a young guy that's already studying his opponents trying to figure out the best way to play these guys, so that's been impressive about him."
4. How are the tight ends deployed?
With Logan Thomas (calf) having missed five consecutive practices, it would be a surprise to see him playing Friday. Rivera has been adamant that while it's not the same issue that bothered Thomas last year, "we don't want it to have it exacerbated by going out there too soon."
That should mean opportunities for Cole Turner, John Bates and Curtis Hodges. Turner has been impressive in camp, and at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, he is a huge target for Howell. On one seven-on-seven rep Tuesday, for example, Turner boxed out a smaller defender and hauled in a pass away from his body. Turner recorded just two catches last year after a hamstring injury suffered in training camp. But he's a former wide receiver who does a lot of wide receiver drills during warmups, and he could have a significant receiving role in Bieniemy's offense.
5. Do we get more looks at the kicking battle?
The kicking and punting operation takes place largely away from the public (and the reporters') view. At the beginning of camp, Rivera said bringing in Michael Badgley to compete with incumbent Joey Slye was similar to bringing in Jacoby Brissett to compete with Howell: competition should "bring the best out of our guys."
Slye made 25 of 30 field goal attempts (83.3%) but went just 24-28 (85.7%) on extra points last year while Badgley went 24-28 on field goals and made all 33 of his extra points, something Rivera made sure to note,. Slye, though has a career touchback percentage of nearly 82%; Badgley is at 21%. So all three kicking scenarios -- field goals, extra points and kickoffs -- will be under scrutiny.