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3 keys to Washington's preseason opener against the Panthers

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The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.

The Washington Commanders are preparing to take on the Carolina Panthers in their preseason opener on Aug. 13 at 1 p.m. Team Analyst Logan Paulsen and Staff Writer Zach Selby give their takes on what they're looking to see in the first bit of action the team will against another opponent.

1. Who is one player to watch against the Panthers?

Logan: In the preseason I want to watch everyone. There are so many position battles; people fighting for their professional lives and trying to stake their claim to the 53-man roster. However, one player has stood taller than the rest: 6-foot-8 Curtis Hodges has impressed me from Day 1. Hodges converted from receiver to tight while at ASU. His background as a wideout is apparent. He might not be the fastest guy -- he ran a 4.85 at the combine -- but he has silky smooth movement and basketball twitch. Pair that with his frame, he has the potential to be special.

Hodges has flashed as a pass catcher but has had limited opportunities in practice. The area he has really been consistent is as a run-blocker. Despite his 240-pound frame, he has embraced the physical aspects of the position, showing a high understanding of angles and hand use. More importantly, he shows the appropriate amount of urgency to finish blocks. He still has some work to do to stake his claim to the roster. Is the experience of Sammis Reyes too much for him to overcome? Is the athletic upside of Armani Rogers more enticing to coaches? These are the questions that are answered in the preseason; and why I will be watching Hodges performance with anticipation.

Zach: I agree with Logan that Hodges has looked impressive among a tight end position that has dealt with nagging injuries throughout camp. However, I'm looking at the other side of the ball and will be keeping an eye on Jamin Davis in the limited snaps he'll get with the starters.

We've heard a lot about how much Davis has improved from his rookie year. Ron Rivera said that he's seen Davis take strides in the system, and Davis himself mentioned he feels "10 times more comfortable." We've seen some of that development, too; in Week 2 of practice, he helped stuff a run at the 2-yard line and provided tight coverage on Rogers that forced Carson Wentz to throw the ball out of bounds.

Playing well in practice is one thing; doing so in games is another. I want to see Davis play with that same intensity against an offense that he hasn't seen every day for three weeks. A nice performance from Davis would give credence to why Rivera isn't as concerned about linebacker depth.

2. What's one thing you want to see from the offense?

Logan: I want to see the offense be "on schedule" by staying in manageable down and distance situations, converting third downs and avoiding negative plays. A key element of that is being successful on first down. All offseason fans have been calling for the offense to establish the run and take pressure off Wentz. While running the football is important, it doesn't always have to be on first down.   

Statistically, first down is the easiest down to throw the football. The defense cannot run their elaborate blitz or coverage schemes because they must account for the threat of run. Conversely, the offense has everything in their game plan at their disposal while being able to hedge on a failed first down with the subsequent second and third downs.   

It would be awesome to see Scott Turner let Wentz sling it on first down and see how he responds. Not only is it a good offensive philosophy, but it also helps the quarterback see simple defensive structures. So, while it is important for the offense to stay on schedule, a critical element of that is how Turner calls first down and Wentz executes.

Zach: It's progress from the run game for me, and there are two reasons why. We'll start with the running backs; we have a clear structure at the position with Antonio Gibson being the "slasher," as Rivera called it, who can attack outside the tackles. I would classify J.D. McKissic in a similar fashion, although I think his usage will be more focused as a pass-catcher.

Brian Robinson adds a more physical style to the backfield, and I'm curious to see how that looks in a game scenario. We've seen some of Robinson's patience as a downhill runner who knows how to let his blocks develop (he's also shown there's more to his skill set), but there's a limit to how intense things can be in practice. Saturday will give offer a truer picture of Robinson's ability, which I think is going to have reverberating effects on the entire offense.

The second reason pertains to the offensive line. The group had the best run-block win-rate in 2021, per ESPN, although there has been a shakeup in the interior with Andrew Norwell being the starting left guard and Wes Schweitzer slated at right guard while Trai Turner is out with injury. Both Schweitzer and Norwell have had solid camps so far, but Saturday will be the first test as to whether the front's success from a year ago will carry over to 2022.

3. Which position will you be focusing on the most?

Logan: The secondary's communication and execution have been on point since the start of training camp. I am excited to see how they handle themselves against another offense. Defensive backs start to become familiar with their offense's tendencies over the course of training camp. The corners know the receivers run outs from tight splits, or that the slot receiver runs across the formation when the offense is in specific formations/personnel groupings. The familiarity with the offense makes them more effective; it allows them to anticipate with greater efficiency. What happens to that communication when the familiarity is gone?

In addition, I can't wait to see how the young safeties perform. Darrick Forrest is someone I am excited to see in pads. He plays like someone who embraces the physical elements of the game. I want to see him unleash that mindset on another team. Percy Butler is also exciting. He plays with tremendous speed, and when he is at the Buffalo Nickle spot, he shows up in the backfield quickly. He played predominantly post safety in college and is still learning how to defeat blocks at the NFL level. Can he figure that out and get some time with the starting defense? I am excited to find out.

Zach: The battle at the bottom of the receiver position has been one of the more interesting to watch. We know how the first four spots are going to work out; the last two (possibly three) spots on the depth chart are more unknown.

The way I see it, there are six players vying for those spots, and they've all had some bright spots in camp. Dax Milne has made several impressive catches, while others like Marken Michel and Kyric McGowan have flashed prowess as vertical threats. Alex Erickson also brings veteran experience to a group that is mostly filled with second- or third-year players.

Rivera said the preseason games will be big for the wideouts competing for a roster spot. As the head coach predicted, it's been a competitive training camp for all the remaining options, but whoever can maintain their momentum against another opponent will have a leg up ahead of next Tuesday's roster cuts.

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