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Competition among Commanders' WRs intensifies ahead of preseason

FXF Training Camp KC2160

It was fourth-and-10 during the Washington Commanders' two-minute drills on Tuesday, and after Carson Wentz surveyed his options, he slung the ball downfield to an open receiver near the end zone.  

It is reasonable to think that the player streaking downfield would be Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel or first-round pick Jahan Dotson. After all, those players have been the talk of training camp, and much of the focus has been on Wentz's chemistry with them. Instead, it was Dax Milne who made the catch and finished the drill with a touchdown. 

It should not be a surprise to anyone who has watched Milne during his second training camp. He's made several clutch grabs since camp began, and he's slowly earning more reps with the starting offense because of it. 

Milne needs to make those moments count, because he's in a battle to claim one of the final spots available at the receiver position. And he isn't the only player in the competition making standout plays, either. 

"Each guy brings something different to the table," Ron Rivera said. "Each guy's done some pretty unique things as we've gone through the first two and a half weeks of camp."

With the top half of the receiver position locked up McLaurin, Samuel, Dotson, Cam Sims and Dyami Brown, the final spots have been left for the remaining wideouts on the roster to fill. Six players have been competing to claim the roles for themselves.

There will inevitably be difficult decisions to make at the position when the roster gets cut to 53 players Aug. 30.

It's not surprising to Rivera that the depth at receiver has stood out. He predicted as much before camp even began.

"I think the guys at positions five, six and seven [are] going to be very competitive," he said. "I really do. I mean, it's a good group of guys. They're athletic."

Milne, a 2021 seventh-round pick, is one player who has consistently popped in practice. He runs crisp routes during individual drills, which has been difficult for defensive backs like Benjamin St-Juste, who has a three-inch and 10-pound advantage, to cover during one-on-one drills.

That proficiency carries over into team drills. While he primarily works with the second group -- he had a leaping grab from Taylor Heinicke on Day 13 of camp -- his recent performances have led to him working more with Wentz and the starting unit.

"Very consistent player, good route runner, very headsy guy that understands certain things about what we do and how we do it," Rivera said. "Now he just continues to go out and make catches."

Milne, who made nine catches as a rookie, will likely seen plenty of snaps against the Carolina Panthers on Saturday alongside players like Marken Michel, who is also competing for a spot. Michel was one of the standouts from OTAs with his ability as a vertical threat. After having a quiet start to camp, that knack for stretching the field is starting to show itself again, as he had two touchdowns during Washington's practice at FedExField.

The most recent example: a snag from Sam Howell while working against St-Juste.

"That's a guy who really knows how to get open and separate," McLaurin said. "He can play in the slot. He can play in both outside positions. I think he can really have a chance to help us this year. I think it'll be really cool to see him out in the preseason doing his thing."

Rivera is looking forward to giving Michel an opportunity in the preseason.

"What I've seen from Marken is a guy that's a professional that understands how to do things, how to practice, how to prepare."

The remaining receivers hoping for a roster spot have shown some talent as well. Kelvin Harmon, a seventh-round pick from 2019, and Kyric McGowan, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia Tech, has also shown that he can bring in deep passes. Matt Cole, who was added to the roster Aug. 8, was the Great Lakes Valley Conference (GVLC) Special Teams Player of the Year with McKendree University in 2020.

Slot receiver Alex Erickson brings the most NFL experience to the roster, but most of his snaps have come as a return specialist. Over the past six seasons, he has 158 punt returns and 110 kickoff returns for 5,226 yards. That position versatility will be valuable once final decisions are made.

There are plenty of possibilities for how Washington wants to address its receiver depth. The team kept seven wideouts in 2021, and it's possible that will happen again, depending on how the rest of the month works out for the group.

The next two weeks will have plenty of chances to prove themselves.

"These three games will be really important to a lot of guys," Rivera said.

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