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Cornelius Lucas stepping out of his comfort zone to earn starting job

Cornelius Lucas

The Washington Commanders knew they had a hole at left tackle, partially of their own making with the release of Charles Leno Jr. earlier this offseason. Free agency was the starting point to finding the answer, and they could have signed one of the top players on the market with their excess of available cap space or even traded for a player.

The Commanders re-signed Cornelius Lucas, and that was the extent of their intentions to address the position until they drafted Brandon Coleman in the third round.

General manager Adam Peters said at the Annual League Meetings that he would be comfortable with Lucas as the starting left tackle if it came to that. Okay, but just how confident? Apparently, quite a bit, as the Commanders did not make a splash move at left tackle and stuck to their promise to give him a chance to win the job outright.

Offensive line coach Bobby Johnson is also confident that Lucas is ready for the opportunity.

"It'd be real easy for him to just be stuck in his ways," Johnson said of Lucas. "And he hasn't been that way. I know he's studying his rear end off at night."

Lucas' maturation process from the time he first joined the league as an undrafted free agent out of Kansas State to now has been a delight for Johnson.

Johnson, who was the Detroit Lions' assistant offensive line coach back in 2014, was the person who convinced Lucas to sign with the team. Lucas ended up playing three seasons for the Lions, appearing in 35 games with six starts.

Since then, Lucas has bounced around the NFL, spending time with the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears. For the last four seasons, Lucas has been in Washington, where he's gotten the bulk of his experience with 31 starts in 62 appearances for the Burgundy & Gold.

It's been a decade since Johnson and Lucas got to work together, and one of the things Johnson is pleased to see with Lucas is that he's still open to trying new things.

"It's very common for guys who are that far into their careers to say, 'Hey, I've done something a certain way.' And...that's how they do it. That's not been the case with [Lucas]. He's been real receptive to trying different things. And I think that sends a message to other guys in the room like, 'Hey, this guy is trying something after doing it a certain way for 10 years, then I have no reason not to do it.'"

The motivation is certainly there for Lucas to try getting out of his comfort zone. While Lucas has been a swing tackle for his entire career with a handful of starts, the most in one season being the 12 he had in 2022, he's never been a full-time starter.

Johnson knows that each situation in the NFL is different. Perhaps Lucas was never asked to compete for a job at his other stops. Johnson doesn't want to speculate, but does know that when Lucas was told what the new coaching staff was looking for at the position -- someone who was willing to compete -- Lucas was eager for the opportunity.

"He's been real positive," Johnson said. "He's really tried to do some different things that I've asked him to do, and that's only gonna help him."

And Johnson is getting confirmation that the message is hitting home for Lucas. The answers Lucas gives during film study let Johnson know that Lucas is studying at night. He'll ask what responsibilities he has if defenses present him with certain looks. When Johnson gives an answer, he can see Lucas taking "copious notes."

Watching Lucas go out of his way to change his routine and put in extra work has been a cool experience for Johnson.

"He's putting forth his best effort every day, not just on the field, but in the classroom," Johnson said. "That's cool to watch a guy at that point in his career still be eager to learn and grow."

To Johnson, it shows that Lucas is taking the chance to be a full-time starter for the first time in his career seriously.

"He wants to compete for the starting job," Johnson said. "And so he's like, 'Okay, I'm willing to get out of my comfort zone so I can try to win this thing."

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