The Washington Commanders' restructured and reshuffled offensive line is full of new faces, but there's really only one position up front that remains undecided for now.
Washington's offensive line was in need of an upgrade after injuries derailed the group for most of the 2022 season, and much of the team's financial resources and draft capital went into finding answers.
At center, Nick Gates replaced longtime veteran Chase Roullier, who only played in 10 games since 2020. Andrew Wylie was brought in to be the starting right tackle, which bumped Sam Cosmi to right guard. Ricky Stromberg and Braeden Daniels were drafted with third- and fourth-round picks, respectively, to provide depth as rookies. Left tackle Charles Leno is the only player in the starting lineup to remain at his original position.
That leaves left guard, and as of now, Saahdiq Charles and Chris Paul are the only two players head coach Ron Rivera has mentioned as being in serious contention for the spot. Both are doing whatever they can to give themselves an edge.
"Saahdiq has really done a nice job, but you know, Chris Paul's really just nipping at the heels of all of our offensive linemen," Rivera said.
It's difficult to get full evaluations on any position at this time of year, when contact is prohibited, but things are particularly murky when it comes to the offensive line. Players can fine tune their techniques in pass blocking, but physicality is an important part of their roles that just cannot be judged until the pads come on in August.
For now, though, Charles has taken all the starting reps at left guard with Paul backing him up. A fourth-round pick from. 2020, Charles was brought in from LSU with the expectation that he would help solidify Washington's offensive line and be a fixture in the starting lineup for years to come.
The reality has been far different. Charles moved from tackle to guard, and injuries have limited him to just eight starts in 24 games.
There's never been doubt from the coaching staff that Charles has the skill set to be a meaningful contributor; for the past three seasons, availability has been his biggest challenge.
"That always seemed to be the issue," Rivera said. "If you go back and look at the times he's played, something has come up whether it's been the calf, it's been the ankle, the shoulder. You just hope that he stays healthy because he has the skillset."
Much of Charles' offseason work has been focused on fixing that issue. He spent most of his time working out at the Commanders' facility and changing up his diet. The results, he said, have been "tremendous," and he feels noticeable differences in his strength and health.
The work he put in earned him the opportunity to get the first shot at being the starting left guard, and part of that reward involves going up against Pro Bowlers like Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. Charles has managed to hold his own against one of the best defensive fronts in football, which has led to some praise from Rivera and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
Charles has made it clear through his actions on and off the field that he takes the opportunity seriously.
"I want to win the spot," Charles said. "I want to prove it to my teammates and coaches and play...to my capabilities."
Rivera has been quick to point out that Paul is not far behind Charles. The praise for the Tulsa seventh-round pick is not uncommon for the head coach. While Paul didn't appear on a gameday roster until the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys, Rivera lauded him for his growth in practice, athleticism and understanding of the game.
"They talk about him as being a guy that can lock you up," Rivera said of defensive linemen who approached him about Paul last year. "And they've told me unsolicited, they've come to me and said, 'Wow, coach, we gotta keep an eye on this kid.'"
There were plenty of "first day of school" vibes at the Washington Commanders' training facility during media.
Paul played well in Washington win over the Cowboys, allowing just one pressure with a pass blocking efficiency grade of 98. He believes that opportunity was "very, very important" for him to show that the team's faith in him was not misplaced.
"It was...something I had been wanting for a very long time," Paul said. "So, it was nice to finally get it. I definitely trusted in the fact that I was prepared for that moment, and I seized that opportunity."
Paul was focused on himself during OTAs and minicamp. He spent most of his time fine tuning the smaller details of his skill set and looking at areas he can still improve upon.
He can already feel the difference.
"Definitely better prepared," Paul said. "And that just comes with being a veteran now at this point and continuing to improve and knowing the scheme and knowing the terminology."
And it isn't just one area that Paul feels he has made progress in; it's his entire body of work.
"it's really shown in all aspects, every aspect of offensive line play," Paul said. "I think I'm really just grateful for the opportunity I get to progress day in and day out, and every day...no matter where I'm at in my career, it's gonna be a competition."
Washington wants to find its five best players for the starting offensive line. Whether Paul or Charles is among them won't be decided until August, but regardless of who ends up winning the job, the team sound confident in both of its options.