Former linebacker Thomas Davis is in a unique position when it comes to evaluating the status of the Washington Commanders as they enter their third season under head coach Ron Rivera.
Davis, who spent 16 seasons in the NFL, had been a staple of Rivera's cultures for almost the entirety of his coaching career. He was a key piece of Rivera's Carolina Panthers for eight years and had some of his best performances in that span.
Davis played his last season for the Commanders, then named the Washington Football Team, and helped Rivera establish a new culture in Washington. After Washington finished 7-9 with a NFC East division crown, Davis proclaimed "this team is gonna be a playoff contender for years to come" based on his evaluation of the roster and the team's future.
The Commanders had a slight setback from that with a 7-10 record in 2021, but Davis still has high hopes for the squad.
"I just feel like these guys continue to grow, continue to gel," Davis told senior vice president of media and content Julie Donaldson. "You continue to build around that nucleus, do what you need to do in the offseason from a player personnel standpoint in bringing guys in."
For the Panthers, who hired Rivera to his first head coaching position in 2011, that nucleus was their defense. In the high point of his tenure, which included three division championships and a Super Bowl appearance, the unit finished with Top 10 marks in terms of yards allowed for four straight seasons. During the Super Bowl season, which included a 15-1 record, the defense was sixth in points and yards on top of pacing the league in takeaways.
Davis sees a similarity when it comes to the Commanders' defense. It was a stark turnaround for the unit in 2021, when it finished 22nd, but Davis pointed out that several key pieces are still on the team like Montez Sweat, Kendall Fuller and Jonathan Allen.
"They have guys in place to really get the job done," Davis said. "I don't think they lived up to the billing this year, but I definitely know they have the guys in the locker room."
Davis also brought up Chase Young, who is still recovering from a season-ending knee injury he suffered in Week 10. He said getting Young back "is gonna propel this defense even more," and while there is no set date on when Young will return in 2022, he hopes to be back for the season opener.
"Right now I'm just going to be where my feet are at," Young said. "Just take things one day at a time and just try to attack it with my best, day in and day out."
On Friday, Feb. 4, the Washington Commanders hosted a "Park and Party" event for fans at FedExField to cap off their rebrand reveal week. The tailgate experience, sponsored by Bud Light, featured exclusive team content, new team gear, alumni meet & greets, a fireworks show and more. (Photos by Jess Rapfogel and Jospeh Noyes/Washington Commanders)
Davis knows the importance of this offseason for Rivera. It was in the head coach's third season that the Panthers started their success. To do that again in Washington, he expects Rivera to keep building around the Commanders' nucleus. They've already started that by extending Charles Leno Jr., who had one of his best seasons in 2021.
There are other decisions to be made in the coming month. Key players like Brandon Scherff, J.D. McKissic and Bobby McCain are also set to be free agents. There's also the draft to consider. Davis hinted he's a fan of the Commanders taking a quarterback with the 11th overall pick. Rivera and general manager Martin Mathew said that is an option, but so is looking in free agency and finding an answer with either Taylor Heinicke or Kyle Allen.
Check out the Washington Commanders' new home, away and alternate uniforms that were unveiled as part of the organization's rebrand. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)
The Commanders do have some flexibility in both areas, though. The team's cap situation will allow it to pursue several options. Likewise, the Commanders can pick up an immediate starter in the first round.
Either way, Rivera has emphasized the importance of this offseason.
"That's the thing and that's gonna be the truth of the matter is that this off season is gonna be very important, very vital to what I think is part of the plan," Rivera said. "It's time I think that we see this team start to take that big step forward."
From Davis' perspective, the Commanders' aren't that far off.
"You can be right back in there competing for a division championship."