There was a long list of positives surrounding offensive guard Trai Turner when he left LSU early to pursue a professional career in the 2014 NFL Draft. There were also plenty of questions.
Bleacher Report's Alex Dunlap wrote in his pre-draft evaluation of Turner that he was "shorter than evaluators would like and clearly lacks size" and his "functional strength of leg drive is below average" in addition to several other slights. However, ESPN also pointed out in Turner's draft profile that he had above average durability and intangibles to go with "adequate foot speed, short-area quickness and ... a strong anchor."
Then Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and John Matsko chose to focus on the latter qualities and drafted Turner in the third round. Six years later, Turner was in Orlando, Florida, for his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl. Neither Rivera nor Matsko are with the Panthers anymore; Rivera agreed to be Washington's head coach, and one of his decisions was to bring Matsko with him.
But Turner never forgot how Matsko helped him throughout his career. Now, after Turner signed a one-year deal with the Commanders, the two have reunited.
"I'll give it to you short and sweet. I still talk to him. I talked to him yesterday," Turner said after a Jan. 23 practice before the 2020 Pro Bowl. "He's a guy that I lean on heavily. He's just a great coach and a great mentor to my career."
Turner was not the first talented player Matsko had worked with in his career. He coached Hall of Fame offensive tackles Orlando Pace and Willie Roaf and worked with Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil when he was first hired by the Panthers in 2011, among others like J.J. Jansen and Jordan Gross.
"He's got the makeup. He's got what Pace had, what Willie Roaf had and what Kalil and [tight end Greg] Olsen have now," Matsko said. "There's a desire, a fire that you can feel from those guys. When they show up at practice, you can feel it. Turner's got it. He's only going to get better."
Turner is not the only player who will vouch for Matsko; he seems to simply have a way of getting production out of those under his tutelage. It's why Rivera hired him one day after he was relieved of his duties with the Baltimore Ravens in January of 2011 and then again with the Redskins in early January of 2019.
It's also one of the reasons why Kalil's brother, Matt, signed with the Panthers after spending five seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
"He had heard me speak so highly of him, and he was very impressed with the players he's seen go from average to good and good to great under Coach Matsko," Ryan Kalil told Panthers.com in 2017 after Matt signed with the team.
The offense and defense took the field during Tuesday's practice as the Washington Commanders continue the final week of Phase 2. Check out the top shots from the action. (Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
Matsko has been one of the few constants in Rivera's career as a head coach. His success helped him stay on the Panther's coaching for the entirety of Rivera's tenure with the Panthers. He has gained Rivera's trust, and whether he's working with a first- or third-round pick, Turner knows Matsko can help players produce on the field.
"He works with what he has," Turner said. "He takes advantage of his opportunities and he's going to get the best out of you."
Turner joins an offensive line that was one of the better groups in the league last season. They were a Top 10 team in pass-block and run-block win rate, despite the fact that they dealt with injuries throughout the year.
Rivera expects the Commanders to take a step forward in 2022, and protecting new starting quarterback Carson Wentz will be an important piece of that. So, having a player who spent years learning from Matsko should help the offense take that expected leap.