The months of waiting is over. The anticipation can finally stop. Training camp is upon us.
On Tuesday, the Washington Commanders began filing into the team facility in Ashburn, Virginia to report for the third training camp of Ron Rivera’s tenure. For the next month, players will make their case that they deserve one of the 53 spots that will be on the Commanders' initial roster.
That begins tomorrow during the Commanders' first practice, which begins at 9 a.m. and will be open to fans. Today, players will meet with Rivera, trainers and their respective offensive and defensive coaches.
The countdown to the 2022 season, which will kick off Sept. 11 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, now begins in earnest, and there's a buzz surrounding the facility, not just because of all the new faces that will don the Burgundy & Gold, but also because of the expectations. Rivera made the proclamation that the roster is ready to take a step forward, and the moves the Commanders have made over the last seven months have been focused on making that happen.
"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 Jan. 3. "It's time I think that we see this team start to take that big step forward."
Those plans started with the quarterback -- a position that Rivera was adamant would get addressed during the offseason. That turned out to be true on the first day of the new league year, as the Commanders announced a trade with Indianapolis Colts to acquire Carson Wentz, bringing him back to the NFC East.
"I believe it's what we're looking for," Rivera said. "His skill set speaks very well for us, especially for what we want to do and how we want to attack our opponents."
Wentz's arm strength has Rivera convinced Washington will be able to expand its offense, but he brings more than that to Washington. He adds six years of experience and leadership that he's already shown to his teammates.
"I put my best foot forward and let the chips fall where they may," Wentz said during his March press conference. "And that's the mindset I've had ever since I was in college playing ball and got to the league so that's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna put my head down, work, build relationships and hopefully look up at the end of the year and be happy with the result."
With the quarterback issue resolved, the next step was to surround Wentz with weapons and protect him. The Commanders had a quiet free agency period, but they did bring in former first team All-Pro Andrew Norwell and five-time Pro Bowler Trai Turner to fill the guard positions left open by Brandon Scherff and Ereck Flowers.
"I like the group," Rivera said of the offensive line. "I like the depth that we have. One thing we wanted to do consciously was we wanted to have at least 10 guys that were veteran savvy guys that have played on the field for us. We like that minimum of 10 men depth. We'll try and keep as many of those guys as we can."
The Commanders also ensured that Wentz will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. They added Jahan Dotson, who impressed his coaches during OTAs, with their first-round pick, and later they made the highly-anticipated decision to extend Terry McLaurin. The move to keep McLaurin around, Rivera said, was an "organizational signing" that had to get done.
"It's not good for you on the field, but off the field, in the community, in the business side of football. When you have guys that do things the right way...that's invaluable."
Washington seems set on offense with Wentz and his weapons ready to take the field. Defensively, the unit has one goal: improve on the less-than-ideal performance it had in 2021. The belief among the players is that things will be different in 2022, as several of them have noted their chemistry and communication has strengthened this offseason.
"We're just starting at a high intensity," Jackson said. "We're playing fast. No one's out there thinking anymore. We're out there playing fast. We know where guys are going to be now. We're just out there having fun and putting it all together."
Most of the secondary returned from last season, but there will be two newcomers to the group as well: fourth-round pick Percy Butler and seventh-round pick Christian Holmes. The hype around Butler has percolated since he was drafted, and Rivera believes he will have an immediate impact because of his versatility he brings to the safety position.
"He'll be part of our buffalo and nickel packages," Rivera said. "He'll get an opportunity to play the nickel position. And when we go to big nickel, he could end up as the safety, or he could end up as the big nickel."
The Commanders also provided an answer to their lack of depth at defensive tackle with Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle playing for different teams. They used their second-round pick on Phidarian Mathis to shore up the back end of the front and provide a boost in the run defense.
"A very selfless guy," Rivera said. "Very unselfish, willing to do the work. One thing he did very well was he held the point of attack. He absorbed the double teams, allowed the linebackers to run."
Speaking of linebackers, that was one position that didn't change this offseason, although we do know who the leader of the group will be. Cole Holcomb, who was the primary on-field play-caller in 2021, will be the MIKE this season, and he's ready to "take control" of the defense.
"I like that responsibility and taking control and being able to get everybody lined up and the adjustments that we need to make," Holcomb said.
The top of the Commanders' roster seems set, but there will still be plenty of meaningful position battles. Washington still needs a No. 4 defensive tackle and a definitive answer at buffalo nickel. On offense, the final spots at receiver and tight end are up for grabs, and the depth at offensive line could be shaken up at some point.
For those answers, fans will need to let training camp play out, but the pieces are in place for the growth Rivera predicted back in January. It also doesn't hurt that the Commanders have an ideal schedule, either.
For now, though, there is one fact that is cause for everyone to celebrate: football is back.