After coming close to a playoff bid in 2021 thanks to a 7-10 season, there’s a certain level of pressure on coach Ron Rivera’s Washington Commanders to improve in 2022. The addition of Carson Wentz under center should help, but let’s be honest, one player won’t make all the difference.
But even if Wentz comes in and plays excellently, the Commanders will need bigger contributions from other parts of their roster to have a chance this season. Especially on defense, where they struggled to slow down their opponents.
Luckily it won’t all come down to Wentz, the Commanders have many others who could improve upon their efforts in 2021. Here’s three Commanders players who are in line for a breakout season in 2022.
Benjamin St-Juste earns his starting role
Most of the NFL has never heard of Benjamin St-Juste. This should come as no surprise, as the Canadian-born football player who ended up playing for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in college didn’t exactly enter the league with tons of hype as a third-round pick last season.
But for anyone who has seen St-Juste play, it’s clear that this defensive back is not your ordinary player. First off, he’s 6-foot-3, which is above-average for members of the secondary. If he entered the league 10 years earlier, he might have become the poster boy of Pete Carroll and Kris Richard’s ‘Legion of Boom’ group of tall, playmaking defensive backs.
Instead, St-Juste looks to make his mark for the Commanders, and he appears in line to start at nickel back, but training camp will help determine his exact role. We didn’t get to see a ton of St-Juste as a rookie, he played 318 snaps, or 55% of the team’s defensive plays, but that’s largely due to him suffering multiple concussions and being limited to just nine games.
Now that he’s healthy again, St-Just has been drawing rave reviews in camp, and was reportedly the only one who could hang with incoming rookie receiver Jahan Dotson in coverage. The Commanders hope to hear several more glaring reviews of their second-year pro throughout the year, but for now, St-Juste appears primed to breakout in 2022.
Brian Robinson makes an impact as a rookie
The Washington Commanders have taken a unique approach to building their running back group. In 2020 they drafted Antonio Gibson, who was mostly seen as a wide receiver prospect and then converted him to a running back. It’s hard to argue with the move, as he topped 1,000 yards last season, but the team still didn’t feel they had their RB group figured out.
So they selected Alabama’s Brian Robinson in the third round in April. His size alone at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds tells you he’s in line to receive goal-line touches and carries in short-yardage situations. Then again, if Robinson proves to be effective early on, we could also see more of a 1-2 punch developing between Gibson and Robinson with J.D. McKissic mixing in on third-down passing situations.
Plus, we can’t ignore Gibson’s fumbling issues last season, where he put the ball on the turf six times. Let’s just say there will be plenty of opportunities for Robinson to prove his worth, and if Gibson can’t fix his fumble habits, Robinson’s touches will only increase as the year goes on.
Kamren Curl becomes a household name
It’s pretty rare for a seventh round rookie to play in all 16 games in their first season. Not only did Kamren Curl manage that feat, he also started 11 games despite being the 216th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Even in his first season, Curl racked up 88 tackles, picked off three passes, and sacked the QB twice. It was an impressive effort, and one that earned him the starting role again in 2021, where he started 14 of his 16 games played.
Unfortunately, Curl’s raw stats don’t pop off the page the same. He didn’t force any turnovers, but he did amass 11 more tackles. Yet, still just 23 and now with 25 starts under his belt, I’m picking Curl to take another step forward in 2022.
Now it’s very possible Curl is already near his ceiling, and he’s already been an incredible value for the Commanders, coming in as a seventh-rounder, but being that the Commanders’ D as a whole is set to improve, thanks to simply being healthier, Curl might benefit from his surroundings.
As a rookie Curl had a 69.6 Pro Football Focus coverage grade. Like many other Washington defenders, he regressed in 2021, down to a 65.5 coverage grade, which isn’t a big dropoff. But with Landon Collins officially out of town, there’s no one else to steal Curl’s snaps. He should step into the role Collins had as the team’s box safety and being that Curl missed just 5.7% of his tackle attempts compared to Collins whiffing 13.8% of the time, the younger replacement should be a big improvement.