The Commanders may have a new look Sunday: Young, inexperienced and excited


This week, the vibe at Washington Commanders practice changed dramatically. Last week, across the frosty fields in Ashburn, starters gutted through nagging pains as the team fought to keep its playoff hopes alive. But after a devastating loss, several traded pads for sweatsuits and instead headed to the side field, yielding reps to backups.

The Commanders’ season finale Sunday at FedEx Field will mean something for the Dallas Cowboys. If they beat Washington and Philadelphia loses to the New York Giants, Dallas will win the NFC East.

But Washington’s focus will be on the future, most notably at quarterback, with rookie Sam Howell set to make his debut. The team supporting Howell probably will look very different from the one that took the field last week. On Thursday, Washington placed running back Antonio Gibson (knee/foot) on injured reserve, and eight other starters — including running back Brian Robinson Jr. (knee), left guard Andrew Norwell (hip) and right tackle Cornelius Lucas (ankle) — did not participate in practice.

The coaching staff seems most excited to see rookie left guard Chris Paul, who’s set to make his NFL debut Sunday. It also will get a look at safety Percy Butler, corner Christian Holmes and tight ends Cole Turner and Armani Rogers in expanded roles.

But with all the turnover, will it be possible to get a fair evaluation of Howell?

“You take everything into account,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said Thursday. “Part of the evaluation [has] already taken place. We see a lot [in the building], just the way [Howell] conducts himself, the way he practices. All of that is going to be taken into account. Now, this is obviously live bullets against a good team who is playing for something.”

After Howell, Washington probably will gain the most insight Sunday on its offensive line. This season, veteran guards Norwell and Trai Turner struggled in space and with pass-blocking, limiting the offense, and it’s possible the team could gain some clarity about their replacements. The most notable is Paul, a seventh-round pick from the University of Tulsa. Coaches seem excited about him — Rivera has praised his progress, unprompted, several times over the past month — and Dallas’s fearsome pass rush will be a true test.

“He’s a talented young player; he’s really smart,” center Wes Schweitzer said. “He’s been really with it all week. … I expect him to meet the standard of the room.”

Paul said his biggest focus in his debut will be on staying square in his pass sets. In college, he said, he could get away with blocking a defensive lineman up and around the pocket — known as “tetherball technique” — but he can’t count on that in the NFL. He noted it will be crucial to communicate well with Schweitzer and left tackle Charles Leno Jr. because the Cowboys’ front, headlined by Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence, moves around as much as any in the league.

“My emotions are really excitement, anticipation, and [I’m] just blessed to have the opportunity to get out there on the field and showcase my talent,” Paul said, adding, “My expectations for myself are probably just to exceed [my] expectations.”

Late-season QB changes put pressure on Commanders’ O-line

In the past two months, in an effort to keep the best five linemen on the field, Washington has had Sam Cosmi split time between right guard and right tackle. Going forward, it could dedicate him to one position, right guard. If the team decides he should stay there, the athletic 2021 second-round pick could provide a solution to a lingering problem. If he kicks out to tackle, it could boost a position considered not particularly strong in free agency or the draft.

Behind the line, if Robinson can’t play, the Commanders’ running backs would be Jonathan Williams, Jaret Patterson and, if elevated from the practice squad, Reggie Bonnafon, whom the team signed Thursday. None of those players will be priorities for the front office, but if they play well, it could help the evaluation of the most important position on the field.

For Howell, one saving grace is the position with the most players available Sunday — wide receiver — is also the deepest and most talented. Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel are expected to play significant roles, and on Thursday, Jahan Dotson said he plans to play the whole game. The fourth wideout, Dyami Brown, went to North Carolina with Howell, and in two years there, he caught 106 passes from him for 2,133 yards and 20 touchdowns.

But Howell isn’t familiar with McLaurin and Samuel. On Wednesday, after Rivera named Howell the starter, Howell said he threw to them for the first time. He said McLaurin’s speed stood out, and he knows he needs to get Samuel the ball in space.

“I’ve been watching [McLaurin] all year,” Howell said, adding, “He’s just been so much fun to watch.”

Now, for the Commanders to find meaning in the game Sunday, they will need him to be one vital cog in a mismatched machine.

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