The depth on Washington’s 2021 roster will likely be the best it’s been in years, if not decades. Through solid drafting over the past several years, as well as some very shrewd free agency moves over the last two seasons, the WFT has not only a very solid group of starters – particularly on the defense – but it also has a number of back-up players who could likely be starters on several other NFL teams (e.g., Tim Settle, Matt Ioannidis, Ereck Flowers/Wes Schweitzer).
This piece focuses on one very prominent, and four less prominent, players who, if successful, could help the team be competitive into the playoffs, or if unsuccessful, could be washed out of the league within a couple of years.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (QB)
Having been in the league for over 15 years, I confess it’s a little odd for Fitzpatrick to be nominated as a “breakout” player. But, as I’ve written elsewhere, Fitz is playing the best football of his career in his golden years. In 2021, paired with one of the best defenses in the league, as well as being provided with an offensive approach, with offensive weapons, tailored to his strength as a quarterback, I believe that Fitzpatrick will have his best season as a pro, and finally make the playoffs.
There is no player on this list, and likely no player on the team, whose breakout will be as integral to this team’s success this year as Fitzpatrick. If he does, the sky is the limit for this team, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his name mentioned in the MVP conversation.
Saahdiq Charles (G/T)
When Charles was taken in the 4th round of the draft last year, it looked like a steal to a lot of people. Rumors were that Charles was a first or second round talent but that he slid in the draft due to character concerns, specifically around potential marijuana use. His contrition during the pre-draft interviews convinced Ron Rivera that he was serious about taking the steps necessary to succeed in the pros:
“One thing that really caught my attention was he had made the statement that when you have something taken away from you, you want it back, you want to do it the right way,” Rivera said. “That really swayed me. I’m one of those that do believe you do give guys opportunities, especially if they show that they want it and this is a young man that wants it.”
The initial expectation was that he might start at left guard as early as last year. Unfortunately, Charles suffered a knee injury early in the season, so we didn’t get to see his capabilities. Now, he’ll enter training camp on a roster that already has three starting-caliber guards (Schweitzer, Flowers, and Scherff).
If Charles is effective at guard, he could end up making Scherff’s departure next year considerably less painful. If he can succeed at left tackle – with Sam Cosmi eventually starting at right tackle – the team will have pulled off a coup, with starters at two critical offensive line positions locked in on rookie deals for several years.
Washington asst. OL coach Travelle Wharton on whether Saahdiq Charles is a better fit as as G or OT: “He can play both. He has the quickness to play on the outside and he has the strength to play on the inside. He’s a big asset to us.”
— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) June 7, 2021
Jeremy Reaves (S)
Despite playing very well at the end of last year, Reaves still isn’t getting a ton of attention in the lead up to the 2021 season. Kam Curl is, rightfully, at the top of any discussion of Washington’s safeties, followed by Landon Collins, the newly-signed Bobby McCain, and DeShazor Everett. Troy Apke’s last chance to make the team appears to be as a cornerback, and rookie Darrick Forest looks slated for a special teams role, at least initially.
Things seemed to come together for Reaves in 2020, and I certainly think he has the talent to be at least safety depth on this team. He is in the last year of his current contract, so the 2021 season will be critical in determining his trajectory in the league, or if he even continues to play in the NFL. I wouldn’t be surprised if he and Everett are competing for the last safety position on the team during this offseason.
Jeremy Reaves (81.2): ⭐️
5th highest graded Safety in the NFL pic.twitter.com/JR0jUkclOe
— PFF Washington (@PFF_Washington) January 5, 2021
Antonio Gandy-Golden (WR)
The wide receiver competition on the WFT is unusually lively this year, with the starting level talent and depth better than it has been in a very long time. Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, and Dyami Brown are all locks to make the team. That likely leaves 3 additional WR slots to be decided this offseason. The odds on favorites to fill two of those positions are Cam Sims and Adam Humphries, leaving one roster spot for approximately 7 other players.
AGG, like Charles, was taken by Washington in the fourth round of the 2020 draft. Also, like Charles, he suffered an injury early in the season that prevented the team from getting a good look at his skills against NFL talent. At 6’4”, AGG is the second tallest WR on the roster (to Cam Sims). He was drafted by Rivera, and his speed was comparable to pre-injury Kelvin Harmon. I think AGG impresses sufficiently in the pre-season to make the team and ends up getting used as a big red zone target in key situations throughout the year.
James Smith-Williams (EDGE)
No individual player on the team may have two better players (who are also two of the best in the league) in front of him than Smith-Williams. With Chase Young and Montez Sweat manning the edges, I suspect most fans would like never to see Smith-Williams on the field, but even those two titans need a breather every once in awhile.
Washington’s EDGE depth appears, at first glance though, surprisingly shallow. That situation will end up giving several young guys an unusual opportunity to showcase themselves this season when Young and/or Sweat come off the field.
Seventh rounders Smith-Williams, James Bradley-King, and, potentially, Shaka Toney will all be competing for back-up rolls. Smith-Williams is an elite athlete, who comps very closely to Ryan Kerrigan in terms of physical skills. He had injury issues in college, but was able to stay fully healthy last year, and contribute on special teams. If Smith-Williams assumes Kerrigan’s relief role in 2021, he could end up playing about 40% of defensive snaps (up from 9% in 2020). That should be a sufficient platform for us to see if he’s the real deal.
— Chris Russell AKA The Rooster (@Russellmania621) November 26, 2020
Last season, the expectations for a new coach, young quarterback, and ragtag team were low, particularly coming off a 3-13 season. Now, coming off a division title and playoff appearance, fans hopes are probably as high as they’ve been since the 2013 season, after RG3’s sensational rookie debut.
Apart from Fitzpatrick, I don’t necessarily expect many of the players listed here to play a crucial role in the team’s success in 2021, though their depth contributions will surely be critical to the effectiveness of the players starting ahead of them, particularly if any of them go down to injury.
That having been said, at least one or two of them could eventually end up as important starters for the team down the road. As this team gets better, and deeper, it becomes more difficult to identify potential “breakout” players, as more and more build a track record of success.