5 storylines to watch for in the Commanders-Panthers preseason game

5 storylines to watch for in Commanders-Panthers preseason game originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Football is finally back. Well, sort of, at least.

The Washington Commanders begin their 2022 preseason slate on Saturday afternoon, as the club is set to host the Carolina Panthers for a 1 p.m. kickoff at FedEx Field (coverage begins at 12 p.m. on NBC4 and NBC Sports Washington).

Saturday’s game versus Carolina will be Washington’s first look at another team this year, as the Commanders opted not to hold any joint practices during training camp. 

Head coach Ron Rivera said Thursday that Washington will play its starters for roughly 15-to-20 plays, with the goal to “see some consistency out there.” Rivera later added that all three quarterbacks will play, too, including starter Carson Wentz.

Here are five storylines to watch for during Commanders-Panthers…

1. How does Carson Wentz look?

The biggest storyline entering Washington’s preseason opener is obvious. And, that’s exactly how it should be after the Commanders went out and traded for Wentz this past March.

It’s been an inconsistent training camp from Wentz so far. His best days have been quite impressive, especially when he’s showcased his excellent arm talent. Wentz’s bad days have been off-putting, nevertheless, and the quarterback’s accuracy concerns are a legit worry. It is worth noting that Wentz has improved throughout camp and has thrown just one interception since the pads came on.

Wentz admitted last Saturday his chemistry with star wideout Terry McLaurin is a work in progress. McLaurin, who took the podium shortly after Wentz left, agreed. The two connected on multiple passes during 11-on-11 drills this week, however, a promising sign for what the Commanders hope is to come. Saturday will be the first live-action the two have together.

Wentz will run the offense for 15-to-20 plays, per Rivera, so there should be a small but decent sample size to evaluate. A good first outing from Wentz could go a long way for the quarterback.

2. How does Washington’s running back rotation shake out?

For the first time since training camp of his rookie season, Antonio Gibson has some real competition for snaps. While Gibson remains Washington’s lead back, the Commanders invested a third-round pick in Alabama’s Brian Robinson Jr. and so far, the rookie has impressed.

So when the Commanders starting offense does take the field Saturday, it’ll be worth watching how the running back reps are split. Gibson will start, but Robinson Jr. will certainly have a role, along with pass-catching specialist J.D. McKissic.

“In today’s game, you can’t just have one really good back,” Rivera said Thursday. “You have to have a couple of really good backs that are your guys that you are going to feed the ball to when they’re running well.”

Further down the depth chart, there’s some solid competition for the fourth running back spot — should the Commanders keep another running back on their roster.

Jonathan Williams has turned in a solid camp and is currently listed on the team’s unofficial depth chart as the first running back behind Gibson, McKissic and Robinson Jr. Jaret Patterson, who made the roster last year as an undrafted free agent on the back of a strong preseason, is right behind him. 

How Williams, Patterson and the rest of the running backs down the depth chart perform on Saturday and in the other two preseason games could go a long way in terms of their respective chances of making Washington’s 53-man roster come Aug. 30.

3. Which pass rusher steps up opposite Montez Sweat?

With Commanders star Chase Young still recovering from a torn ACL and expected to miss the start of the regular season, Washington has a big need to fill at pass rusher opposite Montez Sweat. 

Which player that will end up being remains a mystery.

Third-year veteran James Smith-Williams figures to get the start opposite Sweat on Saturday, but there will certainly be some competition for that spot. Veteran Casey Toohill has turned in a solid camp thus far. A pair of seventh-round picks from a season ago, Shaka Toney and William Bradley-King, are in the mix as well.

Smith-Williams and Toohill are certainly the two names to keep an eye on as Young’s replacement. Rivera explained how their games differentiate following practice on Thursday.

“They’re two opposites,” Rivera said. “The thing about Casey that you like is that he is a guy that has the flexibility that you can drop him into coverage on occasion. That is to the benefit especially when you get into that five-man front because we are not always rushing five. With James, you get more of a big, physical guy that plays downhill and into the line more. With him, you don’t have as much flexibility.”

4. Carolina’s QB competition between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold.

Those who have followed the Commanders for a while are quite familiar with the term “quarterback competition.” This time, though, it’s Washington’s opponent that has a QB battle on its hands.

The Panthers are currently having an open competition for the starting job between a pair of 2018 top-five picks: Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield. The former is entering his second season in Carolina, but it was a rough go in 2021 for the most part. The latter arrived in Carolina earlier this month following a trade with the Cleveland Browns.

Saturday’s preseason game against Washington will be the first time both signal-callers have the chance to make their case to be Carolina’s QB1. Mayfield is currently the leader of the competition, per the Charlotte Observer, and will start Saturday’s game against Washington, the Panthers announced.

For a preseason game, a quarterback competition is as fun as it gets. 

5. Pair of rookie QBs seeing their first NFL action.

This past April, both the Commanders and Panthers invested a draft pick in a quarterback. Carolina took Ole Miss’ Matt Corral in the third round, while Washington snagged North Carolina’s Sam Howell in the fifth round.

Both Corral and Howell are third on their respective team’s depth charts, so it’s unlikely either will play until the second half. Still, it’s each quarterback’s first time facing live NFL action — something always fun to follow.

Once in the conversation to be the top pick in this past April’s Draft, Howell has shined at times during camp. His arm strength is legit and his decision-making is exceptionally quick, two traits that are great to have.

Howell has the making to become a fan favorite this preseason. Don’t be surprised if he does.

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