Two rookies highlight Commanders’ preseason opener vs. Carolina

Two rookies highlight Commanders' preseason opener originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

FEDEX FIELD — The Washington Commanders came up on the short end of their preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers, but a pair of rookies turned in promising performances that should make the fanbase excited moving forward.

The first of the two standout rookie showings came courtesy of third-round pick Brian Robinson Jr. The running back entered the game with the first-team offense in the first quarter following a fumble from starter Antonio Gibson and immediately produced.

On his first full drive with the offense, Robinson touched the football eight times — six carries and two catches. In total, the running back finished with 41 scrimmage yards on the drive, capped off by a one-yard touchdown run.

“I can’t really explain. I feel like I worked so hard up until this point, finally seeing that end zone feels amazing,” Robinson said postgame on his touchdown run.

When the Commanders picked Robinson in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, head coach Ron Rivera specifically mentioned the 23-year-old’s physical running style as a reason for the selection. Robinson put that form on display Saturday afternoon and earned praise from his head coach by doing so.

“I thought Brian kind of showed us why we drafted him,” Rivera said. “That’s that downhill, physical presence on the inside. He runs with a good lean, he moves the pile. It’s one of those things that can create energy. … I was pretty excited about what we got.”

When asked about Robinson postgame, starting left tackle Charles Leno immediately brought up the rookie’s hard running style as well. “I could tell right when we got him that he’s going to be a good player,” Leno said.

Robinson didn’t return to the game following that touchdown drive, which was also the last time Carson Wentz and most of the first-team offense were on the field. It’s worth noting that Gibson did re-enter the next drive, getting work with Taylor Heinicke and the second team. 

While Robinson’s debut seemed to impress both his coaches and teammates, the running back believes he still has a lot more to work on and improve.

“I still don’t feel comfortable. I still don’t feel like I’ve played enough to gain the comfortability I need to play this position,” Robinson said. “The series I was in gave me a good feel for what’s to come. The more I continue to get game reps, the more comfortable I’ll get.”

Washington’s second-team offense was unable to put points on the board, however, and the Commanders found themselves down two touchdowns early on in the third quarter. But just when Washington seemed to be out, rookie quarterback Sam Howell brought a new level of energy to the offense.

In his third series, Howell led Washington on a seven-play, 74-yard drive that was capped off by an impressive 17-yard touchdown run from the quarterback. After his primary receiver was covered, Howell saw a hole down the middle and burst through it. Only one defender stood in his way; Howell put a nasty juke on Panthers linebacker Arron Mosby on his way to six points.

“I was trying to make a play for my team,” Howell said postgame. “I had a lot of really good players around me and they were moving the ball well there at the end. So I just try to tuck it and make a play for my team.”

Howell, who rushed for 828 yards during his final season at North Carolina last fall, caught some of his teammates by surprise with his move on Mosby. The quarterback admitted postgame that “a lot of people didn’t know that I had that in me.”

Howell wasn’t done just yet, though. During Washington’s next offensive possession, he led the Commanders on a 13-play, 67-yard drive that ended with the rookie’s second rushing touchdown of the day. On the ensuing two-point try, Howell found wideout Alex Erickson on a crossing route to give the Commanders a late lead — one they would cough up just moments later when Zane Gonzalez 45-yard field goal with just 24 seconds remaining sailed through the uprights. 

For the game, Howell finished 9-of-16 for 145 yards to go along with 19 rushing yards and two scores. His performance pleased Rivera, who said the QB did a “nice job” and “played like he did in college.”

“He’s is a guy that’s very smart, has a very good arm, very athletic, runs well with the ball,” Rivera said. “He’s a guy that the more he learns, the better he’s going to become. I think he’s a guy that has a bright future.”

Added running back Jaret Patterson: “[Howell is] a baller. He kind of showed what he can do. I think the future is bright for him and he’s going to be a guy in this league.”

Howell, like Robinson, isn’t satisfied with his first NFL performance. The quarterback admitted that the speed of the game took some adjusting. Howell, although pleased that he was able to lead Washington on a pair of touchdown drives, feels that he “left some plays out there” and said he can’t wait to break down the film and learn from his mistakes.

Firmly third on the depth chart as of now, Howell knows the next two preseason games will be valuable experience for him as he enters his rookie season. For now, he’s staying the course and remaining ready for every chance to prove himself that comes his way.

“Every opportunity I get, I’m just going to try and take advantage of and do my best for this organization,” Howell said. “It’s what they drafted me here to do. I’m just going to continue to try and get better and give this organization all I’ve got.”

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