Commanders OTA observations: Sam Howell takes 1st-team reps, Eric Bieniemy making voice heard

ASHBURN, Va. — Week 1 of Organized Team Activities, or OTAs, is the NFL equivalent of starting a new school year.

“It’s that time of year where we’re getting back in the swing of things,” Commanders veteran wide receiver Terry McLaurin said.

Everyone must learn the daily schedule, figuring out where they need to be and when. The core vibe remains, but new coaches, like offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, bring a unique perspective.

Classroom work begins with the basics before ramping up later in the year. Rosters never stay the same. Mainstays like McLaurin and defensive tackle Jonathan Allen return — or, the case of edge rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat, are notably absent.

Then there is the arrival of knowledge-seeking fresh faces, a blossoming bunch of draft picks and undrafted free agents bringing desired energy and excitement.

“Flying around, learning the defense, learning from some of the older guys,” second-round defensive back Quan Martin said. “Trying not to make the same mistake too many times.”

Martin is right, of course, in terms of progress. Yet this is the time for gaffes and experimentation. There is a been there, done that quality for the experienced participants. Personnel turnover alone means no two camps are alike. Same for seasons, even if the Commanders’ record finished in the .500 range three consecutive times under head coach Ron Rivera.

With their September 10 regular season opener against the Arizona Cardinals 110 days away, this version of the Commanders took their collective first steps together this week.

Some returnees have begun learning spots or roles. Quarterback Sam Howell, elevated from supporting cast to face-on-the-poster, took first-team reps after one start last season. Sam Cosmi blocked for Howell, but at right guard next to his tackle replacement, free-agent addition Andrew Wylie.

Defensive assistant Brett Vieselmeyer was promoted to DB coach, meaning he is the first-line coach for first-round cornerback Emaannuel Forbes. Former QB coach Ken Zampese spent time with the tight ends as a senior offensive assistant.

Despite the upbeat tone at this stage of the offseason program, there’s no playtime once the helmets are strapped on.

The staff diligently goes through the blocking and tackling basics as Washington works toward advancing beyond the middle-of-the-pack tier it’s been stuck in during Rivera’s three years. This being life, reality checks showed on multiple fronts.

Not so much the omnipresent ownership sale between Dan Snyder and Josh Harris that is headed “on a good course” and requires significant vetting by the NFL.

Money thoughts for players like safety Kamren Curl logically lean toward contract extensions even if the 2024 free agent kept his feelings within. “I’m just coming to work (and being) with the team every day.”

Rivera said that with extensions or restructures, “everything’s on hold” until the ownership situation concludes. “… I know about as much as you guys do. … We’ll continue to do as much of the football business as usual as we can.”

Injuries rarely take a break in this sport. Rivera opened his media availability by announcing the loss of second-year tight end Armani Rogers to a non-contact Achilles injury suffered Tuesday while running in practice. Further examination revealed a tear, a league source confirmed to The Athletic that Rogers would undergo surgery next week.

The college quarterback made an impressive position change as a rookie and was one of the developing tight ends Rivera banked on taking on more this year.

“It is a little bit of a blow, and it’s unfortunate. … but we feel very confident in the group of tight ends that we have right now as well,” Rivera said. “But it is a big loss as far as the young man’s concerned.”

Linebacker Jamin Davis is currently limited to walkthroughs and meetings after “a minor cleanup procedure on his knee from a lingering issue from last season,” Rivera said. Defensive tackle John Ridgeway and guard Andrew Norwell, an expected salary-cap cut, were non-participants while recovering from injuries.

The Commanders opened their first two voluntary OTA sessions without three starters: 2024 free agents Young and Sweat, plus 31-year-old left tackle Charles Leno.


Commanders’ Young, Sweat, Leno absent for OTAs

Missing Young at this stage is normal; After the pandemic eliminated OTAs in 2020, Young’s rookie year, he skipped the 2021 version and was sidelined last year while recovering from a significant knee injury. Though this absence wasn’t surprising, it was the first formal activity since Washington declined to pick up the fifth-year player option for the 2020 defensive rookie of the year.

“You always would like to have all your guys here,” Rivera said, “but again, it’s (voluntary).” The head coach said he’s been in touch with the trio. “When it all comes down to it, we’ll see ’em when they have to be here.”

Young has 1.5 sacks over his last 12 games, including the final three contests last season. Rivera hopes Young understands that in this “production-based business, you have to produce.”

“From what I’ve gotten in our text messages and conversations, (Chase) gets it,” Rivera said. “He understands… That’s pretty much been the message and I believe he’s adapted to it very nicely, and he’s working hard. I’ll be excited to see him when he has to be here. So, again, he’s been on top of things.”

The offensive players on hand continue learning the scheme and mindset desired under new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.

Howell, playing ahead of Jacoby Brissett and the other QBs, worked on moving his teammates quickly through the play call and setting up at the line of scrimmage.

“Coach Bieniemy stresses taking charge as the quarterback,” Rivera said. “It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is if something’s wrong, he wants them to step back, get it set, and then get back into the huddle.”

As usual in OTAs, the defense was ahead of the offense. However, Howell flashed his strong arm, particularly on intermediate throws in 7-on-7 drills. Safety Percy Butler, another member of the 2022 class, jumped a Howell pass for an interception that might have gone the other way for a touchdown in a live situation.

Since his title includes assistant head coach, and Rivera desires Bieniemy’s literal and figurative voice, practice routines changed, thus affecting both sides of the ball.

“Eric’s got an installation plan. That installation plan is reflected in the way that he schedules every day in terms of practice and meetings and walkthroughs for training camp,” Rivera said. “You see that now.”

Viewing the Commaners at training camp in July and August should be a different experience. Kinks will ideally be worked out with growth emanating from numerous players. Lineups will change because of injuries or camp battles. Regardless, after weeks together, Washington will better understand each other and how the year may unfold. Class remains in session.

(Top photo: Geoff Burke / USA Today)