These Commanders coaches and players have the most to prove in 2022

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The Washington Commanders don’t have a quarterback competition this year. They don’t have a competition for most starting jobs. They don’t even have a kicker competition.

Many premium jobs are already settled, allowing the team to use training camp to fill in a few remaining roles and find critical pieces for depth.

But even so, many players (and coaches) begin the third year of Coach Ron Rivera’s tenure with plenty to prove, especially as the Commanders seek their first winning season under Rivera and try to show their culture change is real.

Here’s who is under significant pressure heading into the season:

At the end of last season, Rivera stressed to his players the importance of their offseason, of staying on top of workouts and maintaining their health to begin the new season right.

“Truth of the matter is Year 3 is big,” he told his players in a video the team posted, “Year 3 is big for a football team going forward.”

Rivera has made a number of significant improvements to the club and has the respect of players and coaches. But over the past two seasons, Washington has posted a .424 win percentage, which ranks 22nd in the NFL.

Rivera told The Post in a recent interview that he personally doesn’t feel pressure and is confident his team has overcome the maturity issues of last year. And the reality is time could be running out. Rivera signed a five-year contract in 2020, but after two years of losing, there’s undoubtedly a greater expectation to start winning, to bring fans back into the stadium and to help the franchise make money.

“The pressure more so anything else is just winning,” the coach said last week. “It’s being successful. And if it comes to a number, then so be it, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s about going out there playing hard, playing physical, and doing the best you can to win.”

Rivera has told Wentz repeatedly that he is wanted with the Commanders, which is perhaps an attempt to quash any notion that the trade to acquire the quarterback in March was a desperation move. The team did want an upgrade at quarterback and does feel Wentz is one. But many questions remain about his ability and long-term future.

In 2017, Wentz started 13 games to help the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl, led the league with a touchdown percentage of 7.5, was fourth in the league with a 101.9 passer rating and was widely considered the top candidate for MVP before a knee injury ended his season. Although he had a solid 2021 in Indianapolis, he’s been traded successive seasons by the Eagles and Colts.

Washington acquired Wentz, who will turn 30 in December, after agreeing to take on his full $22 million salary and $29.3 million cap charge for this season. The move was bold, considering his recent history. And his play in training camp so far has yet to calm any concerns about his consistency on the field.

But with his salary-cap figure, he’s all but guaranteed to be the Commanders’ starter this season (barring injury or complete implosion). After this season, he has no guaranteed salary and no guarantee of staying in Washington. The Commanders could cut him and face no lingering cap charges.

His future as a starter in the NFL and the Commanders’ future at quarterback are in his hands.

The veteran defensive tackle and former first-round draft pick has been a staple on the interior of the Commanders’ line for four seasons. The team exercised Payne’s fifth-year option ($8.529 million) for this season, but it also gave fellow defensive tackle Jonathan Allen a four-year, $72 million extension. And with Montez Sweat’s contract coming up and Chase Young’s right behind him, Payne’s future is uncertain.

Payne declined to participate in some on-field drills during the offseason, possibly as a “hold in” for a new contract. But he’s been all over the field in training camp so far.

Carson Wentz believes in the Commanders’ vision. He’s the key to clearing it up.

Whether he stays in Washington will depend on a number of factors, including the Commanders’ cap health and their confidence in the younger players, such as Phidarian Mathis. It will also depend heavily on Payne’s play. An impressive season could land him a new contract. Or, at only 25 years old, he could price himself out of Washington.

Rivera indicated at the end of last season that Holcomb wasn’t the team’s first choice to play the “Mike,” or middle linebacker, position. Holcomb, 26, had been lobbying for the gig and over the years has shown the improvement to at least warrant a competition for the job in camp. But during the offseason, the team’s tune changed, and Rivera and General Manager Martin Mayhew began to pump up Holcomb as the right man for the job.

That doesn’t mean the job is his for the near-term or distant future. It does mean, however, that this season comes with pressure.

Cole Holcomb is bringing more speed and a new mullet to his third season in Washington

The Commanders drafted Jamin Davis in the first round last year to develop into the “Mike,” which is essentially the quarterback of the defense. But the coaching staff realized Davis is better suited to play outside. Now, Holcomb has a chance to secure a starting job at a spot that has given the Commanders fits over the years. If he can, he could soon be in line for a pay bump. This is the last year on his rookie deal, and unless Washington extends him, he’ll be a free agent in March.

Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator

In 2020, Del Rio’s first season in Washington, he turned a group that ranked near the bottom of the NFL in most defensive categories into one that sat near the top. Young was named defensive rookie of the year, the starting defensive line composed of all first-round picks was smothering, and the team as a whole finished second in scoring, fourth in total yards allowed and second in passing yards.

Del Rio’s experience as a coordinator and as a head coach was a boon that year, as Rivera battled cancer and relied heavily on his assistants to lead the team.

But the following season, Washington slipped back to the bottom of the barrel. Much of that could be attributed to coronavirus issues late in the season, when more than two dozen players (mostly defenders) had to miss time, and to an influx of new players, especially in the secondary. But Del Rio compounded the on-field struggles with controversial comments on social media, prompting a fine from Rivera and leading to his exit from Twitter.

With the core veteran defensive backs returning and Young’s eventual return from an ACL injury, the Commanders defense appears to have the pieces bounce back this season — on paper, at least. If not, fingers could be pointed at Del Rio — if broader, more drastic changes aren’t considered first.

Antonio Gibson, RB: Gibson, 24, is still Washington’s leading back and is coming off a 1,000-plus yard rushing season. But the wait for a true breakout season continues. The third-year back has dealt with significant injuries — turf toe as a rookie, a fracture in his shin last season — and is being eased into camp this year because of a hamstring issue. Health will be key, but if Gibson can stay available (and if he can fumble less often), he could develop into a top playmaker.

Montez Sweat, DE: The Commanders picked up Sweat’s fifth-year option for 2023, but the start of a player’s last season is when talk of a longer-term extension comes into play. Young will be out for Week 1 and maybe longer, making Sweat the key playmaker on the edge. A productive season for the soon-to-be 26-year-old could go a long way.

Dyami Brown, WR: Brown, 22, starred in camp last year, but the shine didn’t last throughout the season. It rarely does for rookie wideouts who are adjusting to play speed and expansive playbooks. But with Wentz, who has the arm to air it out downfield, Brown has a chance to let his vertical speed and acrobatic catches open up the offense. Still, there is plenty of competition for the final receiver spots on the 53-man roster.

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