Previewing the Washington Commanders offensive line in 2023

(Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports) Charles Leno Jr.
(Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports) Charles Leno Jr. /

How could the Washington Commanders’ offensive line look when the 2023 season begins?

One of the major reasons the Washington Commanders were able to win the NFC East in 2020 was the surprising play of the offensive line. Under coach John Matsko, they blended a group of young veterans – draft picks like Chase Roullier and Brandon Scherff, along with free agents Charles Leno, Jr, Ereck Flowers, Cornelius Lucas, and Wes Schweitzer – into the division’s best unit.

They had some good fortune. Both the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys suffered multiple devastating injuries along their protection early in the season and never recovered. The New York Giants were still in the Dave Gettleman years and had one of the worst lines in the league.

But how times have changed now that the Eagles and Cowboys are (relatively) healthy. Philadephia has the best line in the league, and Dallas is safely in the top ten. The Giants are finally beginning to see some of the benefits of investing heavily over the past several seasons.

And the Commanders are foundering.

Commanders need to severely upgrade their OL in 2023

Washington needs to overhaul its aging and injured line in 2023, and Matsko needs to prove that he can work his magic with young draftees – not merely with veteran castoffs. This is crucial for the development of Sam Howell and the success of Eric Bienemy.

Of the 10 players who contributed serious minutes for the Commanders in 2022, about half of them seem certain to be on the roster in 2023. But I would only call one of them a reliable starter.

That would be left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. And even in this regard, I can’t go beyond that “reliable” tag. He’s a decent starting left tackle – nothing to sneeze at, certainly, but not exactly a rock on which to build.

The other starting tackle – as of today – is Cornelius Lucas. I have been a fan ever since he arrived from the Chicago Bears to take over from failed third-round draft pick Geron Christian, Jr in 2020. But especially now that he is approaching 32 years old, is best suited to play swing tackle.

Ideally, recent second-rounder Sam Cosmi will take over the right tackle spot in 2023.

At guard, the Commanders shuffled through a ragtag group in 2022. Veteran free agent Andrew Norwell was the only steady presence. Trai Turner, Wes Schweitzer, Saahdiq Charles, and Chris Paul – along with Cosmi – all logged some time. None stood out.

Turner, for the 27 seconds that he was fully healthy, still showed he could play. But he began the season hurt and aggravated it midway through the year. And when the lineman wasn’t at 100 percent, he wasn’t very effective.

Sadly, that appears to be Turner’s trajectory looking ahead. Schweitzer really should only be asked to play guard at this point. He is a serviceable guard. Unfortunately, he was forced into playing center due to injuries in 2022 and did not play very well.

Charles’ 2022 season was a disaster. This was supposed to be the year he really stepped up and proved he was worth a fourth-round pick in 2020. He was just 20 years old when drafted and the hope was his physical development would have made him a solid starter by now. It hasn’t happened.

Commanders need their young linemen to step up in 2023

That leaves Cosmi and Paul as the young hopes along the line. For now, at least.

Cosmi has a world of athleticism but has not been able to stay on the field. Whether it is at tackle or at guard, finding a home for him as a healthy and productive starter is crucial in 2023.

Paul played the final game of 2022 and showed some of the drive and physicality that have excited fans. But he was a seventh-round draft pick for a reason.

The player remains very unpolished. He plays too high and until he improves his technique, even average NFL tackles will give him trouble. This is one of Matsko’s major tasks this off-season.

And at the center spot – well, that has been a nightmare over the past two seasons. Immediately on the heels of locking in their one core player – Chase Roullier – he went down with back-to-back season-ending injuries. His future remains in doubt. And his backup, Tyler Larsen, followed the exact same pattern. He played well, then got hurt in consecutive years.

Larsen, Schweitzer, and Turner – along with little-used veteran Nick Martin – are unrestricted free agents and I don’t expect any to be re-signed. Both Larsen and Schweitzer still have value as depth pieces, but this team has generally preferred to find backups under 30 years old, and I expect they will do that again this year.

Amongst the players under contract, Charles is on very thin ice. He is in the final year of his rookie deal and he doesn’t cost very much, but if the Commanders can find an upgrade on the interior, they will not hesitate to release him.

A decision must be reached on Roullier, and that is largely dependent on how his recovery is progressing. He is one of two “expensive” linemen (along with Leno), and this draft is chockful of promising centers, so economics and injury may lead to his release.

Leno is a lock because they have no other option at left tackle. Cosmi and Paul fall into the same category because the Commanders need to develop their young draft picks.

Norwell could be gone. But he is signed for another year at under $5 million, and the team has more pressing needs. I think he stays.

The Commanders have signed numerous young undrafted free agents and castoffs to the practice squad during the Ron Rivera years. To date, none have made an impact.

There is always a chance that a versatile guard/tackle like Aaron Monteiro or an athletic guard like Nolan Laufenberg could stick to provide depth. However, I’m not counting on that.

Commanders projected starting OL before free agency and the draft

So, before free agency and the draft, the Commanders projected starting offensive line for 2023 might look like this:

  • Leno and Lucas return at left and right tackle
  • Cosmi and Norwell at left and right guard
  • Roullier (hopefully healthy) at center
  • Paul as a developing backup at guard

That is a lineup full of ifs, hopes, and mediocrity. It does not inspire confidence.

Of course, there is still a lot of time to retool. I would expect the Commanders to come out of the 2023 draft with at least two linemen. And at least one of them should be expected to compete for a starting position immediately.

I would expect something very similar during free agency.

If the Commanders remain at No. 16 overall in the upcoming draft, there will likely be an elite cornerback or a dynamic pass-catching tight end sitting there. They would certainly be tempted to take a player at either position.

But if Florida’s O’Cyrus Torrence is on the board – and there’s a good chance he will be because interior linemen don’t generally go in the first half of Round No. 1 – he would be hard to pass up. He immediately makes Washington’s line – especially the run blocking – better.

There are a lot of decent offensive tackles in this year’s draft. But none really stand out, so I would not spend a high draft pick on one.

However, there are a lot of quality interior linemen available, so I would not shy away from grabbing another guard or a center early on Day 3. Oregon State’s Brandon Kipper is another player who looks like a tackle but will probably play guard in the NFL. He would be an ideal developmental prospect to add to the mix.

Drafting multiple interior linemen would mean looking for help at tackle in free agency. Journeyman Jermaine Eluemunor, most recently of the Las Vegas Raiders, is the kind of young, versatile player with whom Matsko thrived in 2020.

Commanders have a chance to progress their OL with the right recruits

If Cosmi could move out to right tackle and stay there – which I think is very possible – these moves would constitute a major upgrade across the line without busting the budget.

That still leaves the center position. If Roullier cannot return, Washington will essentially be starting from scratch. That might necessitate selecting a center early on Day 3 of the draft, and there should be some available.

Or it might result in pursuing a mid-level free agent like Bradley Bozeman, another young veteran who does not blow anyone away with his physical traits but is a steady presence in the middle.

Bozeman did play last season for the Carolina Panthers – but it was his first year – he did not overlap with coach Rivera.

And with a new offensive coordinator, who has been given a fair amount of flexibility, there is no guarantee that Matsko remains as the position coach. I don’t have any inside information on this, but there is a coach on the Kansas City Chiefs staff who finds himself in the very position where Bienemy had been over the past decade.

Assistant offensive line coach Corey Matthaei has been coaching under Andy Reid for most of his career. For the past five seasons, he has served under venerable line coach Andy Heck, as the offense has flourished.

Matthaei, not yet 40 years old, has a wealth of experience (he has also served as an assistant quarterbacks coach under Reid) and may find his path blocked by the formidable presence of Heck.

If he and Bienemy have a good relationship, who knows how that might play out.

Whoever is coaching and whoever is playing in 2023, rebuilding the offensive line is Task No. 1B – almost as important as finding a long-term answer at quarterback.

Must Read. Molding the perfect Commanders NFL Draft strategy in 2023. light