Taylor Heinicke had 2 of the NFL’s most improbable completions in 2021

Taylor Heinicke may not be Washington’s quarterback of the future, but he provided plenty of highlights in 2021.

[mm-video type=playlist id=01eqbykgy681k112p8 player_id=none image=https://washingtonfootballwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/plugins/mm-video/images/playlist-icon.png]

When Ryan Fitzpatrick went down in the second quarter of Washington’s Week 1 game against the Los Angeles Chargers, it opened the door for playoff hero Taylor Heinicke to audition at quarterback for the Commanders.

Heinicke had some good moments, such as his performances in wins over the Giants and Falcons early in the season. There were lows, too, such as a tendency to force the ball into coverage when things break down around him.

Heinicke also played well during Washington’s four-game winning streak midway through the season to get the Commanders back into playoff contention. However, it was short-lived, and while Heinicke proved he belonged in the NFL, it was also evident Washington would continue its desperate search for a quarterback.

But Heinicke did provide Washington fans with some exciting moments in an otherwise disappointing 2021 season. In the aforementioned win over the Giants in Week 2, Heinicke’s fourth-quarter performance led the Commanders to their first win.

In particular, his touchdown pass to tight end Ricky Seals-Jones with 4:33 remaining was one of the season’s highlights for Washington. In its 2021 season review, NFL’s Next Gen Stats ranked the pass as one of the most improbable completions of the season, specifically ranking the throw No. 13 with a completion probability of just 13.7%.

As spectacular as that play was, Next Gen Stats had another of Heinicke’s completions ranking even higher. His touchdown pass to Cam Sims against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 14 ranked No. 6.

So, while it’s fair to say Washington needs a new quarterback, it’s also reasonable to say Heinicke did do some good things in 2021.

 

Who was Washington’s most improved player in 2021?

Who was Washington’s most improved player in 2021?

[mm-video type=playlist id=01eqbykgy681k112p8 player_id=none image=https://washingtonfootballwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/plugins/mm-video/images/playlist-icon.png]

The 2021 season was a difficult one for the Washington Commanders. On the surface, Washington didn’t take a major step backward, finishing the same amount of wins as the season before. Considering Washington’s moves last offseason, that was a disappointment.

There were the injuries, COVID-19 outbreaks and a historically bad performance from the defense during the first half of the season. Unfortunately for Washington fans, the defense was expected to carry the team until veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick got comfortable with the offense.

We know how that story played out. During Washington’s early defensive struggles, almost every defender struggled throughout the first seven weeks, outside of defensive tackle Jonathan Allen. One of those, cornerback Kendall Fuller turned things around in the second half of the season.

Pro Football Focus recently named their most improved players of the 2021 season for every NFL team and Fuller was that player for the Commanders.

PFF Grade change from 2020 to 2021: 66.7 → 81.5 (+14.8)

Fuller was moved to the outside in his return to Washington in 2020, and it was volatile to say the least. He allowed a career-high five touchdowns and earned his second-lowest PFF grade of his career.

His second-year playing on the outside in 2021 went far better. He finished as the second-most valuable cornerback in the NFL and got better as the year went on. From Week 8 forward, he was the highest-graded corner in the NFL.

PFF used its own grading scale to determine each team’s most improved player. The results for Fuller are undeniable, although Washington fans who watched every game may have a different opinion of Fuller’s season.

The key statement in PFF’s grade of Fuller: “From Week 8 forward.”

That is correct. Fuller was a different player from the Denver game forward. His coverage was improved and his tackling — always a strength — remained outstanding.

As far as the eyeball test watching every game, and not using PFF’s data, I would give linebacker Cole Holcomb credit for a much-improved 2021 campaign. The third-year linebacker took another step forward in his career last season and if Washington can land a true inside linebacker, Holcomb can be even better in 2022 and beyond.

2 Commanders among PFF’s top 101 players of 2021

Two Commanders ranked among PFF’s top 101 players of 2021.

[mm-video type=playlist id=01eqbykgy681k112p8 player_id=none image=https://washingtonfootballwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/plugins/mm-video/images/playlist-icon.png]

The 2021 NFL season was one to forget for the Washington Football Team — now Commanders. After going to the playoffs in head coach Ron Rivera’s first season in 2020, Washington fell to 7-10 in 2021.

There were many reasons why the 2021 season was such a failure for Washington. First, the team signed veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick and wide receiver Curtis Samuel in free agency to pair with returning stars Terry McLaurin, Logan Thomas and Antonio Gibson. Only McLaurin and Gibson played in more than six games due to injuries.

Then, there was the defense. Miscommunication, underachieving, injuries, and COVID-19 played a part in Washington’s defensive failures in 2021. While the Commanders were historically bad defensively early in the season, the unit played much better in Weeks 7-15 before COVID-19 took its toll.

Which Washington players stood out the most? According to Pro Football Focus, two Commanders ended the season on the analytics site’s top 101 players of 2021: defensive tackle Jonathan Allen and cornerback Kendall Fuller.

Surprisingly, guard Brandon Scherff and wide receiver Terry McLaurin missed the cut. Unlike the NFL Network’s Top 100 players, PFF emphasizes the individual grades the site gives each player.

Here’s what PFF said about Allen, ranked No. 54:

Allen was one of the most consistent interior pass-rushers in the game this season, although he cooled off a little down the stretch. Allen registered 67 pressures overall, upping his career-high by 17. He made 32 defensive stops and recorded an elite 90.9 PFF pass-rushing grade for a Washington defense that vastly underachieved relative to expectations.

And Fuller, ranked No. 73:

Given the overall performance from Washington’s defense, it might be hard to believe that there was anybody who performed well in coverage, but Fuller was that man. He earned his best overall grade and coverage grade since 2017, racking up 14 pass breakups even though he came away with just one interception. Fuller allowed only 9.4 yards per reception and put up an excellent grade against the run.

If you ask Washington fans, many would disagree with Fuller. However, Fuller’s second half of 2021 was much better than his first half of the season.

Kendall Fuller, Jonathan Allen earn spots on the ‘All-Collinsworth Team’

The “All-Collinsworth Team” isn’t quite the “All-Madden Team,” but an honor nonetheless.

[mm-video type=playlist id=01eqbykgy681k112p8 player_id=none image=https://washingtonfootballwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/plugins/mm-video/images/playlist-icon.png]

One of the biggest honors for an NFL player from the 1980s until the early 2000s was the All-Madden Team. Yes, the All-Pro teams and Pro Bowl were still around, but if you made the All-Madden Team, that was a different type of special.

The legendary John Madden would name his All-Madden Team after every season. And in an era where Washington was a consistent winner, numerous players, the “Hogs,” to Gary Clark, Darrell Green and others were All-Madden regulars.

Players even received an All-Madden jacket.

Sadly, the All-Madden team is no more. But for players who received the honor in the 80s and 90s, it meant more than the Pro Bowl.

While no one can replace the All-Madden Team, Cris Collinsworth of NBC now does his All-Collinsworth Team. Again, Collinsworth is no Madden — no one will ever replace Madden — but as the majority owner of Pro Football Focus, he offers a different approach in naming his All-Collinsworth Team.

Collinsworth, using PFF grades and his role as the color commentator for Sunday Night Football, has a unique perspective in naming his “best in the NFL” team.

How many Washington players made the All-Collinsworth Team in 2021? Two, both on defense in Jonathan Allen and Kendall Fuller. Here’s what Collinsworth had to say about Allen and cornerback Fuller.

3. JONATHAN ALLENWASHINGTON COMMANDERS

Allen ranked second among interior players this year in pressures and first in quarterback hits. While his run blocking was subpar, he tallied a 90.9 pass-rushing grade that ranked third at the position.

3. KENDALL FULLERWASHINGTON COMMANDERS

Fuller is quite possibly the best tackler at the cornerback position, with a league-leading 64 tackles in coverage. He also regularly forced tight-window throws, allowing a 35.6% open target rate that ranked 20th among cornerbacks. His stick coverage and sure tackling helped him allow only three touchdowns in coverage this season.

Fuller is a bit of a surprise. He struggled at times earlier in the season but played much better in the second half of the season. Allen continues to prove he is one of the best in the NFL at his position.

Cooper Kupp was available for Washington

Cooper Kupp’s grandfather once played in Washington. Imagine if Washington had selected him in 2017? Washington is one of 31 NFL which regrets passing on Kupp.

The fastest corners in the NFL simply can’t cover him.

He gets open several times every game and makes big catch after big catch.

Cooper Kupp was drafted in the 2017 NFL draft in the third round —No. 69  overall. This past season, Kupp caught 145 passes for 1,947 yards. That is not a typo: 145 receptions, 1,947 yards.

Washington had finished 2016 at 8-7-1 and was picked No. 17 overall in the NFL draft. Washington made a good, solid selection in round 1 with Jonathan Allen.

In round two and selecting at No. 49 overall, Washington took DE Ryan Anderson (Alabama).  Cooper Kupp was available and Washington was not the only team who had no idea what Kupp would become.

However, former Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay was involved in his first NFL draft as a head coach with the Los Angeles Rams. McVay said when he interviewed Kupp, he stood out as mature and like a coach. Hey, what were other coaches and scouts listening to when they interviewed Kupp?

I wonder, seeing Kupp played at Eastern Washington, how many of the other 31 teams even considered him worthy enough to interview him?

Were they not impressed that Kupp used to train by making single-handed catches of tennis balls flying at high speeds out of a ball machine? Did it occur to coaches that if a guy can catch a much smaller tennis ball at high speed, he is not going to have much trouble with a larger and slower football?

Did teams bother to find out that Kupp’s dad Craig Kupp had actually made it to the NFL? Craig was a quarterback. My, I wonder how much that influenced his son to sound like a coach as early as age 22? Craig had been drafted in the 5th round — No. 135 — in 1990 by the N.Y. Giants, and made the Cardinals roster in 1991.

If that’s not enough, Cooper Kupp’s grandfather (Jake) also played in the NFL (1964-75). What’s more, Jake actually was a Washington Redskin in the 1966 season, a tight end who caught four passes. He played guard the rest of his career but had a long enough career that he was obviously aware of much of the business and a very good athlete.

So back to Cooper Kupp who was passed over by Washington and many other NFL experts in that 2017 draft. Kupp is accustomed to being passed over by other “experts.” He was not even offered a college scholarship until after the completion of his high school senior season. No major conference colleges were interested.

When he ran a 4.62 40 at the NFL Combine did most coaches and scouts judge him too slow? Interestingly enough his times in the three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle were outstanding.

McVay was only age 31 during his initial draft. Yet he knew enough to know that a wide receiver that is lightning quick in changing directions and running 20 yards is going to be able to run great pass routes.

Did I mention that Kupp caught 145 passes this season?

 

PFF has ranked Washington’s 2021 NFL draft class

Where did PFF rank Washington’s 2021 NFL draft class after one season?

[mm-video type=playlist id=01eqbykgy681k112p8 player_id=none image=https://washingtonfootballwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/plugins/mm-video/images/playlist-icon.png]

Pro Football Focus ranked all 32 NFL teams 2021 NFL draft class and where players were taken is part of their formula determining how successful a draft class performed.

For instance, Chase Young was drafted in round one, Antonio Gibson in round three and Kam Curl in round seven of the 2020 Washington draft. Their value would be determined upon what they’ve produced and according to where drafted.

According to PFF, Washington’s 2021 NFL Draft class came in at 22nd behind a good year from tackle Sam Cosmi (round two). But LB Jamin Davis (round one), CB Benjamin St Juste (round three) and WR Dyami Brown (round three) left much to be desired last season.

TE John Bates (round four) came on strong later in the season, while S Darrick Forrest (round five) was mostly injured. LS Cameron Cheesman (round six) snapped consistently, while round seven choices William Bradley-King, Shaka Toney and Dax Milne flashed some potential in their limited action.

The Patriots, Texans and Chiefs graded out as the top three 2021 draft classes, while the Jaguars, Buccaneers and Vikings were ranked the bottom three classes.

Philadelphia was ranked the top team in the NFC East at 9th behind some good play from WR Devonta Smith, guard Landon Dickerson and defensive lineman Milton Williams.

Dallas got great play from Micah Parsons (round one) ranking 12th.

Washington was next at 22nd, and the NY Giants 26th who no doubt would have been higher had WR Kadarius Toney been able to stay on the field longer this season.

We here at Washington Wire recently graded Washington’s class:

Grading each of Washington’s 2021 NFL draft selections

 

How did Washington’s special teams perform in 2021?

How did Washington’s special teams perform in 2021?

[mm-video type=playlist id=01eqbykgy681k112p8 player_id=none image=https://washingtonfootballwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/plugins/mm-video/images/playlist-icon.png]

Late last week, Rick Gosselin of FanNation released his annual NFL Special Teams Rankings.

Gosselin ranked all 32 teams in 22 kicking-game categories. Points were assigned according to their standing — one for best and 32 for worst — and in the end, the Baltimore Ravens finished atop the rankings.

Washington placed 20th in the rankings with the Eagles close behind at 21st. BTW, Dallas placed 6th and the NYG rounded out the top ten.

DeAndre Carter’s kickoff return touchdown against Atlanta helped Washington finish third in kickoff returns category averaging 25.1 yards.

Washington did have some other success on special teams this season, as Tress Way was fifth in yards per punt at 48.4 yards.

Joey Slye kicking for three teams (Houston, San Francisco, Washington) placed 21st in yards per kickoff with 63.6. Washington, of course, was hurt in the kicking department this season, resulting in their releasing Dustin Hopkins and Chris Blewitt.

Slye had an extra point attempt blocked on MNF at home against Seattle. Even more, the kick was scooped up by Seattle and returned all the way, scoring two points. On the play, Slye pulled his hamstring during the return and was replaced by Brian Johnson who kicked three games for Washington before Slye’s return. Johnson kicked the game-winner against the Raiders in Week 13.

15 NFL teams did not have a kick blocked this 2021 season. Unfortunately, the team that was dead last at No. 32 was Washington. It was one of the real low marks of the season as Washington had an overwhelmingly embarrassing six kicks blocked during 2021.

But Joey Slye saved the kicking inconsistency for Washington upon his return. Slye would finish making 9 of 10 extra-point attempts and all 12 of his field-goal attempts for Washington.

 

Washington’s 2021 top performer: No. 1, Jonathan Allen

Jonathan Allen is Washington’s top player in 2021.

[mm-video type=playlist id=01eqbykgy681k112p8 player_id=none image=https://washingtonfootballwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/plugins/mm-video/images/playlist-icon.png]

This week, Washington Wire is counting down the top five Washington Football Team performers for the 2021 season.

No. 1 Jonathan Allen (DT)

Allen continued to live up to his first-round selection (17th overall) in the 2017 NFL Draft, with perhaps his best season in his short career.

The former Alabama Crimson Tide lineman led Washington in sacks (9.0), tackles for a loss (10) and QB hits 30. Allen’s penetration was so dominant, his 30 QB hits were double that of his closest teammate Daron Payne’s 15.

Here are Jonathan Allen’s sacks during the 2021 season:

Allen led Washington defensive lineman with 62 combined tackles (31 solo and 31 assisted). According to PFF, Allen had the third-highest pass-rush win rate among interior defenders in 2021. Aaron Donald (LAR 22.9%), Javon Hargrave (PHI 21.1%) and Jonathan Allen (WAS 20.0%).

No Washington players were voted to the NFL 2021 All-Pro Team however Brandon Scherff and Allen did receive votes. Allen and Payne were the only defensive players for Washington to start each game. Allen is also Washington’s nominee for the NFL Man of the Year Award.

Allen’s career season came after he signed a four-year extension back in the summer.

Several Washington players stand out in ESPN’s win rates measuring success in the trenches

ESPN’s new metrics further prove Washington as having one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, despite all of the injuries.

[mm-video type=playlist id=01eqbykgy681k112p8 player_id=none image=https://washingtonfootballwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/plugins/mm-video/images/playlist-icon.png]

There are all sorts of ways to measure player efficiency in 2022. Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus first come to mind when using different forms of data to evaluate individual and team performance.

ESPN Analytics created a new metric in 2021 using NFL’s Next Gen Stats to measure individual and team success in the trenches. ESPN’s new metric measures pass-rush win rate, stop-run win rate, pass-block win rate and run-block win rate.

Washington’s team was built to win in the trenches. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned in 2021, with defensive end Chase Young lost for the season in Week 10 and fellow defensive end Montez Sweat also missing several games.

The WFT also had numerous injuries along the offensive line, including playing the final weeks with their fourth-string center.

According to ESPN’s win rates, Washington held up well in the trenches despite the injuries.

Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen ranked No. 8 amongst defensive tackles in pass rush win rate. No Washington interior defensive lineman ranked inside the top 10 for run stop win rate. However, as a team, Washington ranked No. 13 in team run-block win rate.

Washington ranked No. 19 in team pass-rush win rate. That’s certainly a disappointment considering what Washington has invested in its front four. Even before the injuries, Young had issues getting to the passer consistently.

Washington’s offensive line had plenty of success. Left tackle Charles Leno was ranked No. 10 in pass-block win rate for offensive tackles — tied with Trent Williams. Left guard Ereck Flowers ranked No. 6 among guards. Center Chase Roullier would likely have been ranked if not for his season-ending injury in Week 8.

Washington was even more successful in run-block win rate. Right guard Brandon Scherff was No. 1 among all guards, while rookie right tackle Sam Cosmi was No. 3 among all offensive tackles.

As a team, Washington was No. 9 in pass-block win rate and No. 1 in run-block win rate. Now, you understand why the metrics favor Washington’s offensive line success.

Even if Washington loses Scherff in free agency, the WFT’s offensive line is set up for success in 2022 and beyond.

Former Washington players see playoff action, Saturday

Two former Washington players were in action in Saturday’s playoff game between the Raiders and Bengals. How’d they do?

[mm-video type=playlist id=01eqbykgy681k112p8 player_id=none image=https://washingtonfootballwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/plugins/mm-video/images/playlist-icon.png]

Former Washington running back Semaje Perine and former wide receiver DeSean Jackson both saw action in the NFL playoff game in Cincinnati between the visiting Las Vegas Raiders and the home team Bengals.

In the fourth quarter, Bengals running back Joe Mixon appeared to turn an ankle, grimaced in pain, looked to the sideline, then proceeded to take himself out of the game.

Perine entered the game with the Bengals leading 23-16. Perine then got an early carry for two yards, and cameras displayed Mixon getting his ankle re-taped over on the sidelines. Mixon indeed returned, and Perine would be limited to the single carry.

DeSean Jackson made a big play for the Raiders Saturday. The Raiders were trailing 26-16 in the final quarter on their own 44-yard line facing a fourth & 5 with 4:27 remaining.

QB Derek Carr from the shotgun formation took the snap and appeared to have looked for Jackson and no other receiver on the play. Carr found and connected with Jackson on a crossing route over the middle for a huge 26-yard gain to the Bengals’ 30-yard line.

On the previous Raiders’ possession, Carr found Jackson for a 35-yard gain; however, a holding penalty against Alex Leatherwood negated the huge Jackson gain for a first down into Cincinnati territory.

Jackson also found himself in the news twice this week at the close of Week 18 of the regular season. When Washington back Antonio Gibson and receiver Terry McLaurin both went over the 1000-yard mark for the season, they became the first Washington duo to do so since the 2014 duo of Jackson and Alfred Morris.

Also, in the season’s final week, Eagles receiver DeVonta Smith eclipsed the 2008 Eagles rookie record for most receiving yards set by Jackson.

Finally, in Saturday’s playoff loss at Cincinnati, Jackson also dropped a deep Derek Carr pass in the first half for the Raiders.

Perine was a fourth-round draft choice by Washington in 2017 and spent two seasons with the WFT. Washington signed Jackson as a free agent in 2014, and he spent three seasons in D.C. In two of those three seasons, he went over 1,000 yards receiving.