By Ralph Vacchiano
FOX Sports NFC East Writer
The Jacksonville Jaguars sent seven men at Carson Wentz on the critical play of the game Sunday, yet nobody was really open.
The Washington Commanders quarterback had to get rid of the ball, so Wentz flung it toward the end zone, trusting his well-covered receiver would somehow make a play.
Trust like that usually takes time. It’s earned by a player’s performance. It’s not usually a spot where a veteran quarterback turns to a rookie, like Wentz turned to Commanders receiver Jahan Dotson, playing in his first NFL game.
“The moment obviously wasn’t too big for him,” Wentz said, days after Dotson’s 24-yard touchdown catch made the difference in Washington’s 28-22 opening-day win over the Jaguars. “That didn’t surprise me. But that is rare for guys in his shoes who are rookies coming in like that.”
The Commanders have been sure they found a “rare” one ever since they drafted the 5-foot-11, 182-pound Dotson with the 16th overall pick in the draft back in April. His performance on Sunday was just his coming-out party to the rest of the NFL. It was hardly overwhelming. He had just three catches for 40 yards. But two of them were touchdowns.
And one was the play of the game.
“It was a huge way to start the year”
Carson Wentz spoke with Jen Hale after throwing four touchdowns in his Washington Commanders debut, a 28-22 victory over Jacksonville.
It came on a third-and-8, with the Commanders down by 2, already in field-goal range but with nearly two minutes still on the clock. “Riverboat” Ron Rivera let his quarterback turn it loose, even under heavy pressure. Dotson, going down the left side had a step on Jaguars cornerback Tyson Campbell, but Wentz’s pass was underthrown, and Dotson had to hold up. Campbell bumped him. He was right on top of Dotson in the end zone as the ball dropped out of the sky.
Yet Dotson somehow kept his cool, reached out, and made an outstanding and difficult catch.
“I don’t think it was a very good throw,” Wentz said after the game. “I just said ‘Give this kid a shot.’ I’ve seen him do that in OTAs. I saw him do it all training camp.
“I’m just glad that the world gets to see what he can do now, too.”
What Dotson can do, Rivera believes, is what Desean Jackson has done for so many teams in his career, and what Steve Smith once did for Rivera’s teams in Carolina — be a quick, explosive receiver all over the field who simply has a knack for making plays. Never mind that he’s small. Jackson and Smith — two players Rivera compared Dotson to on draft day — were smaller.
Besides, his play is big.
“That’s what we saw (when we drafted him),” Rivera said. “That’s the young man that we really felt good about. That’s why we did what we did. We are very fortunate to have a young man with that kind of skillset.”
“The way he made that play, I think, often goes overlooked how he did that,” Wentz added. “(He) slowed up, kind of laid (out his) hands. Incredible play by the rookie. It’s awesome.”
The difficulty of the play only added to the moment. There were a number of points along the way where the play could’ve broken down and no one would’ve thought it was Dotson’s fault. But his eyes never once appeared to be off the ball. His concentration never seemed to break. He just adjusted to what was happening around him and found a way to make the play anyway.
It was the kind of play even a seasoned veteran might struggle to make. Wentz, now in his seventh NFL season, understood it’s not a play most rookies would be able to make, especially that late in a close game.
“I’d say it’s very rare,” Wentz said. “It’s something me and other people around here might take for granted just because of what he’s done since he’s got here. But I played for a while now, and I can tell you: That’s rare. I can tell you the way he’s responded, the way the moment wasn’t too big for him. Shoot, the game on the line right there he makes a huge play like that?”
Jahan Dotson gets loose
Check out this Penn State highlight from Commanders receiver Jahan Dotson.
When Dotson, 22, was coming out of Penn State, scouts considered him to be explosive and athletic, and he had a highlight reel full of spectacular catches. There were concerns about his size, and he sometimes had difficulty getting separation on top corners, which kept him ranked generally on the second tier of a deep receiver class. But everyone knew he could make big plays.
Still, some scouts also considered him to be one of the most pro-ready receivers in the draft. He was a rare top receiver to spend four years in college. And he played all four, including his spectacular senior season when he caught 91 passes for 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns — and only had two drops.
Along the way, Dotson learned to play every position and thrived at all of them. He put up big numbers despite playing with a quarterback (Sean Clifford) who isn’t considered much of a pro prospect.
“My notes on him said that he was polished,” said an NFC scout that watched Dotson extensively at college last season. “There wasn’t going to be much of a learning curve for him. He wasn’t going to be overwhelmed by being a pro. His traits weren’t quite as elite as some of the other guys, but he’s smart, he catches everything thrown at him, and he always looks so calm, even when things around him aren’t perfect.
“I thought he’d be able to step right in and do something. It’s one game, but obviously he did.”
He’ll have a chance to do more on a Commanders team that suddenly feels very good about its offensive capabilities. Trading for Wentz in the offseason gave them a capable quarterback with a higher ceiling than any quarterback who has played in Washington in years.
Terry McLaurin is a true No. 1 receiver, especially clear now that he has a quarterback who can get him the ball. Curtis Samuel, after missing most of his first season in Washington with a groin injury, looked dangerous against the Jaguars, catching eight passes for 55 yards and a touchdown.
They also have two running backs who can catch out of the backfield in Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic. And tight end Logan Thomas caught three passes for 45 yards, even though he’s still working his way back from a knee injury.
Carson Wentz’s four-TD debut
Chris Myers and Robert Smith break down Carson Wentz’s four-TD performance in a debut victory for Washington.
“We feel really good about the number of playmakers we have,” Rivera said.
With Dotson in the mix, they feel even better. If he really can contribute consistently right away, the Commanders offense could be hard to stop.
Of course, it’s far from guaranteed Dotson will play a significant role every week. He wasn’t the featured performer against the Jaguars, and will surely remain behind McLaurin and Samuel in the passing-game pecking order as long as both of them are healthy.
But what was so important about his debut is that he proved to the Commanders that they can trust him if and when they do need him. Wentz might have felt comfortable turning to him in a big spot, but Dotson still needed to prove he was up to the task. And with the game on the line, with things breaking down, he didn’t flinch.
His teammates and coaches saw that, and they’ll remember that the next time a big moment comes along.
And Dotson will be ready, too.
“I can make plays for this team, and that’s what I was able to do.,” Dotson said. “You guys saw it. I made a couple of plays, but that’s not all I can do. I’m ready to make even more plays for this team.
“I’ve been ready all my life.”
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and the Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that he spent 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. He can be found on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
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