To understand Antonio Gandy-Golden's slow start, let's lay out the circumstances.
Gandy-Golden is a fourth-round rookie out of Liberty, so based on his age and college experience alone, it was going to take time for him to acclimate to the NFL.
Then COVID-19 robbed Gandy-Golden of in-person offseason workouts and preseason games, and a concussion kept him out of several padded practices during training camp. He was even listed on the first injury report Sept. 9, albeit as a full participant in practice.
"I think with Gandy-Golden, he's another guy that's going to grow," offensive coordinator Scott Turner said following the regular-season opener. "Just missing time in training camp, that was tough."
After not playing against the Eagles, Gandy-Golden made his first-career reception in five snaps against Arizona and broke off a 22-yard run in 18 snaps against the Browns. He has shown flashes of his playmaking ability, which the coaching staff expects to see more of as he receives more opportunities.
"I think as we go on here, you'll see him start to develop a role," Turner said. "Depending on how he handles that, it could very well increase."
The ways Gandy-Golden can help this offense are obvious, and they have been since Washington selected him with the 142nd pick of the 2020 NFL draft. At 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds, he's a big, physical receiving threat that the franchise has lacked in recent years. Washington drafted a similar wideout the year before in Kelvin Harmon, but he was lost for the season in July with a torn ACL.
When first asked about Gandy-Golden in early August, wide receivers coach Jim Hostler highlighted his size, length, range and ball skills. Some evaluators faulted Gandy-Golden for his 4.6-second 40-yard dash time, but Hostler said the new coaching staff paid "no attention" to that. Hostler has seen Gandy-Golden run similar routes to those who ran faster 40 times, and that game speed was on full display during Gandy-Golden's 22-yard end-around in Week 3.
"He has stride length and can play with the people around him, and he can play fast with bodies around him because he is strong. That is why we liked him when he was coming out," Hostler said. "How he fits into our world? We like to throw the ball down the field. The bigger you are, the farther down the field you are, the more of a target you are to throw the ball to. Bigger players have had success in this system down the field. Big targets, you can throw the ball up and they can go get it."
To perform like some of those former Panthers wideouts -- namely Devin Funchess, Kelvin Benjamin and Brandon LaFell -- head coach Ron Rivera said Gandy-Golden needs to learn to take full advantage of his physique.
Sometimes that means boxing out defenders and giving the quarterback a big target in the middle of the field. Other times it means wrestling the ball away from cornerbacks in 50-50 situations. On one play against the Browns, it meant pummeling a linebacker as J.D. McKissic ran past.
"He's very athletically gifted," Terry McLaurin said of Gandy-Golden in late August. "He jumps pretty much out of the gym. I would say his ability to move at that size is really, really impressive."
The biggest piece of advice McLaurin gave Gandy-Golden was to know what he was doing and ask questions if he was unsure about anything.
McLaurin also encouraged his younger counterpart to compete; just because he's a rookie does not mean he has to spend this season watching from the sidelines, and there's no better proof of that than McLaurin.
"Whether it's special teams or a prominent role on our offense, you have an opportunity to do that and you dictate that at this level," McLaurin said. "It's the way that you prepare, it's the way that you perform out there on the field and you gain that trust from your coaches and your teammates. He's kind of a quiet kid, but he tries to do everything right so that's all you can ask. I think he's going to do pretty well here."
Turner's confidence in Gandy-Golden has increased each week, at least in terms of his playing time. And while the production has yet to follow -- he has two touches for 25 yards this season -- Gandy-Golden should become more and more comfortable as he is afforded more chances.
Sunday could be his biggest workload yet, as Steven Sims Jr. is out with a toe injury and McLaurin is questionable with a thigh issue. Dontrelle Inman was also on the injury report this week after hurting his wrist against the Browns.
Regardless, Gandy-Golden's biggest contributions are yet to come.
"These guys, they're human. They've got the transition of going from a school like Liberty and working in training camp, missing time and then coming to play," Turner said. "We'd like to kind of build that up as we go. What we don't want to do is we don't want to throw anyone in there too early and have them where it's a negative deal and that could affect the long term. We want these guys to be players for us for a long time, and we're going to go about it the right way."