Determining what Commanders should do on the defensive line
By Jonathan Eig
Will the bill finally come due for the Washington Commanders defensive line in 2022? In the salary cap era, it is difficult to keep paying four number one draft picks at one position group. As rookie deals come to an end, changes have to be made. That is, changes have to be made if the players have lived up to their draft status. For the Commanders, this has been the case, and that is a double-edged sword.
It would be great to keep the line of Chase Young, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, and Montez Sweat in tact for the next decade, but that is not in the cards. This wealth of young talent has a lot of us thinking one of these players may be the centerpiece of a trade which will return a quality starting quarterback. But which player is most likely to move?
This will depend in part on what the trading partner needs/wants. But if we rule out Allen – the heart and soul of the defense and arguably the team’s best player – and Young – defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020 – it leaves Payne and Sweat as the most valuable trading assets.
In a vacuum, I would prefer to hold onto Payne. Finding a stalwart, durable interior lineman is very difficult. I’m not suggesting finding a long athletic pass rusher like Sweat is easy, but I do think it would easier to scheme around his absence and still generate pass rush. It is difficult to scheme up a quick 300-pounder in the middle if the line.
But, here’s the rub. Based on the Commanders’ current roster, there is a much bigger drop-off in talent behind Sweat than there is behind Payne. Washington has a virtual starting tackle in Matt Ioannidis who can step in for Payne, and, should they re-sign him, they also have Tim Settle, who has been excellent in a limited role. A rotation of Allen, Ioannidis, and Settle, would provide a very solid core.
How should the Commanders address their defensive line?
The same cannot be said about the players likely to succeed Sweat. IN 2021, with Young and Sweat both injured, the Washington Commanders ended up using seven other players at defensive end. James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill played the most. Nate Orchard played the least (one defensive snap.) Bunmi Rotimi, Shaka Toney, William Bradley-King, and Daniel Wise all took their turns. Do you feel confident with any of these players taking over for Sweat?
For the record, I think Smith-Williams is clearly the farthest along and should be an important part of the defense in some capacity. I have also been intrigued by Wise, who was signed as an undersized tackle, but who looked like a playmaker at end last season before an injury sidelined him. The others all have a lot to prove.
End Jalen Jelks, interior lineman Tyler Clark, and hybrid lineman David Bada are also under contract, and also have some work to do. I have always liked Bada, but the fact that team promoted Rotimi over him last season suggests his future is iffy.
I think there is a very good chance the Commanders trade either Payne or Sweat this offseason, and if they do, there is a good chance they will look to sign a mid-level free agent as a replacement. This is especially true if the player traded is Sweat.
The two candidates I find the most intriguing right now are Efe Obada (Buffalo) and Kemoko Turay (Indianapolis). Both have shown the ability to be effective pass rushers. Obada will be 30 by the beginning of next season and Washington has rightly shied away from players like that. But he also has a Carolina Panther connection, having been with Ron Rivera from 2017-2019, and we have seen how that can factor into roster moves. Turay is a gifted athlete who has battled injury throughout his career, and at 27, might be worth a gamble.
Then, there is an interesting situation brewing in San Francisco, where two solid linemen are hitting free agency. The 49ers boast an excellent collection of lineman, who they have used on a rotation. Neither end Arden Key or tackle DJ Jones is in the same league as Nick Bosa or Arik Armstead, but both have contributed valuable minutes. San Fran may not be able to retain both, and if that is the case, Key would be a very intriguing prospect should Sweat depart.
If it is Payne who goes, then DJ Jones would be a fantastic replacement, though his price tag might be too high. Another former Panther, Vernon Butler, might be a solid fill-in. He is currently with Buffalo, who as noted above, will have to make a decision of Efe Obada. Butler might also come into play should the Commanders fail to re-sign Tim Settle.
The Washington Commanders continue to stockpile low-round defensive ends in the draft. Smith-Williams, Bradley-King, and Toney were all chosen by Washington in the 7th round in recent years, and Toohill is another 7th-rounder snatched from the Eagles practice squad. There’s a pretty good chance they will continue that trend with a Day 3 defensive end this year, especially if Sweat is traded.
Oklahoma’s Isaiah Thomas is the type of long, athletic player Rivera has gone for in the past. His teammate, LaRon Stokes, who has played on the inside in college, has the ability, like Daniel Wise, to move inside or outside. Either might be good targets. LSU’s Andre Anthony, who missed most of 2021 with a knee injury, could be a steal if he is able to return at full strength.
Whether a premiere player is traded or not, the Washington Commanders will look to rely on their defensive line to be a major team strength in 2022 and beyond. Injury, along with a slow start from Young, caused 2021 to be a down year. 2022 should be a major bounce back.