3 Commanders backups who could become starters in 2023

James Smith-Williams
James Smith-Williams / Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
2 of 4

James Smith-Williams - Commanders DE

On a team with two young first-round draft picks slated to play defensive end, it may seem a reach to think that James Smith-Williams, picked in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL Draft, will become a starter. I think it’s a pretty good longshot bet.

This may have more to do with injury and salary cap considerations than productivity, but I don’t say that to denigrate the North Carolina State product’s talent. Smith-Williams has developed into a very steady two-way end. He can play the run and he can rush the passer.

This will certainly be a crucial year in the career of Chase Young. He has been on the field for fewer than 600 defensive snaps over the past two seasons, and the Washington Commanders are obviously hopeful that he can regain the form he showed during his rookie campaign.

That year, Smith-Williams was an afterthought. Simply making the roster was a major step. But by 2021, he had become a significant part of the defensive line rotation.

That role became more important after Young was lost for the year midway through the season. Last year, with the No. 2 overall pick in 2020 going through a long, slow recovery, Smith-Williams started all 16 games.

Heading into 2023, Young should rejoin Montez Sweat as the dominant bookend of the defensive line. But if he gets off to a slow start, all options are open.

It will require some major financial juggling to re-sign Young, but I assume the team will try to make it happen should he show his 2020 form. If not, it’s easy to see him becoming trade bait.

Smith-Williams does not have Young’s dynamic talent. And you really can’t compare their stats from either 2020 – when Young played a lot more – or 2022 – when Smith-Williams had four times as many snaps.

However, you can compare numbers from their second season – 2021.

Young only played into Week 10 but logged almost 100 more defensive snaps than Smith-Williams. Despite that, the Day 3 selection recorded more sacks, tackles, and tackles-for-loss than his higher-profile teammate.

The Commanders drafted two more defensive ends in 2023, a clear indication they think more help at the position is needed. Whether it's because they are not satisfied with the current crop of backups – or because they have concerns about Young’s future – is an open question.

Casey Toohill has performed very much like Smith-Williams over the past several seasons and could certainly be in this mix. So could rookies K.J. Henry, Andre Jones Jr., and Joshua Pryor.

Smith-Williams has shown the most consistent professional ability of them all. He reminds me a lot of those productive edge players that good defenses always seem to have. The San Francisco 49ers may have Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, but guys like Samson Ebukam and Arden Key have been important pieces that will now get the opportunity to shine in starting roles elsewhere.

I think the Commanders have a player like that in Smith-Williams.