Free agency moves give clues about Commanders defensive intent in 2024

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Dan Quinn
Dan Quinn / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Commanders' early free-agent moves provide clues about their defensive strategy under new head coach Dan Quinn and coordinator Joe Whitt Jr.

Dan Quinn runs 4-3 defenses. It’s what he used when he was defensive coordinator under Pete Carroll with the Seattle Seahawks. It’s what he mostly employed as Atlanta Falcons head coach and Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator. We should expect to see something similar for the Washington Commanders.

Quinn believes in the base 4-3 defense. Except when he doesn’t.

If you watched those old Seahawks teams, they used something that came to be known as the Seattle 4-3 hybrid. Don’t believe me? There’s an entire Wikipedia page devoted to a detailed explanation of it. You can look it up.

The bottom line is this - Quinn’s defenses in Seattle rarely had the same four linemen lining up in the same positions on consecutive plays. The flexibility of this front-seven hybrid had ripple effects throughout the entire defense. Kam Chancellor, one of the biggest men to ever play safety in the NFL, thrived in this defense.

Commanders could adopt more 3-4 base schemes under Dan Quinn

When he went to Atlanta, Quinn continued using the base 4-3, but he also continued tweaking it based on personnel. Derrick Beasley was a defensive end who would sometimes play as a linebacker. Dontari Poe could either play a traditional gap or line up directly over the center as a classic 3-4 nose tackle.

Finally, when he joined the Cowboys, Quinn announced at his introductory presser that he was interested in using 3-4 principles more in his defensive schemes. He never abandoned the 4-3 as a base, but he liked to tinker with it.

So what does this mean for the Commanders' defense in 2024?

Quinn just signed three new linebackers plus one hybrid safety/linebacker. A few weeks back, he brought in another - Keandre Jones. The Commanders also acquired three new defensive ends and re-signed Efe Obada.

This may be a concession to the fact that Washington had a miserable linebacking corps when Quinn arrived and they traded away their star defensive ends midway through last season. No matter what, he was going to restock.

But it might also signal a philosophical change. He is scooping up a lot of players who have some excellent skills, but who also have had issues fitting into traditional schemes in the past. Bobby Wagner - the biggest name amongst the new defenders - is still a beast against the run. But people question his coverage skills at this point.

Wagner was never great in pass coverage - his attacking style leads him to move forward. At 33 years old, he is having more difficulty dropping into deeper zones.

The same is largely true of Jeremy Chinn, the nominal safety who plays more like a linebacker. Neither thrives when asked to patrol a large area of the field against speedy receivers. But both are dynamite when tasked with attacking the line. Those skill sets might be ideally suited to play inside in a 3-4 defensive front.

Quinn won't switch to that base, but look for him to use it occasionally. More importantly, he should employ some of its principles as he did in Seattle. Such a hybrid defense could do for Chinn what it accomplished for Chancellor a decade ago.

Jones and the newest linebacker - Anthony Pittman - will be mostly used as special teamers. The newest arrival has proven his worth during his career, and Jones has the physical tools you would want in such a player. But both could also step into an inside linebacking role in support of Wagner and/or Chinn.

Commanders have the personnel to match Dan Quinn's ambitions

Then there is Frankie Luvu, who can line up anywhere on the field and be effective. The Commanders bringing in Wagner after agreeing to a deal with the former Carolina Panthers stud was strange in a sense. Both players seem to fit best in the middle. But if you are running a 3-4, then you need two players manning the interior. Washington couldn’t do much better than this duo. Teams will not run all over Quinn and Joe Whitt Jr.'s unit next season that's for sure.

If you mix in some 3-4, who lines up outside?

Ever since watching him struggle to play the middle in his rookie season, Jamin Davis’ best fit seemed to be as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 front. He could attack the backfield on most plays. On the other side, Washington has a host of young players who are nominally defensive ends but might be able to transition.

They have just signed three new defensive ends. Of them, Dante Fowler Jr. was an outstanding outside linebacker in college. If the Commanders were to try him - or any of the other acquisitions as a 3-4 outside threat - they would have the ideal teacher in Ryan Kerrigan, who played the spot early in his career before switching to defensive end.

Both defensive end draft picks from 2023 - K.J. Henry and Andre Jones Jr. - have the athletic profiles to play outside in a 3-4. Many scouts thought that is where both were best suited. But the Commanders under Ron Rivera never seemed interested in that. They were forever fitting square pegs into round holes.

Daron Payne and John Ridgeway could play the nose tackle position. Jonathan Allen might be a monster playing defensive end in a 3-4. Efe Obada, Dorance Armstrong, and Clelin Ferrell could also probably man that position, though the Commanders might prefer someone bigger.

It will be interesting to see how the Commanders approach the edge position in the draft. If they were to target a bigger edge player like Auburn’s Marcus Harris, it would be worth noting.

The Commanders won't be making a wholesale shift into a 3-4 defense next season. Quinn’s defenses through the years have been far more nuanced than that. But the new moves suggest that he will be employing principles from multiple defensive philosophies to put his defenders in the best position to succeed.

After the last four years, that will be a pleasure to see.