What are the Commanders thinking at defensive tackle?

It's a complex situation behind Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen.

Phidarian Mathis
Phidarian Mathis / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

Are the Washington Commanders in the process of altering their thought process when it comes to defensive tackle depth heading into 2023?

When the Washington Commanders selected Phidarian Mathis in the second round of the 2022 draft, the common thinking was that this was a succession plan.

The Commanders had already inked defensive tackle Jonathan Allen to a long-term deal, and most people assumed Chase Young was also in the team’s long-range plans. That left the two other first-round defensive linemen, Montez Sweat and Daron Payne potentially competing for one more big deal.

The Mathis pick seemed to suggest that Washington would work out a deal with Sweat and perhaps move on from Payne. A little more than a year later, that scenario is no longer viable.

Payne was brilliant last season and earned his own extension. It now looks as if the team will need to come to a decision about its two high-pedigree defensive ends, Young and Sweat.

They almost certainly cannot extend both, and there is a chance that they could lose both over the next couple of seasons. None of the backups have the game-changing talent of the two former first-rounders, but at least the Commanders have built some depth on the outside.

Unfortunately, as of today, the same is not true on the interior.

Commanders need better depth on their DL interior

Mathis got hurt three plays into his rookie season and has not shown any of the explosiveness he displayed at Alabama. Free agent acquisition John Ridgeway - plucked off the Dallas Cowboys practice squad - played a fair amount last season, but was more known for a couple of spectacular penalties than his defensive prowess.

It’s way too early to write off either Mathis or Ridgeway. Both are big, strong interior linemen who could develop into quality starters. But if they don’t, the Commanders have a bit of a quandary on their hands.

The Commanders do have several other interior defenders on the roster. Efe Obada can also move inside if needed, though he is better suited to play on the edge.

Though there is no hard and fast rule about this, defensive tackles are generally the biggest players on defense. William Perry was a defensive tackle. Haloti Ngata was a tackle. For what it’s worth, so was Albert Haynesworth. That’s more than a thousand pounds right there.

Then again, John Randle and Aaron Donald, two of the greatest tackles to ever wear cleats, were both well under 300 pounds. Back when I was a kid – and admittedly players were a lot smaller – the great Alan Page was a terror on the inside playing at 245 pounds.

I’m beginning to wonder if Washington isn’t rethinking its penchant for going with bigger tackles. Over the past couple of seasons, they had a slightly undersized interior lineman named Daniel Wise. He moved ahead of several players on the depth chart and contributed some decent minutes. Like Alexander, he could line up at tackle or at end.

Though a bit underpowered, his best position was tackle, where Wise used his quickness off the ball and instincts to penetrate on run plays. He was never going to provide a sustained push on passing plays, but he could disrupt runs by either making the tackle or throwing off the timing of the play.

I was surprised when the Commanders walked away from Wise at the end of 2022. He is now fighting for a spot with the Kansas City Chiefs.

As I have written recently, stopping the run is going to be the Commanders' Achilles heel this season because their linebackers are not very good at choosing holes and plugging them near the line. Is it possible that rather than relying on having some big bodies eating up blockers on the line, thus allowing linebackers to make tackles, the Commanders are now seeing the value in having quicker interior players who can shoot gaps at the snap and disrupt the offense?

Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne are good enough to make plays all by themselves. But until Mathis and Ridgeway show that ability as well, the Commanders may be on the prowl for more quick, slightly undersized defensive tackles like Wise.