The Washington Redskins will head to training camp this year with 2017 starters Jonathan Allen and Matt Ioannidis returning along with newcomer Daron Payne, who was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Additions(s): Daron Payne (2018 NFL Draft), Tim Settle (2018 NFL Draft)
Subtraction(s): Terrell McClain (signed with Atlanta), A.J. Francis (signed with New York Giants)
CURRENT STATE OF THE UNIT:
Last year, the Redskins overhauled their defensive line. They hired a new coach in Jim Tomsula, signed two veterans and took Alabama product Jonathan Allen in the first round. It was a necessary and culture-changing set of moves that made an impact on certain defensive areas in 2017. But injuries and setbacks delayed an entire 180, something the team believes it can complete this season.
"We've seen it rebuilt," Tomsula said at Redskins minicamp this year, before dissecting each part of his depth chart and expectations for the unit in 2018. He has reason for optimism considering he'll have a close to NFL-ready nose tackle to work with in Daron Payne, the Redskins' first-round draft pick this year, the second Alabama defensive lineman the team has now taken in as many years.
Pairing Payne with Allen and Matt Ioannidis, last year's dynamic duo along the line throughout the early part of last year, should help in clogging what was a porous run defense. Before a season-ending Lisfranc injury, Allen made a major impact taking on double teams and collapsing the middle of the pocket, setting up Ioannidis for a breakout sophomore year. Together the two of them compiled 5.5 sacks and 37 tackles last year, and are ready to reestablish their dominance beside each other, especially on passing downs.
"I feel like going back to last year, we definitely had the guys to stop the run, we just didn't put all of the pieces together," Allen said. "So coming back for another year with [Jim] Tomsula, another year with all the guys I feel like is going to help out a lot. I really feel that we're going to be a dominant defense. If we can stay healthy and do what I know we can, there's nothing stopping us."
Providing more depth will be Anthony Lanier II, who emerged late last year as another viable pass rushing threat. He recorded five sacks and a forced fumble in 11 games, compiling most of those stats in the final five games.
Because the Redskins never had a true nose tackle last season, Ziggy Hood, normally an end player, was thrust into the role, as well as Stacy McGee. Both of them acquitted themselves nicely, but will benefit from having Payne and fifth-round draft pick Tim Settle taking on the bulk of reps in the center of the line.
"It's great that we're able to get Ziggy Hood off the nose and back at the end where he is," Tomsula said. "Ziggy, I can't say enough about him trying to place nose for us last year. But he's not a nose, he's an end. So it's good for that to be happening."
McGee had a career year, tallying 44 tackles and playing in all 16 games, but suffered a groin injury recently. Head coach Jay Gruden hopes he'll be back for training camp. The addition of Payne will provide even more depth and assistance, taking the burden off the rest of the line.
"I've watched the guy for two years. A guy I was really excited about trying to get," Tomsula said. "He's athletic, smart, and I like his DNA. I like who he is as a guy. The difference between confidence and arrogance is ignorance. I've got to have real confident guys, but you can't cross over and be an arrogant guy because than you're just ignorant. He's got that confidence, he doesn't say a lot and he just loves football."
WHAT TO WATCH:
It's stating the obvious that the Redskins would like to improve their run defense from last year. It's also practical to think that they will have more success with fewer injuries.
Adding Payne to the middle of the line and giving other linemen the freedom to focus on splitting gaps instead of taking double teams should allow the entire unit to maximize more of its strengths.
"The bottom line is we need to be able to do it with the people we do have," Tomsula said. "That's another thing when you bring a couple of young guys in there. I mean when you look at [Matt] Ioannidis is a three-year guy, [Jonathan] Allen is a two-year guy, [Tim] Settle is a rookie, [Daron] Payne is a rookie, [Anthony] Lanier is a three-year guy. Ziggy Hood can be considered the elder statesman; he's older than some of the staff here. That's not young, but that's not 15. So there's a nice mix in that room and we do have more depth now and I can't say how wonderful it is to have [linebacker] Mason Foster back on the field. Working in that front, he's a neat guy to see."
Throughout training camp, it should be intriguing to see the rotations of this group – how Tomsula plans to implement Payne, Allen, Ioannidis and Lanier together. Regardless, this group, with a full bill of health, should look to take a big step forward in 2018.