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Daron Payne earned his new contract. Now, he's ready to take the next step in his career

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The feeling has not quite sunk in for Daron Payne. That is understandable; being the highest paid defensive lineman not named Aaron Donald does come with an adjustment period. 

Payne was set to be one of the best free agents available this offseason after a breakout 2022 campaign that included 11.5 sacks. The Washington Commanders, however, were determined to not let him get courted by other suitors. They placed the franchise tag on him Feb. 28, and two weeks later, they gave him a lucrative deal that reflected how important he had been to the Commanders' defensive front. 

The move was the fulfillment of an agreement between Payne and the team. If he put together a strong season, the team would reward him for it. Now that the deal is done and Payne will be around for the foreseeable future, he is looking ahead to the next phase of his career. 

"I like the way that I'm training," Payne said at his press conference. "I like the way that I'm progressing as a player. I feel like I've progressed almost every year."

Payne's progress has been steady from the time Washington took him with the 13th pick in the 2018 draft, and that has matched his production. He has at least 50 tackles in each season, and he has found a way to be disruptive as an interior pass-rusher with 26 sacks, 14 pass breakups (that is more than any of the Commanders' starting defensive linemen) and 55 quarterback hits.

Per league rules, Payne was eligible for an extension after his third season, and after producing another solid season in 2021 with what were career highs in tackles (61) and quarterback hits (15) with 4.5 sacks, he thought an extension would come then.

That moment did not come, which caused some frustration in Payne. But he did not sulk, nor did he decide to hold out at any point during his fifth season. Instead, he chose to do what he has done throughout his career: ball out, and let the rest take care of itself.

"Last year, I was really just focused on playing good ball," Payne told Julie Donaldson on the most recent episode of "Command Center." "I might as well just have fun making plays, and it all played out."

Star defensive tackle Daron Payne is staying in Washington after signing an extension with the Commanders. Take a look behind the scenes at Payne agreeing to the deal. (Photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)

And Payne provided a message to the team that he promised to deliver on.

"I told them that I would show them why I deserve to be here," Payne said. "That's what I did."

Based on his numbers, Payne had a lot of fun in 2022. His sack total tied Dave Butz for the most by a defensive tackle in franchise history and was the third-most by all defensive tackles last season. The numbers themselves are not a surprise; after all, Payne has been a talented player for years. That said, it does catch people's attention when someone's pass-rush numbers rise that rapidly.

It started in the final stretch of OTAs last season. Payne felt...good. He was moving well during drills, and he just felt that things were headed in the right direction. The biggest difference was that Payne was learning how to finish plays. He was learning how to bring quarterbacks to the ground more consistently, rather than letting them slip through his grasp.

Payne got to the quarterback on 9.5% of his rushes -- the same rate as 2021. Because he was finishing plays, along with some tips from Ryan Kerrigan and Jeff Zgonina, his sack total nearly tripled.

"I was just having a bunch of fun," Payne said. "It may have been the best time I had playing football. I was really out there trying to one-up myself every game and have as much fun as I could."

Coach Ron Rivera and the Commanders saw that progress, and while Payne was the first player to receive the franchise tag this offseason, the team made it clear to him, both privately and publicly, that they wanted to get a deal done.

"He's a guy that's been very integral to the development of this football team and this defense as well as the other guys that he plays alongside," Rivera said at the Combine of placing the franchise tag on Payne. "And we just wanted to make sure everybody understood that we are serious."

Daron Payne has signed a multiyear contract extension with the Washington Commanders to keep its defensive line intact. Check out the best photos from his 2022 season. (Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)

With a new deal comes new expectations, and Payne seems eager to meet them in 2023 and beyond. He doesn't have a full set of goals yet, but he is determined to get back to training this offseason. And to those who believe that putting up similar numbers to 2022 is not sustainable, Payne says he is confident in where he is headed at this point in his career.

No matter how he performs in Year 6, Payne believes there is another level he can reach.

"I definitely don't feel like I've hit my stride yet," he said. "I feel like I've got room to grow, room to improve."

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