We're in the dead period of the Washington Commanders' offseason, which means that all we have to do until training camp rolls around is to reflect on the limited action we saw during OTAs and mandatory minicamp.
After taking a look at the offense, it's time to do the same with the defense. There are far fewer questions about the unit that finished last year third in yards allowed per game. There are speculations about Chase Young, the other options at linebacker and depth in the secondary, but the biggest unknown surrounding Jack Del Rio’s group is whether they can replicate the success they had in 2022, which it was unable to do in 2021 after a similarly strong campaign in 2020.
But the Commanders seem confident in the talent they have as they enter a pivotal season. Here are four things we learned about the defense this offseason.
Chase Young looks healthy.
There was a lot of speculation on how Young would look when he reported to the team facility in Ashburn. Getting on the field for the last three games of the season was an important step for the defensive end after being sidelined for over a year, but the hope was that the time off would ensure that he would be fully healthy for the 2023 season.
It looked like Young was back to his old self in the three days he was at practice.
"He looked good. He really did," said head coach Ron Rivera. "Real excited about it. Looks like he's got some explosion back, which was one of the really neat things in terms of watching him, his get off. He looks like he's more confident."
Young participated in every individual drill and team period during minicamp. There are rules about contact and how intense practices can be this time of year, but Young showed flashes of his athleticism. He nearly broke up a screen pass during one 11-on-11 period, and he rushed into offensive linemen without hesitation.
When asked after practice how he felt, Young said it was "Night and day. My confidence, my strength, everything."
Rivera wanted to see Young "pick up where he left off" from last year. It was a small sample size, but it was enough to alleviate concerns.
Emmanuel Forbes is a ball hawk.
Forbes lived up to that reputation all summer.
"It's what we were hoping for," Rivera said. "I mean, we're looking for a guy that can impact the ball when it's being thrown, when it's in the air, and that's who he was in college and that's what he's showing us so far. So, it's been pretty exciting. We're feeling really good about it so far."
Forbes played as expected during rookie minicamp, even grabbing an interception that he probably would have taken to the end zone had the play been allowed to continue. He had his rookie moments against the veterans in OTAs and minicamp, but there was little drop-off from him as he used his speed and length to keep up with Terry McLaurin and the rest of the Commanders' wideouts.
Despite his slim frame, Forbes has not shied away from physicality or fighting for the ball, and his teammates have been impressed with what they have seen.
"After seeing him on the field, I know how good he is now," said wide receiver Jahan Dotson. "I understand why he was drafted in the first round. I understand what all the hype is about."
The secondary looks improved.
Forbes is not the only defensive back that stood out this offseason. The entire group looked more polished than a year ago, and it could be argued that the secondary is the best position on the entire team.
Much of this is a credit to the depth the Commanders now have in the defensive backfield, which was noticeably absent last season. Forbes is a part of that, but so is second-round pick Quan Martin, who received some first team reps in the slot. Martin moves well in space and has the skill set to cover tight ends. He also loves Del Rio's system, which will allow him to use his position flexibility.
"What Quan gives us is an opportunity to use it really with kind of a hybrid guy," Rivera said. "That's really what it is. We listed him as a safety/nickel and he's a guy that has that kind of ability and flexibility for you … So, we have a lot of flexibility right now to do things."
But Washington's veterans had several highlights as well. Kendall Fuller and Benjamin St-Juste looked comfortable operating on the outside. At safety, younger players like Percy Butler showed signs of growth by grabbing an interception on the last day of minicamp.
The Commanders' secondary finished last season fourth in passing yards allowed, but it was clear in the second half of the season that their depth needed to improve. With that issue seemingly solved, it could elevate the unit to being an even more formidable force.
Depth at linebacker stepped up.
Jamin Davis was not on the field for the entirety of OTAs and minicamp, outside of individual drills, while dealing with a cleanup procedure from a knee injury. That meant that the rest of the five linebackers on the roster received more opportunities, and some took advantage of their extra reps.
One of the biggest examples was Khaleke Hudson, who was running with the first team defense in Davis' absence. Hudson received his first start in over a year during the season finale against the Cowboys and played well with seven tackles and a quarterback hit.
It seems that game helped breathe new life into Hudson's career.
"Guys like Khaleke Hudson have really been playing outstanding," Del Rio said. "I think [he] gained a little bit of confidence from that last outing against Dallas. He went out there and played really well, and so he's coming to the off season full of energy and getting a lot of reps because Jamin is not going."
Cody Barton was another player who caught Del Rio's eye. Barton was signed by the Commanders after a career year with the Seahawks, which included 136 tackles and two interceptions. The thing that has impressed Barton the most: he has committed himself to being a student of the game.
"He's in here and just devouring tape and really applying himself. We're happy we're able to get a guy like Cody and bring him in and add him to our room."