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KJ Henry reflects on rookie season, plans to improve in Year 2

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KJ Henry has a lot more free time these days than he did last year. Prior to reporting to the Washington Commanders' facility for the offseason workout program, he took a few weeks off from football to go home, spend time with his family and watch his brothers play high school basketball.

He also snuck in some time to head to Arizona for some extra training at Exos to get ready for his second season.

"Just trying to get back in the rhythm of things," Henry said. "I think it's gonna show up later in the year."

Henry spent most of last spring worrying about his 40 time, broad jump and interviewing with teams interested in drafting him. The Commanders ended up taking him in the fifth round, and after waiting until Week 9 for his first defensive snap, he wrapped up his rookie campaign with 19 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

Now with the opportunity to get a full NFL offseason under his belt, Henry wants to take advantage of the extra work and build on what he did last year.

"I definitely want to be known as a consistent player on this defense and just continue to raise the bar for myself," Henry said.

Washington drafted Henry after a five-year career with Clemson that included 58 games -- the most ever by defensive end in program history -- and 24 starts. He was a mainstay for Clemson's defense by the end of his senior season, recording a career-high 51 tackles to go with 3.5 sacks and six pass breakups.

It was a stark contrast to the situation he was in with the Commanders, who at that time were flush with depth at defensive end. Chase Young and Montez Sweat were the two starters of the group, and James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill were firmly cemented as their backups. The team had also drafted Andre Jones Jr. with a seventh-round pick.

So, Henry didn't get many on-field opportunities. He was active for the season-opener against the Arizona Cardinals but only played 13 special teams snaps. He was inactive for the next seven weeks.

Although Henry understood that's how the NFL goes sometimes for rookies, it still felt "very, very weird" not playing on gamedays.

"I'm not getting to do what I want to do," Henry said. "I mean, you're a senior, you've been playing all this time, now you come here, you've been playing in the preseason games ... But I know that whether it be the energy or whether it be that I help someone else that I could still add value to the team. So, that's really what I tried to focus on."

Despite the lack of snaps, as well as the team losing five of six games in Weeks 3-8, Henry tried to keep a positive attitude about his situation. Of course, he wanted to play, but he also knew that several of his teammates had gone through much worse than being inactive to start their careers. He decided to focus on controlling what he could control by working on himself, helping the team in whatever way possible and waiting for his opportunity.

That moment came after the Commanders traded Young and Sweat at the deadline. Henry played his first defensive snaps against the New England Patriots, taking down Mac Jones for a sack. The play didn't count because Henry also drew a flag, but it did show what he was capable of.

"My mindset was...I've been benched for eight weeks. Now it's time to show everybody what I'm about," Henry said. "That's really my only mindset, and I think that just is more of a fueling one. I think that just works better."

Two weeks later, Henry got his first official sack against the New York Giants. That game, while ultimately being a 31-19 loss, was when Henry's confidence started to peak. He recorded four tackles (one for a loss) along with two quarterback hits and two pass breakups.

"The work I put in earlier this year, it meant something," Henry said. "I was able to prove that to myself. That's how it's always been. Going into this year, it's like I know that everything I do this season, I'm trying to just add to the pot right now."

It's still too early for Henry to know how exactly he fits into the new scheme that head coach Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. and defensive line coach Darryl Tapp are constructing this offseason, but Henry is going to be ready for whatever his future holds. He's been working out with the rest of his teammates and building his own routine to maintain a long, successful NFL career.

He's watching a lot of the veterans to learn how they've been able to accomplish the feat.

"When are they getting in the building? When are they starting their day?" Henry said. "Then obviously as I get into my day-to-day, that's when it can get a little different, whether it be what I'm eating, my maintenance, when I lift and all that good stuff."

The most important thing for Henry is not to waste any time.

"There's no point in me just going home and doing nothing for the rest of the day just because I can," he said. "It's like, keeping putting in the work."

Henry doesn't like to make goals or expectations for himself heading into a new season. All he wants to do is make sure that he plays better than the year before. He believes he set a standard for himself as a rookie; now he wants to rise above it.

"Just show that when KJ goes in, he knows what he's doing," Henry said. "He's not a liability, and then once I think a coach and a staff can have confidence in that, then it's...within the scheme, how can he grow? How can he continue to make plays? Once I feel like I established that, then that's what I wanted to do."

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