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KJ Henry starting to stand out in expanded role


The Washington Commanders made a drastic shift in how their defense was structured by trading away Chase Young and Montez Sweat at the deadline almost a month ago. It meant that the entire defensive line needed to step up, and that included players who hadn't seen the field much, or at all, in the first half of the season.

One of those players was fifth-round pick KJ Henry, who defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio admitted was "a little bit of an unknown" prior to the trades because of how little action he had received since training camp.

The Commanders know more about him now, and there's reason to be excited about his development.

After being a healthy scratch on gameday from Weeks 2-8, Henry got his best opportunity to show off his skill set with 37 defensive snaps against the New York Giants. He finished the day by tying Jonathan Allen to lead the defensive front in tackles (4) and sacks (1.5). The season has not gone as expected for the defense, but Henry has emerged as a bright spot that provides promise for the future.

"Got to give kudos to [DE] K.J. Henry. He got an opportunity to come out [and compete]. He played very well." head coach Ron Rivera said during his Monday press conference.

Henry's recent production is a positive sign for a draft class that has needed time to develop since April. That was the case with Henry during training camp. It was clear that he had talent; he was a solid contributor at Clemson with 124 tackles to go with 13 sacks, and with respectable metrics at the NFL Combine (a 4.63 40-yard dash, 31.5-inch vertical and a 9-foot-4 broad jump) he had the athleticism to be a reliable player at the NFL level.

It was also evident that Henry needed time to adjust, and with the Commanders packed at defensive end, it was hard to find a spot for Henry on the gameday roster. He was active for Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals, but he only played 13 snaps, all of which were on special teams.

As defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina said of Henry earlier in the season, "he's gonna be an asset for us moving forward," but he needed time to learn.

"He's learning the way we play defensive end here, and he's fine as a rookie," Zgonina said. "I mean, he's a rookie, but he shows a lot of promise, and he keeps working."

Check out the top photos of the Washington Commanders' Week 11 matchup with the New York Giants. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)

Things changed for Henry when Young and Sweat were traded to the 49ers and Bears, respectively. For the first time since August, he had a real shot to show how he could help the Commanders' defensive front. He only played nine defensive snaps in the Commanders' 20-17 win over the Patriots -- the first game he was active in since Week 1 -- but he managed to do some things that caught the team's attention.

The biggest example was the hit he laid on Mac Jones that would have been his first career sack had it not been called for unnecessary roughness. The coaches didn't agree with the penalty, but they loved how Henry got to the quarterback.

"He faked an ET [end-tackle] move and then bounced back outside and put himself in position to make the sack," Rivera said. "I mean, that was something you see from a savvy veteran, not from a rookie. So that was really good to see. He's a very smart, very bright player."

After the game, Henry said "I've been ready to go."

"Just waiting my turn," Henry said. "I know this is a business, and we have a lot of great defensive linemen in our room. So, just trying to be ready when my name's called."

Henry had to wait two more weeks before getting a sack that actually counted. It came on the opening drive of the game with the Giants facing a third-and-10. Starting at the defensive left, he looped around Allen and Daron Payne to corral a scrambling Tommy DeVito for a two-yard loss that forced the Giants to punt.

Later on in the first quarter, he and Payne worked together to take DeVito down on a third-and-13 that forced another Giants punt.

"Here's a young guy that's taken advantage of his chances to get on the football field and play," Rivera said.

Henry was an asset in coverage, too. He had two pass breakups at the line of scrimmage, which tied Emmanuel Forbes Jr. for the most by a Commanders defender. One of them -- a pass intended for Matt Breida, was nearly picked off by Henry himself.

Plays like that, along with his 1.5 sacks, earned Henry one of the best grades for a Commanders from Pro Football Focus. His 78.3 overall grade was fifth among all Washington defensive players, while his run defense (73), tackle (72.6) and pass rush grades (69.3) were fifth, fourth and fifth on the team, respectively.

All of that will likely mean more opportunities for Henry, who will have to face off against some of the league's best offenses in the final six games of the season. And that means more chance for him to show why he can be a foundational piece for the defense's future.

"He rushed the passer, he played the run, did a couple real smart things," Rivera said, "Things that really stood out to us as coaches."

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