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One burning question for Washington's defensive line ahead of the 2023 season

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The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team unless specified by a direct quote.

The Washington Commanders' offseason workout program is over, which means that all the coaches and players scattered to the wind for the next five weeks until training camp begins in late July. 

It's hard to glean much from this point in the year, when the most we have to go on are noncontact practices with players only wearing jerseys and helmets, but we did learn some things about what Washington could look like in 2023. We now know that Sam Howell has a good shot of being the starter for Week 1; the tight end group could be one of the most productive on the team; and the secondary looks to be brimming with talent. 

There are still some questions that simply cannot be answered until the regular season begins. That isn't going to stop us from speculating on them.  

For the next five weeks, will be examining one burning question about each position group on Washington's roster. We'll start on the defensive line, where the return of a certain 2020 Pro Bowler could help elevate an already impressive group. 

What will Chase Young's return mean for the Commanders' defensive line?

The Washington Commanders were back on the field on Thursday for the third day of mandatory minicamp. Check out the top photos from the afternoon. (Photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)

Technically, Chase Young made his "return" last year during the Commanders' Christmas Eve game with the San Francisco 49ers. It's hard for any player to make a meaningful impact when they get thrown into the lineup that late in the season, though, so in many ways, Young's debut in 2023 will be his first chance to get back to his old self.

There seems to be an obvious answer to this, but first, let's take a look back at what life for the Commanders was like without Young.

Even with Young recovering from his torn ACL and patellar tendon for most of the 2022 season, Washington still touted one of the most talented defensive lines in football. Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne handled the interior with Montez Sweat filling one of the spots at defensive end. As for the other position, it was manned by a range of options, including Casey Toohill, James Smith-Williams and Efe Obada.

There were some slip ups throughout the season, but the group largely made do and put up solid numbers. They led the charge for a defense that finished 11th in run defense (113.3 yards per game) and 12th in sacks (43). Their adjusted sack rate of 8% was seventh in the league, and that includes the dominant performances of Allen and Payne, the latter of which tied a franchise record with 11.5 sacks and a got a contract extension for it.

We know Young is an athletically gifted player with the skill set to be a gamechanger. Granted, it was three years ago by now, but Young's Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign was one of the catalysts that helped lift Washington into the playoff discussion. The stats will show that Young finished the year with 44 tackles, 7.5 sacks, four pass breakups, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and one touchdown, but those numbers don't do justice to plays like his forced fumble on Joe Burrow on the 1-yard line or the fourth down stop against the Pittsburgh Steelers that directly influenced the outcome of those games.

The problem is that we haven't seen that kind of production from Young in a while, much of which is not necessarily Young's fault. Young missed over a year and 22 games recovering from his injuries, and in the games he's played since his rookie year, Young has 16 tackles, 1.5 sacks and five quarterback hits.

Of course having a version of Young that is similar to what he showed in 2020 would make a great position group into an elite one that could be the best in the league. As to whether that is attainable, there are two factors in play: confidence and athleticism. Young only practiced three days with the team this offseason, but there was enough of a sample size to alleviate some concerns.

"He looked good. He really did," Ron Rivera said after Day 2 of minicamp. "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."

Back when Young was first reintroducing himself to the practice field last year, there was some hesitation from him during individual and team drills. That is understandable since he hadn't experienced any contact while recovering, but it did take longer for him to get on the field as a result.

There wasn't a lack of confidence from Young as he went through minicamp, though, as he welcomed engagement from Washington's offensive linemen and made cuts during 11-on-11 drills.

"I'm pretty confident though because he looked good," Rivera said. "He really did. I know the doctors were all positive about everything he's done and again, I know part of the reasoning of him not being around is he wanted to really focus in on just that specifically and he wanted to do that."

And in terms of athleticism, there was plenty of that from Young. He had quick feet during the individual period of practice (he even tried to jump back in line for a couple of drills) and he was able to put pressure on Washington's quarterbacks. He also nearly broke up a screen pass, missing the football by inches.

"Night and day," Young told reporters after practice when asked how he felt. "My confidence, my strength, everything."

If Young can get close to what he was, it would give Washington another player who could completely change the outlook of games. The defensive line would be more formidable, but it would also mean more opportunities for turnovers in the secondary, more tackles for the linebackers and less pressure on an offense that is learning a new system with a young quarterback.

We'll have to wait and see if that comes to fruition, but things are headed in the right direction.

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