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Practice notes | Commanders taking a committee approach to DE position


The Washington Commanders made some of the biggest splashes in the NFL earlier this week at the trade deadline, electing to send defensive ends Montez Sweat and Chase Young to the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers, respectively, in exchange for draft compensation in 2024.

Those moves resulted in Washington getting more building blocks for the future, but now that the team is moving on to a situation without their 2019 and 2020 first-round picks, it means that other players will need to step up.

"I treat it like next man up, like somebody was injured," said defensive coordinator **Jack Del Rio.** "It obviously provides opportunities for others to play, and we're excited about working with them and looking forward to going out and competing."

Although the decisions to move on from Sweat and Young do show a fundamental shift in the Commanders' future, they don't believe it hinders them from winning games in 2023. They intend to be competitive and push for the playoffs this season, and they still believe they have the talent to put pressure on quarterbacks.

"It's an opportunity to see what else we have," head coach **Ron Rivera** said during his Wednesday press conference.

The Commanders aren't going to find one or even two players to immediately replace Sweat and Young's production. The two were the team's top sack leaders, and Young's pass-rush win-rate was among the best in the league. Instead, the Commanders will rely on a committee of pass-rushers, and there are four on the roster who have been identified as candidates for more snaps.

With Sweat and Young gone, that means that Casey Toohill is now the Commanders' leader in sacks with four in eight games. While he only has 41 snaps in the last three games combined, he has been noticeably efficient with three of his sacks coming in those games.

Toohill's production was at its peak against the Atlanta Falcons, when he recorded two tackles, three quarterback hits and brought down Desmond Ridder two times. Both of his sacks came on third down in the second half, which helped keep the Commanders' 24-10 lead intact.

Toohill has made impressive plays before. He sealed Washington's upset over the Philadelphia Eagles in 2022 when he recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown at the end of regulation. Now, he'll be expected to be more of a contributor as a likely starter.

Toohill is focusing more on keeping things business as usual.

"It's always exciting, but I just think you really can't focus too much on that," Toohill said. "I don't think my preparation changes, whether I'm playing 10 reps or if I'm playing 30 or 40."

2020 seventh-round James Smith-Williams is another player expected to see a bump in his playing time going forward. Like Toohill, Smith-Williams has made splash plays in a rotational role. Against the Denver Broncos, for example, he took down Russell Wilson for a one-yard loss in the first quarter. That was his only sack of the season so far, but he does know how to put pressure on quarterbacks, as he's third on the team with four quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus.

Toohill and Smith-Williams are familiar with having to step up in the past. They had to do so during the 2021 season, when both Sweat and Young were dealing with injuries.

"We've been here before," Toohill said. "Nothing changes. I don't think you make it a bigger deal than it is, and you just come to work every day and do your absolute best to prepare."

The Commanders can also get a better look at their current draft class with KJ Henry and Andre Jones Jr. expected to get more snaps behind Toohill and Smith-Williams. Of the two, Jones is the more intriguing prospect because of how impressive he looked in training camp, starting with him getting first team reps in the team's joint practice with the Baltimore Ravens and keeping up with Lamar Jackson on the edge.

"He had really done a lot of good things, primarily was involved in special teams, did not get a lot of defensive snaps, so obviously now he'll get an opportunity," Del Rio said. "One of the young guys we're looking forward to getting a good look at."

Check out the best photos of the Washington Commanders going through their first practice of the week as they prepare for the New England Patriots.

Henry, a fifth-round pick from Clemson, has been a healthy scratch for all eight of Washington's games this season.

"He's had really zero opportunities in live games, so we'll see," Del Rio said. "It's a little bit of an unknown, kind of curious, looking forward to getting a look at him."

Regardless of how the rotation shakes out between the four players, the Commanders have faith that what they have is enough to help them win. Rivera has already spoken to them about what it means for them to get more opportunities.

"I think that's the thing that's exciting is really to find out where that is," Rivera said.

And in terms of the Commanders' style on the defensive line, don't expect that to change.

"We're looking to rush as a pack," Del Rio said, "and that's not going to change."

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