The Redskins are hoping depth and versatility along the defensive line will help create not only competition for playing time, but a better pass rush and a more formidable unit against the run.
After a season of highs and lows for his unit in 2015, Washington Redskins defensive line coach Robb Akey has made it a priority for the group to play more consistently and disruptively this year.
"Well our goal and desire is that you'll feel us more," Akey said. "We've got to do a better job of stuffing the run and we've got to do a better job of affecting the quarterback. That's what the front is all about, we have to affect those two things and I think Redskins Nation will take great pride in the way we get after it."
One of the keys to achieving these goals will be depth, which was something the team addressed during the offseason.
While veterans Jason Hatcher and Terrance Knighton departed, the team signed veteran defensive end Kendall Reyes and drafted rookie defensive end Matt Ioannidis in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Internally, defensive end Stephen Paea is returning from a season-ending toe injury and Trent Murphy has added nearly 30 pounds during his transition from linebacker to having his hand in the dirt.
Players and coaches are pleased with the results so far, emphasizing the versatility of the group this season.
"We just had to create more depth around the team," defensive end Chris Baker said. "I think the coaches and [general manager Scot McCloughan] did a good job of bringing in guys who can play at each position. Brought in a lot of new lineman who can play any position you line them up on, it's not just the nose here, our nose can play the three[-tech], or he can play the five[-tech], so we have a lot of guys who can play at any position on this defensive line which is something that we need."
Akey hopes that the depth along the line will allow him to substitute more frequently, keeping players fresh and impactful for the entire regular season.
Take a look back at the top images of the Washington Redskins' defensive linemen from the 2015 season.
"It's good to have fresh horses at a point in time," Akey said. "But we have a lot of work to do to find out what that's going to be, how much depth we actually have and plug guys into the situations that suit them the best. That's in the process of forming itself right now."
Entering his second year as defensive line coach, Akey has greater flexibility.
Now that the linemen are more familiar with the packages, Akey has more range to tweak specific calls and gain situational advantages, he said.
Akey also believes that all of the linemen currently on the roster should be "looking at all the jobs as wide open."
"They all are fighting to see who's going to be in that mix and how many can be in that mix when we get to that point," Akey said. "That's the way we've rotated it, each practice it is a little bit different so we can get guys in different positions so we can kind of see who handles which situations the best."
Chris Baker wants to make a statement this season
After a breakout season where Chris Baker had six sacks and three forced fumbles while serving as one of the most reliable players along the defensive line, the Hampton product thinks he will only continue to improve.
Entering a contract year, he's set an ambitious goal this season of recording at least 10 sacks.
"I know I have the ability," Baker said. "I watch the film from last year and I left a lot of sacks out there on the field and with the guys we have this year, and with our offense being able to score points the way they should, it should give us a lot more opportunities to go out there and get sacks."
Baker, who jokingly asked McCloughan at a press conference in April about the Redskins salary cap situation, is hoping to make a major impression around the league in what he hopes will be a Pro Bowl campaign.
"He's got a little swag to him," Akey said. "He has a burning desire and any pro is using his situation to his advantage. I am going to do everything to help him play the best he's able to, so he can get the best contract he's able to. We have to pay him and keep him."
Emphasizing mobility at nose tackle
With the departure of Knighton in the offseason, there will be competition for nose tackle reps in training camp. While size is traditionally a major factor in playing the position, mobility and technique can allow players to play multiple positions, Akey said.
"Well [size] is certainly important because it keeps you from being moved, but you need to be able to move too," Akey said. "I think that strength, explosiveness and a guy can use some quickness. Does he have to be 350 pounds? No, not necessarily. A guy who weighs 305 pounds can do that with good technique. There are benefits to a guy who can move, he doesn't have to be confined to playing the nose position, you can play three or five whenever those are necessary. Chris Baker is a perfect example, he's played three, he's played five, he's played nose and he's played them well."
One of the candidates for reps at nose tackle is rookie Matt Ioannidis, who demonstrated that type of versatility while at Temple.
"[Ioannidis] is gaining ground," Akey said. "He came in here with a great, burning desire and he working his tail off. He's growing mentally at this point in time and I expect that to continue to be the case. He's going to be an option in the [nose tackle position]."
Kendall Reyes making an impression
The coaching staff hopes to see productivity out of Kendall Reyes, who comes to Washington after spending his first four seasons in San Diego. While with the Chargers, Reyes overlapped with Redskins defensive coordinator Joe Barry while Barry was the linebackers coach in San Diego.
"With Kendall Reyes coming to the group, he's new here, but he's familiar with the package, he's been with Joe [Barry] before," Akey said. "I think it's a positive."
Reyes was a reliable player for the Chargers, starting 46 out of 48 games for San Diego in the last three seasons. He has brought that consistent work ethic with him to Washington.
"I like what he's done," Akey said. "Kendall showed up, he's worked his tail off and he's done well. The positive is he's came in with a good familiarity of package, being with Joe [Barry] before. That terminated some of the learning and I think that's helped him. But he's had a good offseason and I am anxious to see what he's able to do. He's a first-class guy and he's working his tail off."
Defensive line rotation is not solidified
The line has brought competitive fire onto the field this offseason, with the veterans loudly cheering on the young defensive players while chirping at the offense throughout OTAs and minicamp. Now it is up to the coaching staff to channel that energy into the proper defensive line rotations.
"My job at this point is changing those lineups and putting guys in different scenarios so we can find where guys different strengths lie," Akey said. "I think it's up to me to help keep that competitive edge going, they bring it with them every day, but things where I can help to make them do their job a little better."
While Akey has tinkered with the lineup, the real evaluations will begin in Richmond. Only when the pads are on and players can be violent with one another will the depth on the line be apparent, Akey said.
"We have a ton of work to do, we haven't even had contact yet," Akey said. "So I think that'll tell us a lot when we get to Training Camp. I like the ground we have gained and then in the combative situations who's going to rise? A lot of that will grow when we get down to Richmond."