There is no other way to say it: Daron Payne has been one of the best defensive tackles in football.
Not that it should be a surprise; Payne has always been an exceptional player. It is why Washington took him in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, and his talent has shown up in the box score over the past four seasons.
Things have been elevated even further in 2022, though. He has been a dominant force for the Commanders' defensive front with career-highs in nearly every statistical category.
"I think Daron is hitting his own stride, and he's really elevated his game to a high level and has really been able to help me play better," said fellow defensive tackle Jonathan Allen. "Seeing him dominate week in and week out all year is really making me raise my game to his level."
Of all the areas of Payne's game that he has improved upon -- he is currently tied for the second-most tackles for loss in the NFL and has the fifth-most total tackles among all defensive tackles -- his abilities as a pass-rusher have looked the most impressive. He has nearly doubled his career-high in sacks (8.5) and has already surpassed his previous high in quarterback hits (16).
The reason for his growth is easy for defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina to see; he is focusing on the finer details of his skill set.
"Three years now that I've been here with him, every year he buys in more, which most players do," Zgonina said. "Now, he is getting to the point where he understands his strengths and his weaknesses and works at those every day."
Zgonina has also noticed that Payne is finishing his pass rushes more often, which is the one thing he did not do last year. He would get to the quarterback, Zgonina said, but he would not know what to do when he got there. That has changed, and now he has been a terror for signal-callers.
Just ask some of the quarterbacks Payne has taken down this season. He had an easy path to blast the Houston Texans' Davis Mills for a seven-yard sack, for example, resulting in a three-and-out. What's more, he has directly contributed to wiping away any momentum gained by offense. Payne came up with two critical sacks on Daniel Jones last week, one of which was in overtime that forced the Giants to punt.
All that production is the result of the hard work he put in during the months leading up to the season. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio put it best: "He was a man on a mission."
"It was tremendous, the way he approached it," Del Rio said. "Very much kept the team first. He's been excellent."
But Payne's effect on the passing game does not stop at racking up sacks; he also leads all the Commanders' defensive linemen with five pass deflections (another career high).
"He's very disruptive," Del Rio said. "He's around, he's hard to block and he's around. Opportunities are there. So for him, it was more about focusing on the finish and I think he's done a good job of getting that done this year."
The Commanders boast a defensive line that has been one of the best in the league this season, but there is a strong argument that Payne has been the best piece of it.
So, show Payne some love and send him to his first career Pro Bowl.