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Training camp preview | Defensive line

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The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.

The countdown to training camp has officially begun.

We are one week away from the Washington Commanders' first training camp under their new identity, giving the chance for dozens of players to make their case to be on the 53-man roster. And given Ron Rivera’s belief that the team is primed to take a step forward, there will be high expectations on the third year of his tenure.

Commanders.com will be breaking down each position and how they've changed in the past year. Here are the positions we've looked at so far:

Next up are the defensive linemen. After setting a high standard back in 2020, their first year together, the quartet of first-round picks did not put up many of the numbers fans expected. The team finished the season around the middle of the league in sacks, which was a far cry from the sixth-best 47 they amassed in the previous year.

Like most of the defensive position groups, there is confidence that things will be improved in 2022. Most of the starters will be ready for the season opener, highlighted by Jonathan Allen, who earned his first career Pro Bowl for recording nine sacks.

The biggest question of the position regards Chase Young, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 10. Young would certainly love to be ready for Week 1, but he isn't putting a hard date on his return. Young has been positive about recovery, though, and believes he is making progress.

The simple answer is that Young will be back when he is ready. That is frustrating, but the Commanders will need him at full strength whenever he returns.

Washington's interior depth will look different than in years past. Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle are now playing for different teams, leaving an opportunity for others to take their place. Phidarian Mathis, a second-round pick, is one of the top contenders for that. Mathis was an exceptional run defender at Alabama, although he does have some prowess as a pass-rusher.

At defensive end, the depth is more familiar. Casey Toohill and James Smith-Williams, both of whom saw extra snaps last season because of injury, will be among the primary backups at defensive end. They will be joined by veteran Efe Obada, who has 11 sacks in his four-year career.

Washington kept a total of nine defensive linemen on the initial 53-man roster. Depending on what they want to do with Young, there could be at least two spots open for players like Shaka Toney, Daniel Wise, David Bada, Tyler Clark and others to compete for.

ROSTER SUBTRACTIONS

  • Matt Ioannidis
  • Tim Settle

KEY ADDITIONS

  • Efe Obada
  • Phidarian Mathis

The Washington Commanders busted out the new uniforms for Media Day earlier this month. Check out the top shots of the players wearing the new Burgundy & Gold. (Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)

Key storylines

-- Mathis' impact as the third defensive tackle: As mentioned above, Mathis was one of the Crimson Tide's anchors against the run. He used his 312-pound frame to clog up running lanes, which led to him earning second team All-SEC honors.

One trait that Rivera likes the most about his new defensive tackle: he's unselfish.

"One thing he did very well was he held the point of attack. He absorbed the double teams, allowed the linebackers to run. He allowed them to run and be productive."

Washington had one of the better run defenses in 2021, but with Ioannidis and Settle gone, they'll need to find that production elsewhere. Mathis has the talent, but it will be up to him to determine how much impact he has as a rookie.

-- Who will be the fourth defensive tackle? It's a foregone conclusion that Allen, Daron Payne and Mathis are locks on the roster. That leaves one spot left at defensive tackle, assuming the numbers on the initial roster will be the same.

Bada, who joined the Commanders by way of the International Pathway Program, could be an option. Bada made several plays during last year's training camp but ultimately didn't make the cut. He remained with the roster through the IPP, though.

Bada is just one of several players who will be competing for the role of No. 4 defensive tackle. So, as good as he was last year, he'll need to prove himself again among the pool of other depth candidates.

-- Who will emerge as the backup defensive ends? The battle for backup defensive end is an interesting one, because all the options have a case.

Smith-Williams seems like a lock. He took a jump last season and performed well as the No. 3 defensive end on the depth chart. He started six games with 30 tackles to go along with 2.5 sacks and five quarterback hits.

The other spot is up for debate. On one hand, Toohill also started in six games last season and grabbed 27 tackles and a sack. He's been with the team since 2020 and has garnered respect from his coaches and teammates.

However, Obada has a more extensive resume, and it seems like he is coming into his own heading into his fifth season. While he only has two starts in four seasons, he has nine sacks to go with 30 tackles and 23 quarterback hits over the last two seasons.

Of course, it's possible the Commanders keep more defensive ends on the roster in 2022. All the defensive ends on the roster will have about a month to make their case.

What to watch

-- Can the front bounce back?It's a general question that will take time to answer, but it's one of the biggest concerns this upcoming season. The talent is certainly there, even with the departures in free agency. And once Young returns, the group will look the closest it's been to full strength in almost a year.

It comes down to execution, though, and there wasn't enough of that in 2021. If the defensive line can get closer to that 2020 form, it would provide a tremendous to the defense. We'll have to wait and see how much merit is behind all that confidence.

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