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Position Breakdown: Higher Expectations For The Defensive Line

Chase Young and Jonathan Allen get in their stand before the offense runs a play during minicamp. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)
Chase Young and Jonathan Allen get in their stand before the offense runs a play during minicamp. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)

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

We are weeks away from training camp, and there are plenty of new faces gracing the Washington Football Team's roster. So is breaking down each position as the team prepares for Year 2 of Ron Rivera’s regime.

After starting with the running backs, next up is the defensive line. By now, everyone should know that the quartet of first-round picks was one of the best groups in 2020. Chase Young won Defensive Rookie of the Year for his dominant performance, which included 7.5 sacks and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown. Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat helped fuel one of the best pass-rushing defenses in the league with 14 combined sacks.

But the backups, who Rivera has said could be starters for other teams, pulled their weight as well. Tim Settle was one of the best examples of that with a career-high 5.0 sacks. Even seventh-round pick James Smith-Williams contributed with .5 sacks and 10 tackles.

The question isn't if the group can be good in 2021; it's a matter of how much better it can become. All the additions Washington has made point to an even higher ceiling for likely the most talented position on the team.


  • DE Ryan Kerrigan


Key Storylines

-- Chase Young's encore performance: There wasn't much else Young could accomplish during his rookie season. Lead all rookies with 7.5 sacks? Check. Score his first touchdown? Check. Become the first Defensive Rookie of the Year from the NFC East since Lawrence Taylor? Check plus.

So what exactly is on Young's checklist for Year 2? Mills has a simple answer: growth in all the areas that he does to help Washington win, whether it's rushing the passer, making stops or creating turnovers. Mills called his on-field performance "solid" last year, but there are things that can take advantage of to build on that foundation. That doesn't even mention his leadership, which became a pleasant surprise for his coaches and teammates.

Young agrees, telling reporters that it's "back to the drawing board." He wants to come into the season 100% healthy, which will help him play smarter and faster. Having that confidence in his mind and body, he said, allows him to do whatever he wants on the field.

"You just feel automatically more comfortable," Young said of the transition from Year 1 to Year 2. "I feel real fast out there. I did different types of training this year, and I can see how it's helping."

-- The return of Matt Ioannidis: Allen didn't mince words when asked about Ioannidis: the defense missed him. And it should, because he was Washington's best pass rusher in 2019 with 8.5 sacks. He might not be a starter, but having back, even as a backup, helps the group "tremendously," Mills said, because of his experience and leadership. Allen also called him a core piece of the group, and he spoke for everyone by saying he's excited to have Ioannidis back.

"We love playing with him," Allen said. "He's a great guy to have on the field [and] off the field. We were definitely missing a part of us last year. To have him back is really exciting for us."

-- Playing without Ryan Kerrigan: Washington will be without Kerrigan on the roster for the first time in a decade. The defensive end made his mark on the franchise while he was here by becoming the all-time official sack leader and collecting four Pro Bowl votes. Allen put it best when he said it was unfair to expect anyone, even Young and Sweat, to replace someone like Kerrigan, but the consensus feeling is that the unit will be fine. There's still plenty of talent on the defensive front, most of which Kerrigan helped mentor, so while the pass rush won't look the same without him, it will be just as potent.

"I expect all our guys to pick it up and carry the torch," said defensive line coach Sam Mills III. "I'm looking forward to watching the growth."

What To Watch

-- The development of Bradley-King and Toney: With Kerrigan moving on to the Eagles, Washington needs depth at defensive end in the form of players who can be threats against the run and the pass. Enter Bradley-King and Toney.

Bradley-King and Toney's acumen as pass-rushers have already been established; they have 40 combined sacks between them, and Toney is eighth all-time in Penn State history. But Bradley-King excelled at getting tackles for a loss, recording 25.5 at Baylor and Arkansas State, while Toney had 29.5.

They won't be starters with Young and Sweat on the team, but if they can manage to put up solid numbers, they would create more depth on the edges.