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In 2021 the Commanders’ defense was Jekyl and Hyde. When opponents ran, they were Jekyl, finishing eighth in yards allowed, tied for eighth in yards per carry, and 11th in points. When opponents threw, the beast was released. Washington gave up more passing touchdowns (34) than anyone. They were 25th in completion percentage, 29th in yards, and 26 in yards per attempt. When it comes to big plays, we can put their respectable 38 sacks in the Jekyl column while Hyde gets credit for the 24th rank in turnovers.
Washington did relatively little in terms of personnel on this side of the ball for a defense with its share of issues. The most significant free agent signing was Efe Obada who will compete for backup snaps at defensive end. The draft landed Phidarian Mathis, who should factor into the rotation at tackle, and Percy Butler, who will compete to be the third safety.
Their 39 sacks were a middle-of-the-pack number at face value, but it was fairly impressive considering that Washington was without both starting defensive ends for half of the season. Chase Young and Montez Sweat give the Commanders an excellent set of bookends on the edge when healthy. The organization made a major commitment to the position, making Sweat their first-round pick in 2019, followed by Young who was taken the second overall in 2020. This young and talented duo is expected to be the cornerstones of the Commanders’ defense for the next several years, but 2021 was like a tall speed bump they hope to put behind them quickly.
Sweat should feel no lingering effect of the broken jaw that sidelined him last year. At least no effect that will hinder him on the football field. We have a good sample of work that tells us what to expect from Sweat heading into his fourth season. As a rookie, Sweat finished with 50 total tackles, 7 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a pair of batted passes, making him the 27th-ranked defensive lineman. As is often the case with young edge defenders, Sweat showed improvement in year two, finishing 30-19-10 with 3 takeaways, 6 batted passes, a score, and a final rank of eleven. He was on track for similar numbers last year before landing on IR.
Sweat may never challenge for a sack title, but he is a dependable three-down defensive end that sets the edge strongly versus the run and is effective as a pass rusher. Safe expectations for his 2022 season would be around 50 tackles and low double-digits in sacks, with a handful of turnovers and batted passes. He is no threat to make the top-five but should be in the area of a low Dl1 or priority second starter.
The prognosis is not so cut and dry with Young, who tore his ACL about halfway through last season. There have been no setbacks in his recovery, and Young is on schedule with his rehab. But there is no timetable for his return. Both Young and the organization hope he will be available for week one, but the injury happened late enough in the season that he is almost certain to feel some lingering effects early in the year, if not throughout the season.
The injury may not be the only concern with Young. His career got off to a scorching fast start with a phenomenal season that saw him win defensive rookie of the year honors and finish as a top-five lineman in IDP circles. Young validated his draft status and was everything the team could have hoped for.
His second season was almost as if the adrenalin had worn off. After going 32-14-7.5 with 4 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, 4 batted passes, and a score as a rookie, Young was on pace for similar tackles numbers but about half the big play production when he was injured. Through eight games, he was the 34th-ranked defensive lineman. The injury situation could make it tough to evaluate Young for the future. If he is not highly productive in 2022, which is a real possibility, it is because of the injury, or is he simply not the player we saw in 2020?
According to Pro Football Focus, Washington’s defensive line graded out at number one in 2020, which should happen when a team uses their first-round pick on defensive linemen four years in a row. That season the team boasted the fantasy game’s number four defensive lineman in Young and the number ten in Sweat. Da’Ron Payne was the fourth-ranked defensive tackle, and Jonathan Allen was fifth in what was actually a somewhat down year for him, at least in terms of sacks.
This unit took a bit of a step back in 2021. Even with the injuries on the outside, the group held up well with the interior line taking up much of the slack. Allen led the club with nine sacks, Payne was third with four and a half, and Matt Ioannidis kicked in a pair. It is hard to argue against this trio as the best interior rotation in the league in 2021.
The team began building this powerhouse line with the first-round selection of Jonathan Allen in 2017. At 6’3” and 300 pounds, Allen is exceptionally quick and athletic for his size. He is a rock against the run with the strength to beat double teams and make plays in traffic and is among the league’s best inside pass rushers.
Allen’s rookie campaign was cut short by injury after five games, but his talent has been on full display since 2018. Over the last four seasons, he has finished no lower than seventh among interior linemen with a career-best of second in 2019. Allen led the league in both solo and combined tackles by an interior lineman in 2020, but his sack total slid down to two. He bounced back nicely in 2021 with a strong 62 combined stops and a career-best of nine sacks. Allen is a step below the likes of Cam Heyward, Aaron Donald, and Deforest Buckner but is an elite-tier defensive tackle that transcends position to be a good DL2 in leagues that lump the positions together.
Payne was the team’s first-round pick in 2018. At 320 pounds, he is a surprisingly athletic big man with the size and strength to anchor the run defense from the 1-technique position. He is not exactly a nimble pass rusher, but can blow up the pocket with his bull rush and is quick enough to get off blocks and make plays. The five sacks Payne recorded as a rookie remain his personal best. He matched that number in 2020 and came close last year but we can not expect much more from him in that area.
What we can expect from Payne is a solid (for a tackle) 4-5 sacks and strong tackle totals. He has given us at least 51 combined tackles every year of his career, with last year’s total of 61 setting a new mark. We can also expect him to be a quality DT1. He ranked 17th among tackles in 2019 but no lower than nine in his other three seasons.
Matt Ioannidis moved on to Carolina in free agency, so the Commanders used a second-round pick to replace him with Alabama’s Phidarian Mathis. Mathis should fit the mold perfectly. He is big and powerful enough to spell Payne at nose tackle yet quick and athletic enough to be successful in the 3-technique when Allan needs a breather. His strength is against the run and some scouts claim Mathis is likely to come off the field on passing downs. If numbers as a senior in 2021 send a different message. In his final season with the Crimson Tide, Mathis totaled 53 combined tackles, 9 sacks, and 3 turnovers.
The commanders rotate their three interior guys regularly. Ioannidis was on the field for 607 snaps or roughly 55% of the playing time last year. If Mathis picks up that share, he could have a little IDP value as a low DT2 or quality depth.
A solid three-man rotation on the inside means the Commanders could absorb at least one injury without seeing a big drop in play. Beyond that, they could have issues with interior depth. After Mathis, the roster is filled out by mostly undrafted first-year players and a journeyman veteran or two. Last year’s injuries at defensive end allow the organization to see what they have in reserve. They learned that 2020 seventh-round pick James Smith-Williams can be a solid backup, but they were thin beyond him. Their solution was to sign former Bills backup Efe Obada, who contributed nine sacks to the Buffalo cause over the last two seasons.
- DE Chase Young – Exceptional talent and high ceiling but may not be completely healthy this year
- DE Montez Sweat – Solid DL2 with low DL1 upside
- DE James Smith-Williams – Injury sleeper with limited upside
- DE Will Bradley-King – Still developing second-year player
- DE Shaka Toney – Still developing second-year player
- DT Jonathan Allen – Near elite DT1 or solid DL2
- DT DaRon Payne – Steady low-end DT1 or good depth in leagues that lump the positions together
- DT Phidarian Mathis – Rookie sleeper with some potential in tackle-required leagues
- DT Justin Hamilton – No impact
When the Commanders used a first-round pick on Jamin Davis last spring, it was widely anticipated that they would move on from Jon Bostic and install Davis at middle linebacker in 2022. The first part of that came to pass as the team parted ways with Bostic, but it looks like the second part of the story has been rewritten, at least for now. The new plan is for Cole Holcomb to man the middle, with Davis likely shifting to the weak side.
Holcomb played mostly on the weak side over his first two seasons, moving inside after Bostic was injured last year. As the season wore on, he became more and more comfortable with the responsibilities of the middle linebacker, including calling plays in the huddle. Head coach Ron Rivera also noted Holcomb’s development as a leader, confirming that it had a lot to do with the decision to keep him there for the foreseeable future.
On the field, Holcomb grew into the role. On the stat sheet, he excelled at it. He put up fairly good numbers over his first two seasons, but the move inside vaulted Holcomb from a part-time starting LB3 to an every-week must-play LB1 with an average of 13.5 points per game. There were no blank fields in his stat line last year. No box went unchecked at 83-59-1 with five turnovers, 7 pass breakups, and a defensive score. Holcomb was even highly consistent week-to-week, reaching double-digit points in twelve of the 16 games he played, with a season-worst performance of four tackles and an assist against the Buccaneers in week ten.
Possibly the best part when it comes to Holcomb is that his rise did not draw a lot of attention. He has quietly become the LB1 no one is paying attention to. That could change as we get into August and the heavy part of draft season, but in early drafts, he is often falling to the low LB2 range where he is an absolute steal.
It remains to be seen what this situation means for all of us dynasty managers that picked up Davis last year. In 2021 the Commanders ran a base nickel scheme with three safeties on the field most of the time, rarely keeping two linebackers on the field in sub packages. Based on personnel, that made a lot of sense at the time. They will, however, be without Landon Collins this year. Collins was that big-nickel safety that often worked at linebacker depth. Since there is no third safety on the current roster with that kind of skill set, there is at least a fair chance the role will fall to Davis who could excel at it.
Davis shot up last year’s draft boards with a combination of physical skills and production at Kentucky. Not many linebackers can boast a sub-4.5-second 40-yard dash at 234 pounds. Davis is a rare athlete with great range and a knack for getting to the ball. While at Kentucky, he showed great instincts and the potential to excel in coverage.
What Davis did not bring with him from college is experience, which is another factor in the team’s decision to move Holcomb inside. The ten games Davis started in his final season with the Wildcats represent virtually his entire college career.
From the perspective of talent, opportunity, and long-term potential, Davis has perennial stud written all over him. He might eventually end up in the middle, but if Holcomb plays well it could be a while. That said, there is no reason Davis can’t be highly productive from the WLB position if he can earn those all-important sub-package snaps.
One big plus for Davis is the team’s lack of depth at linebacker. It was a subject coach Rivera talked about in the same presser when he announced the move of Holcomb inside. Rivers stated in words that could not be mistaken, that the team needs more veteran linebackers on the depth chart. After Holcomb and Davis, David Mayo and Khaleke Hudson are the only two linebackers with NFL experience. Mayo should draw the strong side duties when the team fields three linebackers with Hudson serving as the next man up at all three positions.
- MLB Cole Holcomb – Low-end LB1 or priority LB2
- WLB Jamin Davis – Gambler’s late-round target with a low floor and low LB2 upside
- SLB David Mayo – Injury sleeper with LB3 ceiling regardless of the situation
- WLB Khaleke Hudson – No impact expected
- LB ??? – A host of inexperienced walk-on types battling for roster spots
The Washington pass defense is a perfect example of the old cliché that’s why they play the games. This was the league’s second stingiest secondary in 2020. They added what was arguably the best corner in last year’s free agent market, William Jackson III, and got Landon Collins back from injury but still managed to nose dive when the games started. On paper, the 2022 version is strong at the top but a little short on depth. Maybe they will perform this year the way we expected them to last season.
The biggest change here is the absence of Collins. His role as the third safety/nickel linebacker produced more than ten and a half points per game in 2021, making Collins the best IDP option of the group. Until we can get a look at this team in training camp and preseason action, there is no way to know if they will try to fill Collins’ role or switch up the defense to suit the current personnel.
We know that this secondary has traditionally provided good IDP value at both safety and corner. Kamren Curl made his first start as a rookie in 2020, taking over at strong safety for an injured Collins. From week nine through the end of that season, he was the fantasy game’s best defensive back and third-best defender overall, with an average of 15.5 points a game.
Curl was far less productive last season when he was a starting safety from the start, but there is an interesting asterisk that comes with that statement, which could also shed some light on the situation with Davis at linebacker. In 2020 the Commanders did not use much big nickel. It was Jon Bostic and Kevin Pierre-Lewis early in the season as three-down linebackers, and later in the year, Holcomb replaced Pierre-Lewis in the same role.
Curl saw a little action as a third safety early on but once he became the starter, he worked in a more traditional role as a box/strong safety. Granted, Rivera didn’t become the team’s head coach until after the 2020 season, but looking at what he and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio have to work with. There is a good chance we will see that approach again. The moral of this story is that Curl has a high ceiling and is a great target for those of us that like to wait and grab a handful of high-upside defensive backs in the last few rounds.
If nothing else, free safety Bobby McCain is consistent. Early in his career, he did nothing as a starting corner for the Dolphins. After a few years, he moved to safety, where he continued to do nothing for the Dolphins. Last season McCain moved to Washington, where he did nothing for the Commanders. Ok, that might be a little harsh in that McCain has been a solid starter for both of his NFL teams, but his IDP value has never been significant. To illustrate this fact, he was 47-16 last year with 4 interceptions and 9 passes defended, which was the best statistical production of his seven-year career.
Dating back to a long run by DeAngelo Hall back in the day and running through 2021 with Kendall Fuller, Washington has given us at least one quality target at corner in most years. Fuller has a pair of top-20 finishes at the position over his six seasons. The first was with Kansas City in 2018 when he was 64-18-0 with 3 turnovers and 11 pass breakups. The second came last year when he finished 64-14-1 with a pick and 16 passes defended to finish 15th. He is a quality veteran contributor and a dependable number two cover man on the field but like many corners, consistent box score numbers have been elusive on a year-to-year basis. I like his chances to repeat the CB2 value he had in 2021.
A corner’s fantasy value can often be affected but the quality of his team and/or the quality of the player at the corner position opposite him. The better his team is, the more opponents will throw because they are behind. The better the other corner is, the more an opponent will try to avoid him and target other pass defenders. While I am not counting on Washinton to be all that good, they do have one of the league’s most underrated corners in William Jackson III lining up opposite Fuller.
Jackson is underrated because he is not flashy. He’s not a guy that makes a lot of big plays, nor does he post great tackle totals, so no one pays much attention to him outside of opposing offenses. Opponents tend to work away from Jackson because he sticks like glue and keeps receivers from catching passes. Jackson offers nothing in terms of IDP value but having watched this guy for over four years as a starter for my hometown Bengals, I have a lot of respect for his game.
As with the other two levels of the defense, the Commanders are light on experienced depth in the secondary. Fourth-round pick Percy Butler should back up McCain at free safety with either Jeremy Reaves or Troy Apke working behind Curl. Apke has a few games of starting experience from the 2020 season when he was forced into action but struggled. Last year’s third-round pick, Benjamine St. Juste, will compete with Danny Johnson and possibly late-round rookie pick Christian Holmes for sub-package and backup duties at corner.
- SS Karmen Curl – Late-round target that could be surprisingly productive
- FS Bobby McCain – No impact
- FS Percy Butler – No immediate impact
- SS Jeremy Reaves – Possible injury sleeper
- SS Troy Apke – Possible injury sleeper
- CB Kendall Fuller – Solid CB2 with some risk factor
- CB William Jackson III – No impact
- CB Benjamine St-Juste – Deep/injury sleeper
- CB Danny Johnson – No impact
- CB Christian Holmes – No impact
That’s a wrap for the NFC. On to the AFC East
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