Welcome back for year 29 of the Eyes of the Guru column. Last summer, I started a new tradition with the EOTG, posting team-by-team rather than a division at a time. The goal here is to give our customers a more steady diet of information in smaller doses.
These teams have been covered so far:
Arizona | Atlanta | Baltimore | Buffalo | Carolina | Chicago | Cincinnati | Cleveland | Dallas | Denver | Detroit | Green Bay | Houston | Indianapolis | Jacksonville | Kansas City | Las Vegas | LA Chargers | LA Rams | Miami | Minnesota | New England | New Orleans | NY Giants | NY Jets | Pittsburgh | San Francisco | Seattle | Tampa Bay | Tennessee | Washington
There is another step in the evolution of the column this year as well. I have talked about the need for positional realignment among edge defenders and interior defensive linemen for several years now, and the True Position format has finally arrived. Not every league host site has come to see the light, but many have. The rest are eventually sure to follow.
Going forward, I will be treating and labeling all edge defenders as defensive ends. This will include 4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers, and anyone else in the new hybrid schemes of today's NFL that makes a living by chasing quarterbacks off the edge. Likewise, the defensive tackle position will include all interior defensive linemen in 4-3 schemes and all down linemen in 3-4 alignments. As a result of this approach, we have eliminated the constant arguments and flip-flopping of positions among these players.
For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are generally not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
The turnaround of the Commanders' pass defense was impressive in 2022. After allowing a league-worst 34 passing touchdowns the previous season, Washington cut that total down to 26. They lept from 25th in completion percentage to second, joining the Bengals as the only teams giving up less than 60%. They went from allowing the fourth most yards through the air to the fourth fewest. The Commanders even improved their pass rush from 38 sacks to 43. Indeed, the only thing this unit did not do well against the pass was to take the ball away. Their total of nine interceptions was the fifth fewest. All of that is impressive, but the real magic trick is how they managed it with some major injuries and a roster that seemed to have a lot of holes.
The run defense went the other direction, though the turn was far less sharp. Top-shelf marks in 2021 slipped to eleventh in rushing yards and middle of the pack in yards per carry, but the unit remained stingy at the goal line, allowing ten scores on the ground.
The organization entered the off-season with a tight salary cap, so it is no surprise they were quiet in free agency. The biggest signing on defense was linebacker Cody Barton who should be the starter in the middle but is not an upgrade.
When it came time to draft, Washington must have looked at their roster and realized that they needed more talent in the secondary if they are going to sustain last year's success against the pass. So they used the 16th pick on corner Emmanuel Forbes and their second-rounder on safety Jartavius Martin. Even with the infusion of young talent, it will take a masterful job of coaching to repeat.
One thing that never hurts is having a great tandem of defensive tackles. Washington has, arguably, the best duo in the game. Not only do Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen do a great job of anchoring the run defense, they had 18 sacks between them in 2022.
In the Commanders penetrating 4-3, they don't exactly have a nose tackle. At least not one that lines up over or on the shoulder of the center like most teams in either base defense do. Both Allen and Payne are powerful yet freakishly athletic for guys of 300 and 320 pounds, respectively. Offensive lines are kept guessing because the two stud tackles are used nearly interchangeably. It's hard to execute double teams if you don't know which player to double, and you can't double them both, so pick your poison.
In this case, the dilemma of offensive linemen shows up in the box scores. Allen is a perennial IDP stud at the tackle position and a quality starter, even in leagues that lump the position together. Since taking over the starting job in 2018. He has at least 31 solo tackles and 51 combined in five consecutive seasons. The year he posted the 31 solos (2021), Allen also put up a career-best of 31 assists. He has at least six sacks in four of his five seasons, including last year when Allen's 10.2 points per game ranked third among tackles and eighth overall at defensive line. The point here is his exceptional consistency. In five seasons, Allen has four top-ten finishes at the tackle position, two top-fives, and has never been lower than fifteen. He is not a candidate to be the first lineman or even the first tackle off the board, but Allen is as close to a sure thing DT1 or priority DL2 as it gets in this game.
It used to be rather uncommon for a 300+ pound interior lineman to reach double-digit sacks. In 2022, there were four of them, including Payne. Both Payne and Allen became starters in 2018. Over his five seasons, Payne has kept pace in the tackles columns, with at least 54 combined stops every year. Two differences point to Allen as the better IDP target. More of Payne's tackles tend to be in the assist column, and Allen usually lands more sacks.
Payne got to the quarterback for eleven and a half sacks in 2022. That will have a lot of IDP managers over-drafting him. One great season does not make an IDP star. Payne had fourteen career sacks over four seasons going into last year. The five he recorded as a rookie was previously his personal best. Those that draft him should be pleased if they get six or seven in 2023. Even with his normal sack production, Payne is a priority DT2 or a dependable DL3.
The Commanders used a second-round pick on Alabama's Phidarian Mathis in 2022. He was expected to take on a big role as the third man on the inside. That plan ended with a week-one knee injury that shut him down for the year. At last word, Mathis was recovering well from surgery and expected to be ready for the start of the season, if not for the start of camp.
Once the injury is behind him, Mathis should fit the mold perfectly. He is big and powerful yet quick and athletic, just like the players he will spell. With Allen signed through the 2025 season and Payne through 2026, it looks like Mathis will be stuck in the rotational role for a while. On the other hand, if either of the starters misses time, keep in mind that Mathis totaled 53 combined tackles, 9 sacks, and 3 turnovers as a senior at Alabama in 2021.
The Commanders have it going on at the tackle positions, now if only they can get some return on investment at defensive end. Montez Sweat has been pretty good. The 2019 first-round pick has at least seven sacks in three of his four seasons as a pro. He had five in 2021, with four over the first seven games before a week eight injury caused him to miss eight of the last ten contests.
If nothing else, Sweat has been consistent. Except for 2021, he has between 45 and 50 combined tackles and 7-9 sacks every season. Those numbers make him a marginal second starter or quality depth in most leagues. There seems to be little upside, though.
The time has come for Chase Young to either put up or move on. The Commanders sent that message loud and clear when they opted not to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, making Young a free agent at the end of the season. Let me apologize in advance to all those Chase Young fans out there who have spent the last two-plus years trying to convince themselves that he will be a great player once the injury is behind him.
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.
In his second season, it 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 28-20-3 with 4 turnovers when he was injured halfway through the 2021 season. Through eight games, A completely healthy Young was the 34th-ranked defensive lineman. I believe that had more to do with the team's decision not to pick up his option than the injury situation. It feels like they are not sold on him, either.
Young has a lot of upside, especially with the extra motivation of playing in a contract year and the bonus of being surrounded by a talented group of linemen, but I can't justify the investment at his current ADP until he shows us something.
With Young missing nearly all of last season while recovering from the injury, Efe Obada and James Smith-Williams did a good job of filling in. Between them, they were 26-21-7 on the year. The experience gained is a plus for the team, and the organization seems comfortable with them as backups.
Washington added a defensive end in the fourth round. Clemson's KJ Henry put up solid if unspectacular numbers at Clemson; he had 13 career sacks and was 26-25-3.5 as a senior. Henry will need to add some muscle and improve as a point-of-attack defender, but he has the skill set to be an eventual starter and a productive IDP target.
- DE Chase Young – Low floor, high ceiling with a value probably somewhere in between
- DE Montez Sweat – Quality DL3 with marginal upside
- DE James Smith-Williams – No IDP impact
- DE Efe Obada – No IDP impact
- DE KJ Henry – Dynasty watchlist
- DT Jonathan Allen – Stud DT1 with top-five upside, or priority DL2
- DT Daron Payne – Solid DT1 or priority DL3
- DT Phidarian Mathis – Injury sleeper
- DT John Ridgeway – No impact
- DT Abdullah Anderson – No impact
When the Commanders drafted Jamin Davis in round one three years ago, it was widely anticipated that he would be the team's middle linebacker for years to come. Going into year three of his career, he hasn't played in the middle very much, but at least Davis is a starter.
After working as a two-down outside backer in his rookie season, Davis was supposed to move to the middle in year two. Instead, the coaching staff left him on the weak side and shifted Cole Holcomb to the middle. There was another opportunity to make Davis the middle backer when Holcomb was injured ahead of week eight. The situation didn't end with Davis moving inside, but it did make him an every-down backer as he took over all the sub-package duties.
With Holcomb in Pittsburgh, the door was once again open for Davis. With the signing of Cody Barton, however, it becomes apparent that the coaching staff prefers Davis on the weak side and has no plan to move him, possibly ever.
One thing that hurts the potential IDP value of Davis is a somewhat stingy stat crew in Washington. Only the Bengals and Steelers were credited with fewer solo tackles last year, while seven teams totaled fewer assists. Another issue is his light numbers in the big play columns, where he has four sacks and two turnovers in two seasons.
To his credit, after taking over the sub-package role last year, Davis reached double-digit points in six of eight games, coming in short of eight points once. With a three-down role right out of the gate, 80-85 solo tackles and 45-50 assists are reasonable expectations. Those numbers alone would make him a low-end LB3. If he can pick it up a little in the big-play department, Davis could slip into the LB2 conversation.
There are two things to keep in mind when thinking about drafting Cody Barton. Washington does not play two linebackers in the majority of their sub-packages, and Barton lacks the coverage skills to be the one that does stay on the field. This is not to say he has no IDP value. Just make sure you know what you are getting.
At 86-50-2 with a couple of picks and seven passes defended, Barton had a strong 2022 that included a top-20 ranking. To start the season, the Seahawks plugged him in as a three-down guy next to Jordyn Brooks. Barton played at least 94% of the snaps in each of the first three outings and was box-score-friendly in those games.
Once the coaching staff realized the error of their ways. His role was reduced significantly. Barton didn't see 80% participation in another game until week ten. Seattle tried several other options and combinations before realizing they had no one better, so he was back to an 80-plus percent play share starting in week thirteen, thus the good overall numbers.
Meanwhile, as the Commanders' second linebacker, Davis played more than 80% in one of the seven games before Holcomb was lost to injury, including four games at less than 65% participation. Barton may have some value, but unless Davis is injured, he'll all but certainly have to do it on no more than 70% of the plays.
David Mayo projects as the team's starting strong-side linebacker and the top backup at the other two positions. That is not going to get him on the field much. Starting in week eight last year, Washington played three safeties on at least 70% of the snaps. That number jumped to virtually 100% in weeks ten through fifteen.
- MLB Cody Barton – Depth with a little injury upside
- WLB Jamin Davis – Solid LB3
- SLB David Mayo – No impact
- WLB Khaleke Hudson – No impact
- MLB Milo Eifler – No impact
- SLB Casey Toohill – No impact
Washington featured a nickel base defense for the entire 2022 season. Early on, it was three corners, but when William Jackson III was lost, the defense became centered around a big nickel. Jackson is gone, as is Bobby McCain, who played the most snaps among the team's safeties. With the Commanders drafting a corner and safety in the first two rounds, it's hard to say who the fifth defensive back will be in 2023. The first four should be Kendall Fuller and rookie Emmanuel Forbes at corner, with Kamren Curl at strong safety and Darrick Forrest playing free.
Fuller is a solid and dependable veteran cover man. He has been a starter nearly his entire seven-year career and has two seasons with 64 solo tackles. The problem is, consistency is not in his makeup. In the other five years, Fuller was short of 45 solo stops. Even his big play production is hit or miss. He has at least three takeaways in four seasons. In the other three, Fuller combined for two.
If you are looking for corner help from this team, take a shot with Forbes. He is long, thin, and not particularly physical, but is a ball hawk. Over three seasons at Mississippi State, Forbes put up marginal tackle totals but had fourteen interceptions and six touchdowns. If he starts as projected, offenses will target him in coverage, and with his diminutive size of 180 pounds, he will be a target in the running game as well. Forbes may not have a choice but to make a lot of tackles.
Kamren Curl is the best IDP target of this group, or at least the most safe. He is not big at 198 pounds, and with four turnovers and four sacks over three years, Curl is not much of a big play threat, but he loves to hit and makes a lot of tackles. He was 58-25-1 in twelve games last year. Project that production over a full season, and Curl is third among the league's defensive backs with 82 tackles and 37 assists.
Darrick Forrest was a great find at free safety. The 2021 fifth-round pick did nothing as a rookie but turned heads in weeks one and two last year when Curl was not available. Forrest dropped to about 50% of the playing time for a few weeks, but the coaching staff couldn't keep him off the field. Forrest was back in the lineup for every defensive snap from week ten on and made his presence felt. With four or more solo stops in just four games all year, low tackle totals limited his production and consistency, but he finished the year with seven turnovers, nine passes defended, and a rank of 25th among defensive backs. If you are willing to gamble on the big play strikes, Forrest could be your huckleberry.
That leaves second-year corner Benjamin St-Juste and second-round safety Jatavius Martin to compete for the nickel role. St-Juste opened last season with that job. He played so well as the starting corner after Jackson was lost that we might see him retain the starting job on the outside for a while. At six foot three and 200 pounds, St-Juste has the size and skill set to work over the slot and is physical enough to make a steady contribution in run support.
Martin is a little smaller but brings versatility to the table. He is blazing fast and explosive, with cover skills to hang with receivers down the field. He could move right in as the slot defender or the coaching staff could elect to have him replace McCain as the deep safety, allowing Forrest to move around and capitalize on his big play ability. The latter would be great in terms of Forrest's IDp value.
There is going to be some production from this group. Curl is the safe target but has a lower ceiling, Forrest has the greatest upside, and Forbes stands to be picked on often. All of these guys could post useful numbers.
- SS Kamren Curl – Dependable DB3
- FS Darrick Forrest – Middle of the pack tackle numbers but lots of big play ability
- FS Jartavius Martin – Longshot to make an impact, especially if he ends up at free safety
- FS Percy Butler – No impact
- SS Jeremy Reaves – No impact
- CB Kendall Fuller – Marginal value
- CB Emmanuel Forbes – Rookie corner watch list
- CB Benjamin St-Juste – Keep an eye on him until we can determine his role
- CB Danny Johnson – Injury sleeper at best
- CB Rachad Wildgoose – No impact
- CB Christian Holmes – No impact
This year's EOTG started with the Super Bowl Champions. It will end with the league runner-up, the Eagles.
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