Washington Is Ready To Take Over as NFL's Top Defense In 2021

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJune 22, 2021

Washington Football Team defensive end Chase Young (99) talks with defensive tackle Jonathan Allen (93) during an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Jennifer Stewart)
Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

The Washington Football Team features a dominant defense in an offensive-driven league, and the unit will only get better this fall. 

Last season, the organization worked its way into becoming the league's second-best defense.

The top spot is available for the taking thanks to multiple offseason moves, natural progression found within the group and a year of continuity under defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, while other top units around the league should regress by varying levels. 

Washington finished 7-9 in 2020 and captured an NFC East crown, albeit in the NFL's weakest division. The team still hasn't figured out the quarterback position. Still, Ron Rivera's squad can maintain its status while showing improvement as it trends toward No. 1 on the defensive side of the ball. 

Technically, Washington finished fourth in scoring defense (20.6 points per game), 13th in rushing defense (112.8 yards per game), second in pass defense (191.8 yards per game) and second in overall defense (304.6 yards per game). 

Plenty of room for improvement exists, and it's likely major steps will be taken in the team's second year under Rivera and Del Rio. 

For Washington, everything starts along a defensive line that features four former first-round selections.

Chase Young is at the forefront based on what the organization hopes to accomplish. Last year's second overall draft pick has the skill set to be counted among the league's elite defensive linemen. 

As a rookie, Young led everyone in his class with 7.5 sacks. The reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year also led the group in overall grade and total pressures (41), per Pro Football Focus. From a broader perspective, Young graded better than any other defender in the red zone and finished his first season as a top-10 edge-rusher. 

Amazingly, the 22-year-old was never fully healthy. Young dealt with hip, groin and ankle issues throughout the campaign. He missed only one regular-season contest, though. Now, he's much healthier while attacking the offseason program. 

Young is a special athlete with the potential to enter the same conversation as the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh Steelers' T.J. Watt, Cleveland Browns' Myles Garrett and Chicago Bears' Khalil Mack. 

"I've blocked a lot of different guys across the league—guys like Khalil Mack … and just being in the league a long time, I saw different players," Washington left tackle Charles Leno Jr. told reporters. "The one thing that (Young) has is just the way he reacts. He's just playing football. He's not going out there with a plan, and if the plan doesn't work, he's thinking about it. No, he's just playing ball." 

Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press

Young will get better—as scary as that is for opposing offensesand he's surrounded by so much talent. His bookend, Montez Sweat, managed nine sacks last season. The 24-year-old has 16 through his first two campaigns. Daron Payne is an absolute load along the defensive interior. The 320-pound defensive tackle finished first among interior defenders last season with 33 run stops, per PFF. Teammate Jonathan Allen ranked second. 

Overall, Allen played as well or better than the previously mentioned Washington defenders. The 2017 17th overall pick is special because he's an every-down interior defender. As noted earlier, he stops the run. He finished second among defensive lineman with 63 total tackles. Plus, he collapses the pocket as a pass-rusher. 

"I get paid to stuff the run and rush the passer, and regardless of what scheme I'm in, I'm going to be able to do that at a high level, and I'm confident in my other defensive tackles' and my defensive ends' ability to do that," Allen said

Washington's second line of defense may see the biggest change this fall depending on Jamin Davis' transition to the professional ranks. 

The team could have made a strong push to trade up for quarterback Justin Fields. Instead, the Bears did. Washington, meanwhile, stood pat with the 19th overall pick and drafted a linebacker. Davis posted a 4.47-second 40-yard-dash at Kentucky's pro day. To understand just how athletic the 6'3", 234-pound defender is, the 22-year-old posted the 15th-best relative athletic score among 2,155 linebackers tested from 1987 until now, per Pro Football Network's Kent Lee Platte

Veterans Jon Bostic and Cole Holcomb return, but Davis adds a completely different dynamic to the unit. Rivera explained, per the Washington Post's Nick Jhabvala:

“You have to have linebackers who can run. We were in Carolina, we had Luke [Kuechly] and we had Thomas Davis. What we lacked was that third guy that could run, just flat out run, because if something were to happen to Luke or Thomas, we’d be deficient at that position. The speed takes a guy from being a solid player to being an impact player, in my opinion. When we were in Carolina, we did that one year and, lo and behold, that guy [Shaq Thompson], his rookie year he becomes part of our crew and we got better.

“At that position, we were looking for a high-impact guy, and that’s who Jamin was as far as we were concerned.”

Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

Heavy expectations have been heaped on Davis—and not just by fans. The coaching staff already threw the rookie into the deep end. 

"He's calling the huddles right now, he's setting the front for us, he's helping the checks," Rivera said. "He's learning that part. Every practice seems to be an improvement for him as far as that part of it."

Davis brings serious Rookie of the Year potential as a critical component to what could turn out to be the top-ranked defense. 

Along the backline, Washington experienced some turnover. Cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Fabian Moreau signed elsewhere as free agents. The team could have potentially upgraded with the signing of William Jackson III to replace Darby at outside corner. Jimmy Moreland primarily held down slot duties, while rookie safety Kamren Curl excelled in a versatile role. Curl should continue to grow in his second year. Kendall Fuller may even bump inside more often as long as third-round rookie Benjamin St-Juste continues to impress into training camp and the regular season. 

"He's got exceptional quickness," Del Rio said of St-Juste. "He had a 6.6 3-cone [drill], which is unheard of. And so for a guy [who is] 6'3" to do that shows you the short-area quickness."

Furthermore, safety and defensive leader Landon Collins should be back after missing 10 games, including the postseason, with a torn Achilles tendon. 

On top of everything, a full offseason under Del Rio's supervision should help greatly. The fact the team had a brand new coaching staff and scheme shouldn't be overlooked. Washington's defense is just now getting the necessary reps to fully understand the system, and the coaching staff remains intact to properly teach techniques and philosophies. 

Other teams don't necessarily have the same luxury. 

Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Rams, who finished as the No. 1 defense last season, still have reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Donald and an All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but defensive coordinator Brandon Staley is now the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers and defensive backs John Johnson III and Troy Hill signed with the Browns as free agents. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers endured similar attrition with outside linebacker Bud Dupree, nickel corner Mike Hilton and cornerback Steven Nelson no longer on the roster. 

The New Orleans Saints finally had to pay the piper after years of massaging the salary cap. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and cornerback Janoris Jenkins are gone. 

Maybe the San Francisco 49ers take a step forward this fall after taking a step back last season. A healthy Nick Bosa will definitely help in that regard

As of now, Washington has the best chance of becoming the very best on the defensive side of the ball. As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed in Super Bowl LV, defense still matters—which means Washington will be in the thick of things despite concerns elsewhere. 


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.


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