Since the Redskins moved to a 3-4 defense in 2010, they have not had a true nose tackle anchoring their defense...until last season, when the Redskins signed free agent Terrance Knighton. The 2009 third round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Knighton went on to play in 15 games for the Redskins, getting in on 29 tackles, and recording 1.5 sacks on the season. These numbers were the second lowest total of his career since his third year in the league, when he played in just 13 games, totaled 29 tackles and zero sacks. Still, the Redskins fanbase had what they had been asking for since 2010 - a true nose tackle.
So how much impact did this true nose tackle, who was considered one of the best in the game at his respective position, really have on the Redskins defense?
According to SportingCharts.com, Knighton played 371 of the 1058 total defensive snaps for the Redskins in 2015. This means he was on the field for 35% of the team's defensive plays. To put this into perspective, below you will see a list of other Nose Tackles from around the league, and the percentage of their teams defensive snaps that they played.
Ian Williams(16 games) SF - 57.9%
Damon Harrison(16 games) NYJ - 53.9%
Vince Wolfork(16 games) HOU - 53.8%
Eddie Goldman(15 games) CHI - 50.0%
Sylvester Williams(15 games) DEN - 48.8%
Danny Shelton(16 games) CLE - 48.4%
Steve McLendon(16 games) PIT - 34.1%
Paul Soliai(14 games) ATL - 34.0%
Al Woods(14 games) TEN - 33.7%
Of these players who tallied at least 14 games played during the season at NT, Knighton was 4th to the last of his team's snaps played from his position. Only 3 players who are considered true 3-4 defensive NT's totaled more than 50% of their teams defensive snaps.
Now, let's take a look at some of the NFL's more diverse defensive linemen - these are players who are not considered 2-down run stuffers. These are some guys who may be capable of occupying the 1-technique on run downs, but can also jump out to the 3 or 5 technique and push the pocket on passing downs - to put it this way, these are guys who can stay on the field all three downs, and not be a liability for their team on obvious passing downs. The following players all played in at least 14 games, and stayed on the field for more than 50% of their teams defensive snaps.
Ndamukong Suh(16 games) MIA - 85.4%
Fletcher Cox(16 games) PHI - 80.8%
Jurrell Casey(16 games) TEN - 78.0%
Gerald McCoy(15 games) TB - 73.0%
Geno Atkins(16 games) CIN - 72.4%
Dontari Poe(16 games) KC - 69.7%
Marcell Dareus(15 games) BUF - 69.6%
Brandon Williams(16 games) BAL - 68.2%
Mike Daniels(16 games) GB - 67.3%
Chris Baker(16 games) WAS - 58.4%
Haloti Ngata(14 games) DET - 57.1%
So what does this tell us about the Redskins?
First, we can see a schematic difference in Joe Barry's attacking, one-gap 3-4 defense. The Redskins chose to use defensive tackle Chris Baker at the 1, 3 and 5 technique, and he was on the field in over 58% of the teams defensive snaps. There were times in games where Baker was at the 1-technique on second down, and the opposing team passed. The next play(on third down), they kicked him outside to a 3 or 5 technique, and let him rush the passer. Baker's scheme diversity, and 3-down ability helped him to rack up 53 combined tackles, 6 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 1 pass defended. The 325 pound mountain was effective from every technique the Redskins used him in.
Second, the NFL is a pass-heavy league. The Detroit Lions were the most pass-happy team in the NFL last season, throwing 65.63% of the time. There was just one team in the league, the Buffalo Bills, who passed less than half of the time, and their average was 49.90%. The other 31 teams were above 50% passing, with a league average of just under 60%. Of the three teams in the Redskins division, only the Cowboys fell below the league average, passing the ball 57.94% of the time. That number will certainly rise with Tony Romo back under center.
In 2013, teams were in a nickle package(five defensive backs on the field) on 45% of the defensive snaps. In 2015 that number rose to 47%. With the trend towards the pass, and the de-emphasis on the ground-and-pound game, it wouldn't be shocking to see these numbers rise to over 50% by 2018. The Redskins used their base 3-4 package(three interior defensive linemen)less than a third of their defensive snaps in 2015. So, it the nickle becoming the new base defense in the NFL?
Finally, head coach Jay Gruden said in his interview at the owners meetings in mid March, that Defensive Coordinator Joe Barry plans on further de-emphasizing the NT position this season. Gruden added, "we are kind of moving away from that, but there are times in a game where you do need to have a stout big fella, especially in short yardage, teams are running the ball to save the game and four-minute drill and all that stuff." As a result, the defense could lean on veterans Chris Baker and Kedric Golston to play the 1-technique in those limited situations where the Redskins are in a true 3-man front, or look to the draft for a more versatile defensive linemen who can play multiple positions on the inside, without having to be subbed out on passing downs.
Here are some players in the 2016 NFL draft who would fit what the Redskins are looking to do along the defensive line:
Robert Nkemdiche 6'3" 295 Ole Miss - Projected Round: 1
A'Shawn Robinson 6'4" 307 Alabama - Projected Round: 1
Jarran Reed 6'3" 307 Alabama - Projected Round: 1
Andrew Billings 6'1" 311 Baylor - Projected Round: 1
Kenny Clark 6'3" 314 UCLA - Projected Round: 1-2
Austin Johnson 6'4" 314 PSU - Projected Round: 1-2
Vernon Butler 6'4" 323 LA Tech - Projected Round: 1-2
Adolphis Washington 6'3" 301 Ohio St. - Projected Round: 2
Maliek Collins 6'2" 311 Nebraska - Projected Round: 2-3
Hassan Ridgeway 6'3" 303 Texas - Projected Round: 2-3
Javon Hargrave 6'1" 309 South Car. St. - Projected Round: 3
In conclusion, do the Redskins really need a true nose tackle, or are they better off using a player who can occupy a few different positions along the defensive line, while not being a liability on obvious passing downs?