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Flipping the Switch - Will the 4-3 Lights Come on for the Redskins in 2020?

Redskins fans have been complaining for years that our defensive personnel doesn’t fit the scheme.

It started under Mike Shannahan when he brought in Jim Haslett to implement a true 2-gap 3-4 defense. The issue was, we had a former 4-3 All-American defensive end we were asking to pay in space as an outside linebacker, and no true nose-tackle to effectively occupy blockers and absorb double teams up front. We had some guys “capable” of 2-gapping as 5-techniques(Adam Carriker comes to mind), but that was not a strength based on personnel.

After Haslett and Jay Gruden “mutually” agreed to part ways after the 2014 season, Joe Barry was brought in to run the defense. He kept the 3-4, but went to a more aggressive 1-gap front. This allowed the defensive line to control just one gap, instead of engaging their opponent, finding the football, and shedding the block to try and make a play in their assigned gap. The issue was, we still didn’t have a true nose tackle to effectively run the scheme, nor did we have true 3-4 outside linebackers who could drop into space when asked.

Barry lasted just two years as defensive coordinator before Greg Manusky was promoted from outside linebacker coach in 2017. Manusky kept the aggressive 1-gapping 3-4 look, but it wasn’t until the 2018 draft that the Skins finally found a true nose tackle to anchor their front.

Despite the presence of Daron Payne in the middle, Manusky still had two former 4-3 defensive ends on the outside. As his tenure grew, he seemed to ask these converted defensive ends to drop into coverage more and more - much to the ire of the fan base.

As the 2019 season comes to an end, and it’s almost a certainty that Manusky will not be retained by ANY new coaching staff to run the defense, questions pop up about a possible switch back to a 4-3 look - with ideas of who could be put in charge of that unit.

It’s pretty fair to say that the defense will be getting a minor overhaul in 2020 - both via free agency and the draft. The only area the team is currently set at seems to be the defensive line - and in this I include our former 4-3 defensive ends.

Because of the versatility of our defensive linemen, we would be able to seamlessly flip to an even front base look. If we ran a 4-3 under, both Payne and Settle could rotate at the 1-technique, with Ioannidis and Allen getting 3-technique reps. In Nickle, all four interior linemen could play a multitude of spots, insuring a very solid rotation. I will even go so far as to say Jonathan Allen could line up as a 7-technique defense end in some base packages.

The Redskins have four EDGE players under contract for 2020. All but one was a former first or second round draft pick.

Ryan Kerrigan 6’4” 265

Montez Sweat 6’6” 265

Ryan Anderson 6’2” 255

Jordan Brailford 6’3” 252

Kerrigan and Sweat are natural 4-3 defensive ends who are best utilized as 7 or 9-techniques with their hands in the dirt. Anderson is a hybrid who probably plays best setting the edge against the run, but has shown some recent pass-rush ability playing in the absence of the injured Kerrigan. Brailford, who has spent the season on IR, is an athletic EDGE with room to grow in his 6’3” frame. He has long arms and has the speed to turn the corner.

The 2020 free agent class should be pretty loaded at EDGE come March. If the Redskins decided to move on from Ryan Kerrigan next season, there are a few very good options that could hit the open market.

Jadeveon Clowney(27)

Bud Dupree(27)

Dante Fowler Jr(26)

Shaquil Barrett(27)

Shaq Lawson(26)

Vic Beasley(28)

If the team were to move on from Kerrigan, there is also the option that Ryan Anderson can step in as a starter, with Brailford and a rookie draft pick backing them up. It’s also possible that the team brings back Nate Orchard to compete during training camp.

Off-the-Ball Linebackers:

The linebackers are key to a successful 4-3. They must have versatility in their ability to play both the run and pass.

The MIKE needs to be effective in getting off blocks against the run, and dropping into zone coverage. The SAM has to be a sideline-to-sideline player with the versatility to take on lead blockers, but also cover in-line tight ends. The WILL is another sideline-to-sideline defender who is extremely import on cut-back runs and covering the slot. All three linebackers must be good blitzers.

The Redskins have Reuben Foster, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Cole Holcomb and Josh Harvey-Clemons returning in 2020. Although young, this unit is athletic and versatile. The one area that is currently lacking is a true WILL. It’s possible that the new staff will find a home for Josh Harvey-Clemons in this role. If not, there is one name in the 2020 NFL draft that stands out in Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons. The 6’4” 230 pound hybrid defender was the best linebacker in the nation in 2019 despite playing over half of his snaps outside of the box. The second overall pick is probably too high to select him, but if the Redskins were to trade back, he could be a great target between picks 8-12.

Defensive Backs:

Either in a 3-4 or 4-3, the back end simply needs to be upgraded. Josh Norman is as good as gone, and right now, we really don’t have a proven corner to step in and take his place on the outside. Fabian Moreau showed some flashes in limited time this season, but can he be counted on over the course of a full season? Another question is can Quinton Dunbar be counted on? When healthy, he’s good...but health remains a big question mark with him.

The free agent market should have a few intriguing names come March.

Byron Jones(27)

Ronald Darby(26)

The 2020 NFL Draft is another option - especially if we can trade back and gain additional picks.

Free safety is another glaring need on the back end. We haven’t had a good free safety since Sean Taylor, and that needs to change. Nicholson has shown some promise, but he’s far too inconsistent for most fan’s liking. Troy Apke is a special teams guy who can fill a limited role in spot-duty if needed. A true ball-hawking center fielder would be a much welcome addition to this team in the offseason.

Although it’s been done in nausea in the past, let’s discuss the idea of a 4-3 base since we all know changes will be coming this offseason.