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Washington’s defense is littered with players ranked among the best at their positions by PFF

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Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Pro Football Focus (PFF) is well-known for its thorough analysis of the National Football League and NCAA Division-I football in the United States. Over the past month or so, PFF has shifted gears from analyzing last season to looking ahead to the upcoming 2021 season. As part of that effort, PFF has been ranking players at many roster positions. When you pay attention to what PFF is saying about the individual players on the Washington Football Team, it’s hard not to get excited about what to expect from the sum of its parts.

Here’s some of what PFF has had to say recently about some of Washington’s defensive players.

DE Chase Young and Montez Sweat

On the defensive side of the ball, Washington is recognized around the league for its defensive front-four, comprised of 4 consecutive first-round draft picks. On the edge, Washington features the 2019 and 2020 first rounders, Sweat and Young.

PFF has Chase Young listed in the #8 slot in their preview of edge rushers for 2021.

The scary part when analyzing Young’s first season in the NFL is that there is still clear room for improvement from a pass-rushing perspective. And Young still got out to an 87.1 overall grade as a rookie, fifth in the NFL among qualifying edge defenders. He was at his best in the red zone. Young’s 93.3 overall grade last season in that portion of the field led all players at the position.

During the 2020 season, Young tallied 32 tackles, 12 assists, 7.5 sacks, 4 passes defended, 12 quarterback hits, 10 tackles for loss, 4 forced fumbles, and 3 fumble recoveries, including one that was returned for a touchdown. He was also named the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year.

PFF has Montez Sweat ranked not far behind, at #17 on the edge rusher list, despite the fact that Sweat actually accumulated more sacks than Young did in 2020 (Sweat had 9 in the regular season and 1 in the wildcard playoff game). PFF comments that,

Few edge defenders improved more from 2019 to 2020 than Sweat did in his second year in the NFL. His 87.0 run-defense grade last season ranked third at the position behind only Khalil Mack and T.J. Watt, and he bumped up his pressure count from 32 as a rookie to 47 in 2020. Sweat also stood out as one of the best defensive linemen in the league at getting his hands into throwing lanes when rushing the passer. His six batted passes last year ranked second at the position.

It’s clear that opposing offensive coordinators in the NFC East and around the NFL have a lot more to worry about from Washington’s two edge rushers than mere pressure on the quarterback. Young and Sweat are disruptive in the run game as well as the passing game. They swat down passes, force and recover fumbles, and dominate games. The two together in 2021 should terrorize opposing offenses.

DT Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne

The interior of the Football Team’s intimidating front four is comprised of Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Matt Ioannidis, and Tim Settle. While all four are monsters, PFF shined the light on the two former first-round picks from Alabama, Allen and Payne, in their preview of interior defensive linemen.

PFF says about Allen, “You can make the argument that Allen was the best defensive lineman on one of the NFL’s best defensive lines in 2020. The only two interior defenders to record a higher pass-rush grade on true pass sets than Allen last season were Aaron Donald and Chris Jones.”

In ranking Washington’s defensive line as 2nd best in the league, PFF wrote, “[Allen] was excellent when rushing the passer. His 17.1% pass-rush win rate was a top-10 mark among all interior defenders. Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle provide the Football Team additional interior pass-rushing threats beyond the starters, as well.”

In a press conference at minicamp earlier this month, defensive line coach Sam Mills was high on the return of DT Matt Ioannidis from injury, and added that he wanted the entire group to see 2021 as a new season where they had to prove themselves all over again. There seems to be no doubt that this group understands what it takes to stay at the peak, and every member of the DL continues to work hard to be the best he can be.

When it comes to Payne, PFF points out that he “has steadily improved in each of his first three NFL seasons,” addng that, “He has been particularly impressive against the run across the past two years. Payne ranks above the 80th percentile at the position in both run-defense grade and run-stop percentage since 2019.”

Both players, Allen and Payne, are critical to Washington’s success. Allen is seen as a leader in the locker room and a steady presence on the roster. He was, of course, Washington’s nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award for the 2020 season. While Payne doesn’t get a ton of recognition, he is a beast that routinely does the dirty work to dominate the offensive line that is supposed to control him. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the January wildcard game, Daron Payne led the team in sacks, twice putting Tom Brady on the turf with the ball in his hand.

When it comes to interior defensive linemen, a GIF is usually worth a thousand words.

CB William Jackson III and Kendall Fuller

While Ronald Darby played well for Washington last season, earning a nice contract for himself in the 2021 free agency period, Jackson is seen as an upgrade. PFF has Jackson ranked 9th on their season preview list of top cornerbacks, while Kendall Fuller, returning for his fourth season in Washington, is ranked 26th.

William Jackson III

Washington possessed one of the better defenses in the NFL in 2020; Jackson’s addition should only improve it, giving them a No. 1 cornerback who will allow them to play more man coverage. Jackson burst onto the scene with a 90.4 coverage grade in his first season of action back in 2017. He allowed just 30 receiving yards on 359 coverage snaps across his final 11 games that season. [H]e is coming off his best statistical season since 2017, with just 52% of the passes into his coverage being completed in 2020.

The change from Darby to Jackson allows defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to design and call a wider array of defensive schemes that should create additional challenges for opposing offenses. Washington had a lot of success defensively in 2020, finishing the season ranked #3 in passing yards allowed per game behind only the Rams and Steelers, and that success was built on a combination of a strong pass rush combined with mostly zone coverage from the defensive backs. With Jackson and St-Juste added to the roster, most observers are expecting to see a lot more press man coverage from Jack Del Rio’s defense in 2021.

“A lot of it has to do with his ability to take over a side — to shut a side down,” according go Ron Rivera. “It’s gonna add to the things that we are currently doing and bring up some of the things we want to do. He…has the skillset to say, ‘hey, we wanna put him on their best guy’ or ‘hey, we wanna put him over here and roll away from him’. It gives us that kind of flexibility.”

Kendall Fuller

PFF points out that Fuller spent the vast majority of his time in the slot across the first four years of his NFL career, and ‘dabbled’ at safety with the Chiefs in 2019. However, he played boundary corner for Jack Del Rio in 2020, where he put up impressive coverage numbers. Fuller allowed just 53% of the passes into his coverage to be completed, per PFF, with four interceptions and nine pass breakups.

Head coach Ron Rivera has described Fuller as “a savvy outside corner, a quick nickel corner and a ballhawk of a safety.” It’s clear that he is valued for both his skill and his positional flexibility. Towards the end of last season, Ron Rivera likened the rookie phenom Kam Curl to “a young Kendall Fuller”.

The pair of veteran cornerbacks, together with rookie third-round draft pick Benjamin St-Juste, should comprise a group of talented cornerbacks that will be able to add new dimensions to last season’s 3rd-ranked pass defense.

S Kamren Curl

Washington’s secondary will also feature another young player — safety Kamren Curl — who, in just his second year in the NFL, is ranked 20th in PFF’s preview of the best safeties of 2021.

PFF gushes over 2020 seventh-round draft pick, Kamren Curl, calling him “one of the steals of the draft a year ago,” and adding that he was “one of the standout rookies of the season.” Curl’s overall PFF grade jumped from 53.1 to 74.4 from the first half of his rookie season to the second, and PFF believes Curl could be primed for a big sophomore campaign.

They’re not alone in that assessment. Big things are expected from Curl by most fans and analysts. DB Coach Chris Harris said that Curl, in OTAs and minicamp, has been playing with more confidence than he did a year ago as a rookie.

Curl’s opportunity to shine came when Landon Collins was lost for the balance of the 2020 season to a torn Achilles tendon. At the time of Landon Collins’ injury, it was widely anticipated that Ron Rivera and the coaching staff would opt to sign free agent strong safety Eric Reid, who had played for Rivera in Carolina, but Rivera passed on offering Reid a spot on the 53-man roster, and said that Curl’s outstanding play was one of the reasons:

I...didn’t want to bring [Eric Reid] in right away and have him sitting in front of Kam Curl. I thought Kam did a nice job last week. Kam has done a great job for us in our nickel package — what we call the Buffalo position — and I wanted to see what he [can continue] to do as well.

Coach Rivera’s faith was rewarded. Kamren Curl, the former 7th round draft pick, has played an essential role in the team’s 2020 second half surge led by Washington’s defensive unit.

It looks as if opposing offenses are in for a long season against a defense that was among the NFL’s best in 2020, and which appears to have only gotten better.