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Prior to the 2020 season, I was asked to predict the WFT defensive player of the year for the upcoming season. While most people seemed to be counting on then-rookie Chase Young to be that guy, I chose the other defensive end, Montez Sweat, whom I felt would have a great year in 2020. While Chase Young probably stole the headlines for most of the season, Sweat played great football alongside Young, Allen, Payne and Settle, and helped lead Washington’s defense to its #3 overall ranking as measured by Football Outsiders. I believe he may have fulfilled my prediction of being the team’s best defensive player last year.
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In their 2021 Almanac, Football Outsiders said:
“Washington’s  improvement on defense was the culmination of high draft picks and breakout seasons coming together, especially along the defensive line. Few teams if any can sport as dominant of an edge rush duo as Chase Young and Montez Sweat. Young got the much of the hype, but Sweat had an impressive second season. He finished 13th in hurries and 16th in quarterback hits. Sweat was also able to impact the play when he didn’t quite get to the quarterback with six passes batted at the line, which tied for seventh. Young was right behind him with five.”
While Chase Young created four fumbles, recovered three and scored a touchdown off one of those recoveries, Sweat had two forced fumbles of his own and an interception returned for a touchdown.
But when you look at traditional stats for comparison, you can see that Sweat actually put up better numbers than his more celebrated rookie teammate.
Source: Football Outsiders
This is not proof positive that Sweat is the better player or that he had the better year. Rather, both players had an excellent season in 2020.
For some further context, take a look at this chart from ESPN using data from NextGen Stats:
In this chart, the horizontal x-axis shows the double-team rate each edge rusher faced, while the vertical y-axis maps each edge rusher’s win rate. Both of Washington’s top edge rushers — Young and Sweat — are where you expect to see them, in the top right quadrant, indicating that both were double-teamed at a higher-than-average rate, and that both won their matchups at a higher-than-average rate. This chart indicates that Young faced marginally more double teams than Sweat did, and that he was slightly more successful at defeating them.
This week, PFF published their ranking of the 32 best edge rushers entering the 2021 NFL season. Washington fans should be pleased, though not surprised, to learn that both Chase Young and Montez Sweat are included in this list, with Young at No. 8 and Sweat at No. 17. Their discussion of Montez Sweat’s accomplishments really only begs the question of why he wasn’t ranked higher on the list:
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.
For the season, PFF actually graded Sweat higher in both run defense and pass rush:
Source: Pro Football Focus
It was only in pass coverage where Young (82.3) outshined his teammate Sweat (58.6) to earn a higher overall grade from PFF. Interestingly, Sweat dropped into coverage only half the number of times (18) that Young did (35), indicating that defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was aware of the players’ relative strengths, and took advantage of them (and that he was smart enough to keep both players focused primarily on disrupting play at or behind the line of scrimmage rather than trying to cover receivers).
Both of Washington’s star edge rushers have great size for the position, with Young measuring 6’5”, 265 pounds and Sweat a bit taller and leaner at 6’6”, 260 pounds. Sweat is notable for his arm length (35 3/4”) and wingspan (84 3/4”) which provide him with advantages in both pass rushing and tackling compared to Young’s more typical measurements (33 3/4” and 80 5/8”).
Jack Del Rio has to be tickled pink to have these two outstanding edge rushers, who may comprise the best edge rushing duo in the NFL.
Source: Football Outsiders 2021 Almanac
Consider the projection of Defensive sack leaders for the upcoming season from Football Outsiders. Based on historical information and applying their proprietary formulas for measures such as DVOA and DYAR, Football Outsiders makes projections of statistical performance for every team and most notable players. This season, the FO Almanac is projecting Sweat and Young each to improve on last year’s numbers to combine for more than 23 sacks! When you look at the list of names in that projection, it is pretty impressive. When you realize that Washington is the only team with two names on the list you begin to realize how special this pair of young players really is.
The ability to get to the passer without having to blitz was one of the keys to Washington’s defensive success in 2021, and that success relied on both interior and edge pass rushers, but Montez Sweat was the team leader in sacks.
Per Football Outsiders, Washington had a league-average blitz rate, but the defense was among the best when rushing five or more. The defense had the lowest yards per play allowed and the lowest DVOA by 10% with a pass rush of five or more.
Sweat’s ability to play the run and rush the passer equally well was one key to this aspect of Washington’s 2020 defensive success. The ability to rely consistently on the four-man defensive line allowed the defense to use those blitzes as well-timed weapons rather than a necessity to create pressure. It also allowed the defense to keep seven defenders back in coverage and flood the shallow areas of the field, where Washington ranked second in DVOA against short passes.
In short, while NFL fans across the nation know about Chase Young and his incredible abilities, Washington’s edge rush, its defensive line, and its defense as a whole is far from a one-man-gang. Lost in the shadows are a lot of players who have a lot of talent at every position on the defense. Among them is a first-round draft pick and edge rusher who would be a star on half the teams in the NFL, but who sometimes seems almost a forgotten man in Washington: Montez Sweat.
Keep your eyes open in the coming season; you’ll see No. 90 around and atop the opposing ball carriers and quarterbacks regularly in 2021.
Who was Washington’s defensive player of the year in 2020?
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