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Daily Slop - 22 Nov 23: It’s becoming clearer why Washington traded up to draft KJ Henry

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New York Giants v Washington Commanders
Defensive end KJ Henry #55 of the Washington Commanders sacks quarterback Tommy DeVito #15 of the New York Giants in the first half at FedExField on November 19, 2023 in Landover, Maryland.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

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Commanders defense continues to give up explosive plays

Breaking down the explosive plays surrendered by the Commanders defense against the Giants.

Explosive plays have been an issue for the Washington Commanders’ defense since Ron Rivera became the head coach and hired Jack Del Rio as his defensive coordinator. Every year the team has struggled to stop explosive plays, with the main exception being the second half of last season, when the team became one of the top ranked defenses in the league as a result. Instead of building on that success, the team has continued to allow explosive plays, at an alarming rate.

Having given up 24 yards on that play, Del Rio immediately abandoned zone coverage on the very next play and went to man coverage. The result? Not great…

Here, the Giants align in a three by one formation with the single receiver aligned tight to the formation. This is by design in order to create space outside for running back Saquon Barkley out of the backfield. Barkley runs a wheel route from the backfield, looping around the single receiver to his side and using the space left for him on the outside. With the Commanders playing man coverage, linebacker Jamin Davis is responsible for Barkley without any real help. Davis has been improving this year in coverage, but he’s also significantly struggled against wheel routes from running backs. Multiple teams have attempted wheel routes against Davis and he always ends up a step behind the running back.

That’s exactly the case here as well. Davis looks to attach to Barkley as he releases, but Barkley uses a slight stutter just to get Davis to pause his feet for a moment. That’s all Barkley needs to take off down the sideline and run away from him. Dais is an athletic linebacker, but even he isn’t quick enough to catch up to Barkley who gains a couple of yards of separation as he works down the sideline. The throw from DeVito is a good one, leading Barkley towards the sideline, which prevents the deep safety from being able to get over in time to bail out Davis. Barkley secures the pass and makes sure to get both feet down in the end zone before being hit out of bounds to complete the 24-yard touchdown.

KJ Henry starting to stand out in expanded role

After being a healthy scratch on gameday from Weeks 2-8, Henry got his best opportunity to show off his skill set with 37 defensive snaps against the New York Giants. He finished the day by tying Jonathan Allen to lead the defensive front in tackles (4) and sacks (1.5). The season has not gone as expected for the defense, but Henry has emerged as a bright spot that provides promise for the future.

“Got to give kudos to DE] K.J. Henry. He got an opportunity to come out [and compete]. He played very well.” head coach **[Ron Rivera** said during his Monday press conference.

Henry’s recent production is a positive sign for a draft class that has needed time to develop since April. That was the case with Henry during training camp. It was clear that he had talent; he was a solid contributor at Clemson with 124 tackles to go with 13 sacks, and with respectable metrics at the NFL Combine (a 4.63 40-yard dash, 31.5-inch vertical and a 9-foot-4 broad jump) he had the athleticism to be a reliable player at the NFL level.

It was also evident that Henry needed time to adjust, and with the Commanders packed at defensive end, it was hard to find a spot for Henry on the gameday roster. He was active for Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals, but he only played 13 snaps, all of which were on special teams.

As defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina said of Henry earlier in the season, “he’s gonna be an asset for us moving forward,” but he needed time to learn.

“He’s learning the way we play defensive end here, and he’s fine as a rookie,” Zgonina said. “I mean, he’s a rookie, but he shows a lot of promise, and he keeps working.”

The Athletic (paywall)

Ten reasons for Commanders fans to be thankful amid another lost season

Washington didn’t spend wildly on free agents

Other than re-signing defensive tackle Daron Payne, the Commanders were relatively frugal last offseason. Considering the poor returns, whew. The struggles in free agency and the NFL Draft hampered the 2023 squad. That’s spilled milk. Whether because of the pending franchise sale or roster-building choices, that side benefit has the team positioned with approximately $90 million in cap space in 2024 and no detrimental contracts on the books.

That’s a desirable scenario for a potential new general manager and coach, should ownership blow out the current staff; Vegas oddsmakers might take this off the board considering all the action is on “yes.” Expect spending to occur next year, as Washington has 15 to 20 starters or rotation pieces on expiring contracts. That includes safety Kamren Curl, wide receiver Curtis Samuel and cornerback Kendall Fuller.

Some of Washington’s free agents will return. There’s also ample money to ink help at offensive line, tight end, defensive end, linebacker or cornerback if desired.

Not facing the New York Giants again until 2024

New York continues to take a bite out of Washington. Following this season’s sweep, the Giants are 5-2-1 against the Commanders since 2020 — and 17-36 against the other 31 teams. This wasn’t a vintage version of Big Blue, either.

The Giants have scored four first-half touchdowns this season. All came in two wins over Washington, as NBC Sports pointed out, with Tyrod Taylor and Tommy DeVito at quarterback. Imagine the thrashing if Daniel Jones — also known as Captain America when facing the Commanders during his otherwise underwhelming career — was healthy for either meeting.

Five picks in the top 100

The Commanders have all of their draft picks over seven rounds next season, a projected high second-rounder from the Chicago Bears following the Montez Sweat trade and a compensatory third-round pick acquired from the San Francisco 49ers for Chase Young. Tears or social media screeds won’t bring those first-round defensive ends back. Therefore, embrace what’s in the draft war chest.

Washington’s 2024 first-round pick is projected at No. 7. Is that high enough to land a future starting offensive tackle like Notre Dame’s Joe Alt, the top tight end prospect in Georgia’s Brock Bowers or, should Howell’s shine fade, a top quarterback prospect? Probably. If not, those nine selections — and probably three inside the top 40 — provide ammunition for a trade up. Maybe the Commanders won’t control the 2024 draft, but they won’t be shut out from getting almost anything they want, either.

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