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Commanders fans believe in KJ Henry, but have concerns about roster depth

Poll results!!

Miami v Clemson Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

NFL fans all get a ‘recharge’ as April turns into May and their favorite teams get an infusion of young talent from the draft. For fans who don’t watch a lot of college football, it’s a time of ‘getting to know’ a handful of new players for the first time.

The Commanders welcomed 7 drafted players into the fold last weekend, and soon after announced the signing of 12 undrafted college free agents (UDFAs), all 12 of whom will be signed effective 11 May, giving the team time to announce some roster moves to make room for them.

In this week’s Reacts survey, we asked Hogs Haven members which of the 7 draft picks would outperform his draft position expectation, remembering that the earlier a player is drafted, the higher the bar.

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Fifth-round pick, Edge rusher KJ Henry, received nearly 3 times as many votes as the next most popular candidate, 3rd round center Ricky Stromberg.

KJ Henry

Let’s look at some pre-draft comments about the player from the Draft Network:

Clemson EDGE KJ Henry is a sturdy edge defender who projects to the NFL level as a rotational player and a potential starter in the right situation. There are a number of winning skills that the 6’4”, 245 pound Henry has drawn upon throughout the course of his career that should provide him a direct translation to the pro game after competing at the highest level with the Tigers’ program.

On the field, Henry checks a lot of boxes to be a prototypical 4-3 end or power rush linebacker at the NFL level. He possesses ideal length, effective hand usage, and an understanding of how to stack blocks—leaving him as a viable run defender and a capable player in early downs. Henry appears to be a high-floor prospect who will make a team very happy in a rotational role at the next level.

He isn’t a dynamic threat off the edge on passing downs but he has good diagnosis skills and has been a long-entrenched player for the Tigers as a 50-60% snap player who wins at the point of attack.

I like him best in a gap control system at the next level. That will admittedly cut down on his impact plays and opportunities as a pass rusher and that is almost certainly going to bite him when it comes to draft value and prioritization—especially in a loaded draft class in the EDGE group. One would imagine a well-tenured defensive lineman would have built out a more expansive menu of rush counters by now if he was going to, although you do get some intermittent flashes of first-contact wins.

Expectations for Henry are essential to putting him in the best position to succeed in the NFL. His most likely path to NFL success is rooted in playing on the early downs and ensuring you have additional threats in the front if he’s going to stay on the field in obvious passing situations to offer him one-on-one opportunities. In such an environment, he’s a potential starter but he’s more likely a rotational defender in the NFL for a majority of teams.

Reading this profile makes it clear why Henry is a good fit for the Commanders, and why fans are excited about him. Former 7th round pick James Smith-Williams has excelled in Jack Del Rio’s defense. JSW is the same height, but about 20 pounds heavier when he was drafted. He was considered to be a strong run defender who had limited impact as a pass-rusher. Smith Williams was a 5th year senior and team captain who has made a careeer in the NFL as a guy who plays good gap control, allowing the stars on Washington’s interior — Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne — to wreak havoc on offenses.

Head coach Ron Rivera agrees with fan assessment that Henry is probably more talented than his 5th round selection would indicate. Here’s a great summary from Sports Illustrated:

“KJ Henry is a dynamic outside edge player,” coach Ron Rivera said following the selection. “It’s interesting because the guy that played on the other side, a lot of people watched that guy. I think KJ was overlooked. I really do. The tape that you watch and you repeatedly watch, he’s there making plays and so he’s a guy that we wanted to add.”

For Rivera, the guy on the other side he’s referring to is Myles Murphy, who was selected with the 28th pick of the first round by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Pro Football Focus puts Henry a full 6.7 points higher in his defensive ranking than Murphy. Henry also graded higher as a run-stopper and pass-rusher than Murphy with the biggest discrepancy coming in the nearly eight-point spread between the two when attacking the opposing quarterback.

[I]f team footage is to be believed the team nearly selected [Henry] in the fourth before deciding to go with Utah offensive lineman Braeden Daniels.

Adding dynamic players in the mid and late rounds has been a hallmark of the Rivera tenure in Washington. In 2020, the team added Kamren Curl and James Smith-Williams in the final round; in 2021, the Commanders found TE John Bates and safety Darrick Forrest in the middle rounds, while last year, QB Sam Howell, S Percy Butler and OL Chris Paul, all expected to play significant roles for the team in 2023, were drafted on Day 3.

It seems as if Hogs Haven members believe that KJ Henry will be another later-round success story.

The biggest roster hole remaining

Virtually the first public words out of GM Martin Mayhew’s mouth after the draft was over were these:

The draft is not a finish line. We’re not done. It’s April; there’s a lot of time before the season starts and we’re gonna keep trying to make our roster better.

Based on these words, fans can reasonably expect the front office to work diligently to continue filling out the roster post-draft. As mentioned above, the front office has already announced the impending addition of 12 undrafted college free agents, but there will also be opportunities in veteran free agency.

Our other question in this week’s Reacts survey asked which position group the Commanders most need to still fortify via the veteran free agent market following the draft. The top two positions groups identified in the poll should be no surprise to regular readers of Hogs Haven.

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Eighty-eight percent of fans identified two position groups — linebacker and offensive line — as needing fortification, with nearly 6 in 10 people surveyed saying that the team hasn’t done enough at the linebacker position.

If this feels familiar, one only needs to look at the depth chart at linebacker right now, and compare it to the same position group a year ago.

In the ‘22 offseason, fans were expecting the coaches to — any day now — announce an addition to the linebacking group. They eventually did; they re-signed Jon Bostic, not the move observers were hoping for.

Now, in 2023, veteran free agent Cody Barton has replaced Cole Holcomb, but not a lot else has changed, and fans aren’t any happier about it now than they were a year ago.

Will the Commanders look to enhance the position group between now and July, or do the coaches simply see the defensive scheme, and the linebacker position in particular, differently than most fans?

It may be interesting to wait and see, or it may simply be another puzzling few months of waiting for a roster move that never comes.

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