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There are different ways to perceive the use of the term “pressure” in an article like this. In the past, I’ve seen comments on similar articles deteriorate into spats over what the term meant, limiting the value of the football discussion.
In an effort to minimize that, I figured I’d tell you what I’m thinking of when I use the word “pressure” in this article, so you can skip the etymological discussions and jump straight to the part where you tell me why I’m wrong.
In this article, I’m using “pressure” in a personal way for the players. Although this time of year, a lot of people think of pressure related to players trying to make the team, I’m not really focused on that aspect in this article; rather, I’m thinking about guys who are gonna make the team in 2023 but need to step up if they want to positively impact what comes after that.
In other words, I’m aiming to identify the players who have the most on the line for themselves personally for the balance of their careers beyond 2023. I’m saying that a player is under pressure if his 2023 performance will probably shape the future of his career.
In my first draft of the article, I had Charles Leno on the list, but I later reasoned that, at 31 years of age with 8 NFL seasons under his belt, Leno has largely defined his career already, and that, while his 2024 season may depend a lot on what happens in ‘23, many other younger players have a lot more on the line.
I also made the decision to keep Sam Howell off of this list, partly because quarterbacks are always under the magnifying glass, but also because, when all the circumstances are taken into account, Howell could struggle in 2023 and still have opportunities in ‘24 and ‘25 put his career on an upward trajectory.
The 5 players who finally ended up on my list are similar in some ways. They are all young — none over the age of 26 — and four of the five are in contract years, meaning that they are set to become free agents at the end of the ‘23 season. In my eyes, each of them has a chance to dramatically affect, either positively or negatively, the balance of his career with his on-field performance in 2023.
#5 LB Jamin Davis
Davis wasn’t on my initial draft for this article, and I think a lot of people may be surprised that I would include him; after all, he’s not in a contract year, and he seems to be entrenched as a starting linebacker for the team that drafted him 19th overall in 2021. He also seemed to improve quite a lot from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign. But I decided to put him on the list (albeit in the #5 slot) after listening to what Jack Del Rio said about him in a media interview on the final day of OTAs:
[Coaches are looking for Jamin Davis to] take the next step. [Last season], we had more splash plays and less ‘what the heck are you doing?!’ plays, and we need that trend to continue.
Year three now, we should expect him to be at his best and he’s going to be challenged — I’ll be honest with you because our [other] guys are attacking it. I mean, they’re doing a great job.
Cody Barton’s come in and he’s shown that he’s going to be a valuable piece for us, and guys like Khaleke Hudson have been really been playing outstanding.
I think [Hudson] gained a little bit of confidence from that last outing against Dallas. He went out there and played really well, and so he’s coming to the off season full of energy and getting a lot of reps because Jamin is not going. So when Jamin gets back, the key for him is going to be eliminate some of the ‘what the heck is this?!’ plays from his game, and have some more of those splash plays.
Many fans will remember that Jamin Davis was publicly challenged by Del Rio last offseason, and he seemed to respond to that challenge, yet Davis probably still hasn’t achieved the kind of production you want to see from a player drafted 19th overall.
Compare him, for example, to Jonathan Allen, drafted 17th overall or Ryan Kerrigan, drafted 16th overall. Davis has a long way to go, and if he can’t establish himself as a dominant player at his position in 2023, then the team may look to draft his replacement in ‘24, and his ‘get rich’ potential as a free agent will be severely limited. That seems to me to create a lot of pressure for 2023.
#4 RB Antonio Gibson
Gibson will be a free agent at the end of the season, and I would be surprised to see Washington re-sign him. If Chris Rodriguez has a productive rookie season, and Brian Robinson continues to develop as an NFL running back, then the Commanders would appear to be best-served by going back to the running back well in the middle rounds of the 2024 draft to find an elusive, pass-catching back to replace Gibson.
But whether Gibson re-signs with Washington or leaves in free agency, his first veteran contract is likely to be a modest one, as NFL running backs tend to have a short shelf life with limited financial upside. Improving on his efficiency numbers (yards-per-carry; yards-per-reception; yards after contact) could add $500K or even $1m per year to the value of what is likely to be his biggest bite of the apple in 2024. With a 3-year extension, that is a potential change of millions of dollars in his career earnings riding on his 2023 on-field production.
With over 3,000 scrimmage yards and 26 touchdowns in 3 seasons, there’s no doubt that Gibson has been a successful 3rd round pick. At the same time, his yards per carry stat has fallen annually since his rookie season, and his TD production in ‘22 was only about half of what it was in his first two years in the league.
With a new offensive coordinator in Eric Bieniemy, if Antonio Gibson can put up a career-year (say, 1,450 yards from scrimmage), maintain his yards-per-reception figure, and improve his yards-per-carry to around 4.5 (league average), while scoring 9+ touchdowns, he would likely find himself on most people’s list of top-100 free agents of 2024, and set himself up for a relatively lucrative contract as a successful free agent running back.
#3 WR Curtis Samuel
Unlike all the other players on this list, Curtis Samuel already got his “bag” in 2021 when he left the Carolina Panthers to rejoin Ron Rivera in Washington, signing a 3-year, $34.5m contract that will expire at the end of the ‘23 season.
Because he was out for nearly the entire ‘21 season with a series of nagging injuries, the investment in Curtis Samuel didn’t initially pay off for Washington. And, while Samuel started off the ‘22 season looking pretty dynamic, with 22 receptions for 181 yards and 2 TDs in the first three games (extrapolates to 124-1,025-11 as a receiver), he cooled off after that, and had 5 games (Weeks 6, 10, 11, 12, 17 & 18) in which he was largely a non-factor, combining for 7 rec, 48 yards, and 0 TDs. He simply can’t afford to disappear in games like that in 2023.
While Samuel’s first 2 seasons in Washington don’t qualify as a ‘bust’, if Samuel wants to be a sought-after free agent in 2024 and beyond, he needs to meet or exceed his 2020 season in Carolina when he put up over 1,000 yards and 5 TDs while averaging 8.9 yards per touch.
As with Antonio Gibson, one has to think that Samuel will have plenty of opportunities in Eric Bieniemy’s offense. With a productive and exciting ‘23 season, Curtis Samuel can probably position himself as an in-demand 27-year-old free agent offensive weapongoiong into free agency; on the other hand, with another disappointing or inconsistent season, he will enter free agency in 2024 as an aging and limited ‘gadget’ player who never paid off for the Commanders.
#2 DE Montez Sweat
I’m a Montez Sweat fanboy. I’ve always been a bit surprised by fans who don’t think Sweat has been one of Washington’s best defenders or that he has lived up to his 26th overall draft position in the 2019 draft.
Personally, I think the disconnect between me and those fans who think Sweat has disappointed is in the almost single-minded focus on sacks as the measure of success for a defensive end.
In his 4-year career, Sweat has missed only 6 games — all due to a broken jaw in 2021. In his 3 full seasons (including his rookie year) he delivered 7, 8 or 9 sacks per season and between 27-31 pressures. He has 10 career passes defended (one for a pick-six), 7 forced fumbles, and 37 tackles for loss. Last season, he played 70% of the defensive snaps, and he’s never played less than 64% (in his rookie year).
Sweat plays the run very well, and he has been a solid pass rusher. In 2022, per PFF, Sweat was 16th in pressures (62) and 5th in QB hits (19). Sweat’s biggest issue has been that he hasn’t converted pressure and QB hits into sacks often enough. His 8 sacks in 2022 tied him for 41st in the league.
In his contract season, with free agency looming in 2024, Sweat needs to convert his pressure into sacks. If he can get home 12 or 13 times per year instead of 8 or 9 per year, his perceived value in the free agent market would receive an enormous boost, and for a 4-3 DE, that could mean a swing of $3 to $5m per season in contract value.
Yesterday, Ron Rivera clarified that “finishing” plays didn’t always mean (to the Commanders coaching staff) getting sacks:
[Finishing means] they get to the quarterback and, again, not necessarily getting him down as much as impacting the play — forcing the quarterback to throw the ball sooner than he wants to, throwing the ball away, tucking it and running.
That’s more of the finishing a lot of times instead of just winning, but then getting washed by. That’s not effective enough because all the quarterback does is step up and throw the ball, or get a little deeper and throw the ball.
So, when we talk about finishing, that’s getting to the quarterback, impacting the quarterback, getting him to move, and impacting the play.
Here’s what Jack Del Rio had to say about Montez Sweat last week:
[Finishing] will be the challenge [for Montez Sweat in 2023]. I think that was really the message for Daron Payne going into last year. [Daron] was very disruptive the year before and left a lot on the plate. I think Montez is in a similar situation.
I think he’s been very close, very disruptive, done a lot of really good things. I mean, he’s a good football player and when he starts finishing at a higher rate, his numbers are gonna explode. I anticipate him having that kind of a year for us. He needs to have that for himself and we’d like to see it for our team.
[That requires] just understanding the difference, really, where you have these opportunities and to close the deal. You know, you work so hard as a pass rusher to get in position. Coverage has to help you there. [When there’s] enough coverage to give you time to get there and then when you’re there, close the deal and it’ll add zeros to your check.
The Washington Commanders have generated a league-high 37.4% pressure rate with 4-or-fewer pass rushers this season.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 13, 2022
WAS Pressure Leaders (2022)
Montez Sweat: 21 (T-4th in NFL)
Jonathan Allen: 18 (2nd among IDL)
Daron Payne: 14 (5th among IDL)#WASvsCHI | #HTTC pic.twitter.com/MXYOo0z31A
#1 DE Chase Young
Chase Young has the highest expectations to live up to of probably any player on the team, and that all dates back to the 2020 draft when he was selected 2nd overall out of Ohio State, becoming the first-ever draft pick of the Washington Football Team, and the first-ever pick by Ron Rivera in Washington.
At the time, the term ‘generational talent’ seemed not to be an exaggeration when it came to Chase Young, and the latter half of his rookie season — in which he won the league award for Defensive Rookie of the Year — seemed to set the stage for what many fans expected to be a Hall of Fame career.
Nothing has really gone to plan since the end of Young’s rookie season. He started off his sophomore campaign by skipping voluntary workouts, and his season got off to a sluggish start with 1.5 sacks in 8 games.
An horrific knee injury mid-season took the focus off of his lack of production and put it squarely on his health. In this age of almost routine speedy returns from knee injuries, Young’s relatively slow return from injury (his first game back was Week 16 of 2022) frustrated and puzzled many fans. Clearly the injury deeply affected the player and his game. His lack of burst and confidence in the final 3 games of 2022 left fans with the impression of a tentative player still affected both mentally and physically by the injury.
Everyone understood that Chase had been re-habbing in the 2022 offseason, but when he wasn’t at Washington’s 2023 voluntary OTAs recently, a lot of fans wondered whether he understood the optics of being a professional, a team leader, and a supposed league superstar.
For Chase Young, 2023 is not about next season’s roster position or his paycheck. It’s not even about his next contract. For Chase Young, 2023 is about his legacy. He may not be able to cement his ‘generational talent’ legacy with one good season, but he can certainly lose it forever with another bad one.
From Mark Bullock’s Film Room:
In the ‘what have you done for me lately’ world of the NFL, Chase hasn’t done much since the end of his rookie season. Yes, he’s been an animated cheerleader on the sideline and a good teammate, but that’s how 7th round draft picks are supposed to be remembered, not guys whose names are announced in the first half-hour of the draft.
In the past two seasons, Chase Young has started 11 games. In those two seasons, he has had 3 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 5 QB hits, and 3 passes defended.
For comparison, in his final 11 games last season, James Smith-Williams (Young’s backup) produced 4 TFL, 2 sacks, 14 QB hits, and 1 PD.
When Young’s statistical output is comparable to that of a 7th round draft pick and backup DE, something is seriously wrong.
There should be no real doubt — Chase Young is under immense pressure in 2023; he has to have a very strong season highlighted by a double-digit sack total, multiple forced fumbles, and several tackles for loss. But beyond the numbers, Chase Young needs to look like a dominant force in football games. With opposing offenses having to account for Daron Payne and Pro Bowl DT Jonathan Allen, Young should have all the help he needs to wreak havoc on the opposing ball carriers and quarterbacks. Offensive tackles throughout the league need to be abused on a weekly basis, and Chase Young needs to be, not only a Pro Bowl player, but in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Anything less will be a disappointment, and Chase Young cannot afford to be outplayed by Payne, Allen or Sweat in 2023. He has to dominate his opponents weekly for 17 games to restore what has been lost over the past two seasons, or he will see his career go the way of Jadeveon Clowney.
But is Young healthy enough to do all that? Well, Chase seems confident that he’s ready, although his coach was still a bit conditional with his answers before he saw #99 on the field in minicamp.
LIVE: DE Chase Young speaks with the media after Day 1 of minicamp https://t.co/8uVeDwdAHj— Washington Commanders (@Commanders) June 6, 2023
Asked about Chase’s health before the start of team activities on the first day of minicamp, here’s what Ron Rivera said:
You know, he started to get healthier by the end of the year and played for us in four games. And we just want to see him pick up where he left off. He was starting to play faster and faster and just love to see him get out there and really run around and kind of cut a loose and not be tentative. And that’s probably the biggest thing for him.
One thing we are gonna do is we’re gonna be smart. We’re not just gonna throw ‘em out there right away just because we don’t know what speed they’ve been working at. And that’s the thing you have to be careful of because they’re going to go from zero to 60 very quickly because they want to get in there. There’s going to be a lot of energy and you really do have to be smart. So we’re not gonna come out and, you know, if there’s 60 reps expect him to take 50 or 40 of them. We got to get them and see where they are.
Yesterday, after having seen Chase on the field, Rivera gave an update:
He looked good. He really did. Real excited about it. Looks like he’s got some explosion back, which was one of the really neat things in terms of watching him, his get off. He looks like he’s more confident.
Who is under more pressure in 2023?
This poll is closed