* With the 2020 season in the books and free agency less than one month away, NBC Sports Washington's Ethan Cadeaux and Ryan Homler grade the Washington Football Team's position groups before the 2021 signing period begins. Next up: defensive line.
Defensive linemen signed: Chase Young (DE), Montez Sweat (DE), Daron Payne (DT), Jonathan Allen (DT), Matt Ioannidis (DT/DE), Tim Settle (DT), James Smith-Williams (DE), Casey Toohill (DE),
Defensive linemen hitting free agency: Ryan Kerrigan (DE/OLB), Ryan Anderson (DE/OLB)
When it came to position groups on the Washington Football Team, the major question surrounding most revolved around if there was truly enough for the units to show improvement year over year. The defensive line wasn't in the same category.
For that front, the question was whether or not the talent available could transform it into a truly elite unit. The potential and hype were there, but would the members of the defensive line come through?
Yes. Yes they would.
From Week 1 when Washington picked up eight sacks against the Philadelphia Eagles, it was clear that the team had something special upfront. Throughout the rest of the campaign, it became clear that the defensive line was, in fact, elite.
Without the work of the group on the line of scrimmage, it's fair to say that Washington isn't 7-9 and in the playoffs. The group had the ability to take over games and keep Washington within striking distance even when the offense was doing nothing.
Late-season wins over the Steelers, 49ers and Eagles were largely due to Washington's defensive line doing the heavy lifting. Not just forcing three-and-outs and keeping offenses out of the end zone, but also creating game-changing turnovers and defensive scores.
It also was a total team effort. Each member of the unit brought something to the table and it was filled with brilliant performances from the entire cast.
Chase Young was the Defensive Rookie of the Year, Montez Sweat took a huge leap in Year 2 showing off his athleticism and length and Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne were monsters on the interior. Tim Settle also provided great depth with five sacks and Ryan Kerrigan was productive even as his snap count dropped. This was also without Matt Ioannidis available for a majority of the season
The success of the defensive line was the sum of all its parts and all of its parts clicked in 2020.
Trade/Free Agency options
Washington should be active in free agency or trades at numerous spots, but the defensive line is not really one of them.
The only thing that will really be missing is Kerrigan's limited snaps and depth, as well as his leadership. Yet, the team will also be getting what can be viewed as an acquisition in the return of Ioannidis.
If Washington was concerned about finding someone to take on a similar role to Kerrigan, there are some options out there. Obviously, J.J. Watt is the one that commands the most attention, but his price doesn't match what Washington is looking for. Veterans like Derek Wolfe or a reunion with Trent Murphy could make more sense. Mario Edwards is a younger option who was an underrated part of Chicago's pass rush in 2020.
Of course, Washington could also consider bringing in an OLB like Aldon Smith or bring back Ryan Anderson and hope he remains healthy and productive.
Yet, with this position, all these names are somewhat longshots. It's not exactly a spot filled with needs in Washington. Trying to continue to find young talent through the draft in the middle rounds may be a better strategy.
Pre-Free Agency DL Grade
It's clearly the most talented unit in Washington filled with youth and top-level players. That's why the defensive line gets an A grade during the offseason
When you have the likes of Young, Sweat, Allen, Payne, Settle and Ioannidis it's hard to do better than that. It was a major success in 2020 and that should continue in 2021.