For two decades the Redskins bounced back and forth between neglect and negligence along their defensive line.
Prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, Washington hadn't selected a defensive lineman in the first round since the 1990s. The team just did not invest in the draft in the interior of their defensive line. During that time, there were some big-name free agent acquisitions up front, but those didn't work out either. In fact, the Albert Haynesworth contract might be the worst in the history of the sport.
The result, largely, was bad play along the defensive front and an inability to stop the run, and that largely coincided with losing football teams. There is a direct correlation.
In the last two seasons, however, the Redskins dramatically changed their approach.
In 2017, Washington selected defensive tackle Jonathan Allen out of Alabama in the first round. In 2018, Washington again took an Alabama defensive linemen in the first round in Daron Payne. The team also added fifth-rounder Tim Settle out of Virginia Tech.
This week news emerged from Ashburn that the 'Skins took care of another defensive linemen, 2016 fifth-rounder Matt Ioannidis, with a three-year contract extension with $14 million guaranteed.
Of all the moves to bolster the defensive line, the new deal for Ioannidis should make 'Skins fans the most excited.
When Allen slipped to middle of the first round in 2017, it was a no-brainer to pick him. When the Redskins added Payne last season, he was the highest player on their draft board at a position of need.
Those moves were good, but obvious.
Inking Ioannidis to a contract extension was anything but obvious, and that's why this move looks so good.
This is a late-round pick out of Temple, hardly a football factory like Alabama. Ioannidis was cut as a rookie after his first training camp, and the team signed him back to their practice squad. Eventually, he made the active roster in 2016 and played sparingly in parts of 10 games. He finished that year with seven tackles.
Then, something happened.
The Redskins developed a late-round pick, and while Ioannidis deserves a ton of credit for turning his body into 300 lbs. of bull-rushing muscle, the organization deserves credit too, particularly defensive line coach Jim Tomsula.
In his second NFL season, Ioannidis logged 4.5 sacks an 27 tackles in 14 games. Last year, he got 7.5 sacks and 31 tackles in 14 games. 2018 marked the real turning point for Ioannidis. Early on, he ws a beast, and his sack-per-snap numbers ranked among the best in the league.
Injuries have been an issue for the 25-year-old, but beyond that, Washington was wise to lock Ioannidis up now.
2019 would be the final season on his rookie deal, and if he performs similarly this year as he did last year, his potential free agent market would have been hot. If he improves this fall, Ioannidis would have commanded a significantly higher deal next offseason than the one he just signed to stay in Washington.
There's also the precedent that the Redskins front office can identify their valuable young talent and take care of those players. The last two offseasons, Washington has let a number of draft picks walk in free agency. Players like Jamison Crowder, Preston Smith, Ryan Grant, Trent Murphy and Spencer Long are just some of the names. Getting an extension done with Ioannidis reinforces for other players in the 'Skins locker room that the money will come if they work hard and play well.
Don't forget either that it was head coach Jay Gruden that pushed hard for the team to draft Matt Ioannidis back in 2016. While the head coach faces significant pressure this fall to find a playoff bid, this is a good example of the coach's personnel acumen.
There's also some long-term roster construction in play.
The Redskins have three more years of contractual control for 24-year-old Allen, and four more years for the 21-year-old Payne. Now, Ioannidis is under contract for four more seasons.
That's three high impact players on the defensive line, all under 25 years old, that will be in Burgundy and Gold through at least the 2021-22 season.
It wasn't long ago that the defensive line was by far the Redskins worst position group on the team. In 2016, they had the worst run defense in the league.
Credit to the team for fixing that, finally.
And credit to the team for recognizing young talent, and proactively getting a deal done before Ioannidis hits free agency.
Redskins fans often say they want their team to do what the good teams do. Here's the formula: find hidden talent late in the draft, develop that talent, sign them long-term.
With the Matt Ioannidis contract extension, that's exactly what Washington just did.
ARLINGTON – Things have not gone well for the Capitals the last few days. After taking a 2-0 series lead over the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington saw that lead evaporate with two losses in Raleigh as they were outscored 7-1 and lost T.J. Oshie to injury. But even as the series momentum has taken a serious shift in Carolina’s favor, the mood in Washington remains calm.
“You know it’s playoffs,” Jakub Vrana said. “You can’t ever get too low or too high. We’re going to try to manage as best we can in the situation that we are right now.”
The underlying calm and confidence the Caps feel comes from past experience. Having always been the team that came up short in the playoffs, now Washington is the defending Stanley Cup champion, and it is not as if their path to the Cup was without its challenges.
“We understand what we went through last year,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “This is part of the experience. We went through some difficult times last year whether it was injuries or suspensions or being down in series, whether it was 0-2 or 3-2 in different series and battling through some tough times. We managed as a group to come through it.”
The Caps went down 0-2 in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets before rattling off four straight wins to advance. They lost three straight games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final and faced elimination in both Game 6 and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. They responded with two perfect games, shutting out the Lightning in both. Washington lost Game 1 in three out of four playoff series in 2018 and trailed at some point in all four.
And yet, they still came out on top in the end.
Amid those struggles were a number of key losses on the roster. In the decisive Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Caps were without Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovksy and Tom Wilson. Backstrom and Burakovsky were out injured while Wilson was suspended. The team will need to lean on that experience now with Oshie out indefinitely.
“Obviously, that’s something that you never want to have is one of your top players going down,” Chandler Stephenson said, “But it shows that last year we had guys coming in and pulling their weight and doing a little more and it helped us a lot. It gave us a little extra spark and it’s just more opportunity for everyone and I think we’re ready for it. It’s obviously motivation in itself to do it for Osh now, too.”
This time, the team will be looking for a spark from Devante Smith-Pelly, a playoff hero from 2018 who was recalled from the Hershey Bears on Friday in response to Oshie’s injury.
“Yeah, it’s tough to not have Osh right now,” Vrana said. “He’s been a big part of this team but it is what it is and we’re going to try to fill the spot as best we can.”
Even Nic Dowd, in his first season with Washington, can feel the confidence in the room.
“That is why they make it best-of-seven,” Dowd said. “This is my first time doing this, but I've played in a lot of playoff hockey before this, American League, college, stuff like that. I think the confidence hasn't changed. I think we still are a calm team. Our guys are going to be ready. Like I said, it is the Stanley Cup playoffs. Every team that is left is a good team and every team wants to win."
While there are no such things as moral victories in professional sports, that does not mean good things cannot come from losses. The Caps have not played their best hockey in any of the four games in the series. Perhaps two losses in Carolina will provide the wake-up call Washington needs.
“Maybe that spurs us on to a different level of play because we need a different level of play from everybody,” Reirden said. “They pushed back and now it's our turn to return the favor when they come into our building. We worked hard and played hard all year to have this opportunity to have home ice in this round. Now it's our chance to see it through. It's something that we're going to need everybody and everybody's top game. Credit to them that they've played well, but I also know that there's another level our team can get to.”
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
- Oshie Out, DSP In: What that means for the Caps' offense
- Heart and Soul: Caps begin to process Oshie injury after Game 4 loss
- He Barley Hit Him: Brind'Amour finds a way to downplay T.J. Oshie injury