The Washington Football Team finished the 2020 regular season second overall in total defense. The defense was unquestionably the strongest unit on the team and came up big in some very important moments. However, they played horribly in the NFC Wild Card game. There were glaring defensive holes exploited by the Tampa Bay offense that Washington had been able to compensate for over the course of the season. There are questions that Ron Rivera and his staff need to address this off season regarding what free agents to retain and where they need substantial upgrades to become a more dominant and consistent unit.
Let's take a closer look at the defensive position groups and how I graded their overall performance in the 2020 season...
The linebackers struggled this season and battled throughout for the label of "most inconsistent position group" with the defensive backs. We saw a variety of lineups, but the unit was most effective whenever second year backer Cole Holcomb was on the field. Holcomb battled injuries, but when he was able to play, you saw a drastic difference in the level of production from the unit, and he was unquestionably the most consistent performer out of that group. Kevin Pierre-Louis was solid in spots, but he too struggled with health and it impacted his play. Jon Bostic was expected to be the leader and set the tone for the rest of the group. At times, he was more than effective, but there were too many instances where he struggled to tackle in space, and he had a hard time fighting through the wash to make plays. This group needs an upgrade via trade, draft, and/or free agency. There are still some that hope Reuben Foster returns, and regains his previous form, but to expect that is just not feasible. They need a linebacker that plays downhill and a sure tackler that can run sideline to sideline making opposing teams think about what they want to run before they execute it.
DEFENSIVE LINE B+
I know a lot of you are saying "How does this group not get an A?": they weren't consistently dominant. This unit should be setting the tempo week after week and opposing offenses shouldn't be able to put up some of the numbers they did especially on the ground. The defense finished the season ranked 14th against the run, which is mediocre at best allowing 112 yards per game. Great defensive fronts aren't allowing teams in a passing league to average that many yards on the ground. The top five defenses in the league all held opposing offenses to 95 yards or under per game. That all starts with the interior defensive line. Defensive tackle Daron Payne started to establish himself as a consistent force this season. His counterpart Jonathan Allen struggled early in the season, but picked up some momentum as the year went on. Allen still has not become the dominant force the team expected him to develop into when they drafted him. Third year defensive tackle Tim Settle showed the ability to be a factor in limited snaps and finished the season with 5 sacks. Settle received more snaps than he likely would have this season due to defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis's injury.
The defensive ends may be the most exciting to discuss. Rivera drafted rookie Chase Young with the number two overall pick and he has been worth the selection up to this point. Young's effect on the game didn't go unnoticed as he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of The Year. He attracts so much attention, and that can only mean good things for the players around him who benefit from constant one on ones. One of those player is defensive end Montez Sweat. Sweat has continued to improve as a pro and played at a high level throughout this season. As a result of his performance, the team named him Most Improved Player. The team will have to figure out if they want to resign Ryan Kerrigan pending he wants to return to Washington and decide what they want to do with Jonathan Allen because he will be entering the last year of his rookie contract (they picked up his fifth year option for 2021) making him an unrestricted free agent in 2022.
To say the safety position was a problem early in the season would be an understatement. They began the season with Troy Apke starting at free and Landon Collins at strong. Both had their share of issues in coverage and with tackling in the open field. Apke was supplanted by Deshazor Everett who was much more reliable at the position until he was injured and replaced by Jeremy Reaves. Reaves did a decent job, but he did struggle in some instances. That said, the team desperately needs to find an everyday starter at free safety. They have been unable to do so since the untimely death of Sean Taylor almost 14 years ago. They need to find someone smart that understands coverages and that is athletic enough to get deep in his zone. The rest will take care of itself. They can draft a safety, but there are also some solid free agent options out there they should consider.
Strong safety Landon Collins was finding his stride and then he tore his achilles. Collins' injury opened the door for rookie Kamren Curl to enter the lineup and he did not disappoint. Curl showed the ability to make plays in coverage, tackle in space, and to move up and make plays in the box. He has a lot to build on going forward and his future looks bright. He played so well that it has put Washington in a tough spot in that they have to make a choice whether to bring Collins back for the 12.5 million he is scheduled to make or cut him. There have been some rumblings about him moving to linebacker especially coming off an Achilles tear. Either way, strong safety looks to be in good shape heading into 2021, but per usual, free safety needs to be addressed.
This group was probably the toughest to grade because their performance as a unit was all over the place throughout the season. We saw some flashes from starting cornerback Kendall Fuller when he returned from injury. That excitement slowly diminished to a feeling of uncertainty and concern. Fuller may be better suited to play the slot rather than guard outside receivers. Ronald Darby who started opposite Fuller last season is an unrestricted free agent and Washington will have to make a decision on if they want to sign him to a multiyear deal or go in another direction. Darby was unquestionably the most consistent cornerback the team had over the course of the season. Second year corner Jimmy Moreland struggled and has a considerable amount of work to do this offseason if he wants a roster spot next season. Fabian Moreau finished the season with two interceptions but failed to make a substantial impact. Cornerback has to be addressed this offseason via draft and free agency. The Wild Card game made it evident that if Washington is unable to get pressure consistently, their cornerbacks are liabilities. An upgrade is beyond necessary.
There are a lot of holes and some depth issues that will need to be addressed this offseason by Ron Rivera and his staff. I'm sure they are monitoring the free agent board very closely and they have a pretty good idea of what their approach is going to be going into free agency and the draft. As you were...
Photo Credit: Elijah Walter Griffin Sr/Washington Football Team