With training camp set to begin July 25, Redskins.com is previewing the current state of the team's roster, continuing with the defensive line.
Up front, the Redskins boast a young and talented unit determined to prove it's one of the best in the NFL.
-- Stacy McGee
CURRENT STATE OF THE UNIT:
Nearly the entire Redskins' defensive line has had one position coach since entering the NFL: Jim Tomsula. So when assessing the group ahead of the 2019 season, there's not a much better place to start than with the longtime defensive line coach.
"They’re sharp. It’s enjoyable," Tomsula told reporters following veteran minicamp in June. "You get one of these groups, and you wake up, high-five yourself and you’re excited to get to go to work with them."
Other staff members have expressed similar optimism. At a press conference before the 2019 NFL Draft in April, Senior Vice President of Player Personnel Doug Williams said the one position the Redskins feel good about is the defensive line. Following OTAs in June, head coach Jay Gruden emphasized his admiration for the defense's mentality, which begins in the trenches.
"We have a tough edge to us, and I’m expecting that to carry over," Gruden said. "It starts with our defensive lineman: Jonathan [Allen], Daron [Payne], Matt [Ioannidis], [Ryan] Kerrigan and adding [Montez] Sweat. I think those guys upfront set the stage for everybody."
Among the defensive linemen, Jonathan Allen is the tone-setter. A first-round selection out of Alabama in 2017, he was hampered by a lingering foot injury his rookie campaign but started every game last season, establishing himself as a valuable interior defender.
He recorded 61 total tackles (11 for a loss), and his eight sacks were second on the team to four-time Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan.
"Jon just does stuff the right way," Daron Payne said of Allen, who was one of four defensive linemen to make the NFL Network's All-Under-25 team. "He likes to compete. You see that on the field and you see the mentality, so I think it just brings the best out of everybody."
Payne played alongside Allen at Alabama in 2016 and was also a first-round pick, going 13th overall to the Redskins in 2018. And like Allen, he's on his way towards validating his draft selection.
Payne filled the stat sheet in his All-Rookie campaign, starting every game and recording 56 tackles (six for a loss), five sacks, three pass deflections, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Entering his second year, Payne said he feels more comfortable within the defensive scheme and expects to exceed his rookie contributions.
“I want to get a couple more [sacks] this year,” Payne said during “Redskins Nation” in June. “Me, Jon [Allen] and Matt [Ioannidis] have a little competition going on in sacks and tackles.”
The third part of the standout defensive line trio is Ioannidis, who said the competition between the group extends into the weight room. Each person is concerned with having the biggest bench and heaviest squad, and pursuing those goals has made each player better, Ioannidis said. The same philosophy applies to the football field.
A fifth-round pick in the 2016 draft, Ioannidis again proved to be a formidable pass-rusher last season. He finished third on the team with 7.5 sacks and added 31 tackles (six for a loss) and 11 quarterback hits. In April, the Redskins signed the 25-year-old to a multi-year extension, reflecting their continued investment in the trenches.
“When you have a group of guys who hold you accountable, it really pushes you to be your best every day," Allen told reporters in May. "The thing we always say is, ‘You should never feel comfortable.’ We try to make everything and everybody uncomfortable in this building. That is just our goal every day, to make it uncomfortable as possible for everybody to help promote growth.
Other players determined to crack the rotation are Tim Settle, Caleb Brantley and JoJo Wicker, all of whom worked with the aforementioned starters at Redskins Park throughout the offseason. Settle, a fifth-round pick in 2018, made the biggest contribution of the three last season by appearing in every game as a rookie. Brantley, a sixth-round selection in 2017, played in seven games, while Wicker spent the majority of the year on the practice squad.
"The way they’ve worked and where they’re at right now, they’re all ready to take steps," Tomsula said at minicamp. "But again, potential means nothing. You have to do it."
WHAT TO WATCH:
For a team ravaged by injuries the past two seasons, the Redskins were fortunate most of their defensive front stayed healthy in 2018. The foursome of Allen, Payne, Ioannidis and Settle combined to miss just two games a year ago, and keeping them on the field will be important again this fall. Should everyone stay healthy, the defensive line should see an uptick in its performance while cementing itself as the strongest unit on the roster.
Another key will be the development of the Redskins' reserves. Tomsula likes to rotate the defensive line, so switching out players with little drop-off would produce a level of consistency that was lacking last season.
"I don’t like to predict the future or what’s going to happen down the line but -- to put it this way -- I think this is a group with a lot of potential," Ioannidis said. "We’ll see week-to-week, Sunday-to-Sunday as the season rolls by, but I have high expectations for this group."