Training Camp Preview: Fresh Hand of Cards for the Defensive End Spot

One of the somewhat awkward things about describing a 3-4 base defense is that the same positional terms can be used as when talking about a 4-3 base, and yet can refer to literally two different positions with different body types, roles, and skillsets.  Therefore, as a prelude to this discussion I think it’s important to lay down some background information.

As opposed to the most commonly used definition of a defensive end – a guy at either edge of a defensive line, whose job function is usually associated with getting around the edge of the line of scrimmage and hitting the quarterback – the 3-4 defensive end is a bit different, to the point where the term ‘defensive end’ is almost a misnomer.  3-4 defensive ends play a bit closer to the interior of that defense, and in packages where four down linemen are used, they’re functionally defensive tackles, with the ‘outside linebackers’ usually rushing off the edge with their hand in the dirt as defensive ends.  

Effective 3-4 defensive ends, therefore, have to be able to play a number of techniques well.  To fully explain ‘techniques’, which aren’t quite what they sound like, would take an article in and of itself, so for the sake of simplicity, let’s define a defensive line ‘technique’ as: the location where a defensive lineman sets up and starts the snap in relation to the opposing offensive line, usually designated by a number.

While we’re at it, let’s define a ‘defensive end’ for the purposes of this post as ‘a player that is not a nose tackle who plays hand-down in a 3-4 base alignment.’

The Redskins have had a bit of a mixed bag at this position historically – which isn’t great, but also hasn’t been as much of a dumpster fire as the nose tackle position was.  This spot, like many others on the defense, has been in seemingly constant flux over the last several years, with the closest thing we had to a constant finally departing this offseason.  Losing Chris Baker to a big contract offered by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a blow for a lot of fans that loved his story and personality, but also left a sizable hole from a talent standpoint.  Now more than ever, having a guy that can rush the passer and produce sacks from the interior of a defensive line is almost a necessity, and Baker was one of the few defensive linemen we’ve had in the last several years who was able to do that (or anything else, for that matter) with any degree of consistency.  Additionally, Ricky Jean-Francois and Cullen Jenkins who played a number of snaps as a rotational lineman, were released.

This means that the defensive end group the Redskins bring into 2017 is mostly new, although there are a couple of holdovers that have a reasonable shot to make the team.

Ziggy Hood was horribly miscast as a nose tackle last year after an injury to Kedric Golston.  Predictably, he didn’t play well there, but that may say more about the people building and coaching the roster than it does about Hood himself.  He’s a solid rotational guy, a cheap veteran capable of spelling a starter.  But what you see is what you get with him, and it is for that reason that a rising sophomore may supplant him in the rotation this year, if not bump him off the roster entirely.

Anthony Lanier was one of three undrafted rookies that played some degree of meaningful snaps for the Redskins last year.  A standout first training camp was enough to get him onto the 53-man regular season roster, where he appeared in spot duty.  His stats don’t jump out at you, but he showed flashes of the player he could be if developed.  His frame makes him a very good fit for the position, particularly as it comes to pass rushing from the interior, where his length and quickness relative to most NFL offensive guards makes him a handful to block.  He’s also put on bulk according to coaches (listed at 291 on Redskins.com), and is substantially stronger than he was this time last year.  He could make a very tangible leap this season if allowed a spot on the roster and enough snaps to make an impact.

The Redskins’ FO attempted to recoup the loss of Baker by spending money on two defensive linemen.  Stacy McGee comes over from the Raiders, where he parlayed a solid contract year into a 5-year, $25 million deal.   That’s not cheap but isn’t exactly cap-breaking, either, for an interior defensive linemen expected to get starter-level snaps.  Also, if it goes horribly south, the Redskins can get out of the deal after two years with only $2.4 million in dead money, which will be nominal by 2019 with a cap that could be north of $180 million.  He’s not known as a great pass rusher but was a very strong run stuffer last year, which was a definite need, given that our run defense was leaky at best.  If I have one worry about him is that, after being listed at 310 for most of his career, the Redskins’ website has him listed at 341.  I’m frankly hoping that isn’t an accurate measurement.  Bigger doesn’t always mean better with defensive linemen – even nose tackles.  Maybe I’m paranoid, but a defensive lineman coming up with 30 extra pounds weeks the year he a big-money deal gives me pause.  Of course, it’s equally possible that his former stops have been listing him small this entire time, and 341 is closer to the size he’s always been.  In that case, nothing to see here.

Coming over from the Cowboys is Terrell McClain.  Admittedly, the burgundiest, goldest part of my heart is always warmed a bit when we deprive a division rival of one of its players.  Also admittedly, this is the signing that worries me the most of perhaps any of the players we picked up.  Again, this is a deal (in this case, 4 years/$21M) that the Skins can pull the plug on in 2019 with only a small impact to our cap.  But there’s a bit of a history here with the Skins bringing in former Cowboys defensive linemen, and said defensive linemen disappointing in the end.  Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher come to mind.  The other thing that concerns me is that, based on what a 3-4 defensive end looks like around most of the league, the fit’s a bit weird.  His compact frame (listed at 6’2”, 302) doesn’t at face value have a true home on a 3-4 line.  6’2” typically doesn’t give you the length you want at defensive end (where players typically go about 6’3”-6’6” or more).  A 6’2” guy would be more at home at nose tackle, but not at 302 pounds.  He does have a bit of juice as an interior rusher, though.  He registered a couple of sacks last year and had several QB pressures.  He profiles to me as a rotational guy, though, mainly because of the man I’m about to mention next.

If you had told me exactly three months ago that Jonathan Allen out of the University of Alabama would be preparing for his very first pro training camp in a Redskins uniform, I would have laughed in your face.  Shamelessly.  There are so many reasons this was not happening, no matter how many fans might have wished for it.  First off, Allen was one of the most talented prospects in this entire draft – with a clean bill of health, he might have gone top 5.  Even questions about his shoulder weren’t going to drop him into the middle of the first round.  There’s no way sixteen teams – half the league if you do the math – pass on a guy this good.  Second, the Redskins’ FO has been extremely allergic to taking interior defensive linemen early – even when the need has been most dire.  The highest we’ve taken one any time recently was Jarvis Jenkins in the 2nd round of the 2011 draft, and the last time we used a first rounder, Joe Gibbs was coaching the team and Bush was our president.  The first time.  But somehow, on that April evening in Philadelphia, the planets aligned and the universe threw the Redskins a bone for once.  And what a bone it was.  Jonathan Allen, simply put, has game-wrecking potential written all over him.   He’s technically sound, more athletic than even his numbers (which were pretty good) would indicate, and dominated high levels of NCAA competition to the tune of winning the Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik awards as the nation’s top defender last year.  He projects as being truly impactful in both the run and pass phases of defense early – and even if he doesn’t post big numbers on his own, he could set up his teammates to feast on the scraps of the broken offensive plays he leaves behind.  

The loss of Chris Baker stung a bit, but overall, it was offset by gains that may well make this the deepest interior defensive line group the Redskins have enjoyed in several years.  And not to be forgotten in this mix is the new defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who has a reputation for maximizing the talent in his players, and whose philosophy for how he wants his charges to play is best summed up by this GIF from his San Francisco days:

If he lives up to his billing along with the players he has to work with, the defensive end group could be one of the pleasant surprises of the 2017 Redskins.  After so many years of inconsistent-at-best play from this position, one can only hope.