Training Camp Preview: Nose Tackle Position Battle Brings New Faces, Local Flavor

Training Camp Previews

It’s the position that has been an issue since the Washington Redskins shifted to a 3-4 base defense in 2009.  The woes started with the Albert Haynesworth debacle and, in all honestly, the only thing that has managed to improve much at the position is the fact that we are no longer paying eight-figure salaries for the lack of production.

Yet, a good player in this spot is essential to running a 3-4 defense successfully, particularly as far as defending the run.  This man does his job, and the six other men in the front seven have an infinitely easier time of things.  This man fails to do his job and, well… then you have 320-pound offensive guards blocking up to your linebackers creating running lanes even Joe the Superfan (sitting in section 203 with a burgundy “R” painted on his prominent beer gut) could run through without much difficulty.

This position, of course, is the nose tackle – and somehow, the franchise is approaching year nine of its dalliance with the 3-4 base scheme without having found a suitable candidate to take over the position long-term.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – that’s a problem.  

Last year may have been the situation’s nadir – which may be good news depending on how you look at it.  We had a career defensive end in Ziggy Hood attempting to play NT.  But to be fair to Ziggy, he was only there because our original starting nose tackle was lost to injury.  That was Kedric Golston, a career reserve whose roster survivability was the stuff of legend – or punchlines, depending on who you talk to.  (The axe finally found him this offseason, and one can only imagine that’ll be it for the 34-year-old’s playing career.)  Then the rookie Matt Ioannidis got a few snaps here and there.  He wasn’t ready.  Frankly, he shouldn’t have been expected to be ready.  He was picked in the fifth-round, and guys expected to make an impact in year one typically don’t fall that far.  His rookie season was supposed to be a year during which he digested both the scheme and enough food to pack on the weight one needs to play nose tackle full-time.  

In my experience, fan opinion on Ioannidis’s rookie play have ranged from disappointment to dismissive indifference.  A few are optimistic that he’ll make a jump in 2017.  I’m a bit lukewarm on him, personally.  I’m not convinced he’s a lock for the roster.  He’s the type of player improving teams usually graduate from once they establish some type of talent at that position.  If he starts at nose tackle, it may mean either one of two things: that he took a quantum leap during the offseason, or that the other candidates for the position were simply awful.

Other than Ioannidis, and Hood (who I would imagine will be back at DE if our new defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky, had working eyes last year from his LB coach spot) we have several faces that are new to the picture from this time last year.  All of them also happen to have been born around the D.C. area.  The biggest name – and likely the biggest body – of the group is former Browns’ first-rounder and Clinton, MD native Phil Taylor.  Tipping the scales at 343 pounds according to the Redskins.com roster page (although recent photos indicate he may have dropped a bit of this weight), Taylor is a behemoth of a human being who, if nothing else, offers an element of bulk the Redskins haven’t always enjoyed at the position.    (An extra bit of trivia – Taylor was one of two defensive linemen kicked off the Penn State football team in 2008 after an altercation at a pool party at a period when Penn State was under national spotlight for its players’ off-field misbehavior.  Simpler times for Penn State, in retrospect.  The other: Recently departed Redskins stalwart Chris Baker.)

Here’s the problem with Taylor; be it bad luck, some sort of physical deficiency (does he perhaps carry too much weight?) or a combination of both, he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy.  He’s lost a large chunk of his NFL career to knee issues, the most recent of which ended a comeback attempt with the Denver Broncos only days into last year’s training camp.  

Before his knees stopped cooperating, though, he wasn’t bad.  He had 59 tackles and 4 sacks his rookie season.  You’d certainly take that from a guy who spent the majority of his snaps absorbing double teams.  But that was several years ago – and being cut here, particularly if it’s due to another knee injury, will probably be a sign that Taylor’s very near future will be somewhere other than the gridiron.  Still, as a guy that had first-round talent at one point and is familiar with playing several variations of nose tackle in multiple defensive looks, he’s got a puncher’s chance to compete for a job if he stays healthy and the previous injuries haven’t robbed him of too much of his ability.  At this point, I’m not looking for the 2011 version of Phil Taylor; neither should anyone else.  But if he can be a big guy that can at least be hard enough to move to free other guys to make plays, you’ve got to think the Redskins will take that at least at a backup level.

Joining the practice squad late last year was A.J. Francis, a D.C. native and former Maryland Terrapin.  Another big-framed lineman at 335 or so, Francis has bounced around the league a bit, with stops in Seattle, New England, Tampa Bay, and Miami.  While this isn’t exactly a harbinger of success, it’s worth mentioning that every place he’s gone so far used mostly four-lineman looks up front.  So, while there’s a fair chance that he simply isn’t NFL talent, there’s also a chance that he hasn’t found the right situation up until now.  After all, Chris Baker had a couple of early-career stops before he found his way to Washington, and he’s done pretty well for himself.

The youngest of the group – and the one coaches may be highest on if snap counts during team drills at minicamp are any indication at all – is 24-year-old Joey Mbu, who schooled in the state of Texas but was born less than 20 minutes outside of the nation’s capital in Silver Spring, Maryland.  He doesn’t eat quite as much space as either Taylor or Francis, but at 323 he’s likely big enough to man the spot.  Also, Scout.com’s Manny Benton recalls a game where Mbu’s Houston team played Iowa, and Mbu gave future Skins first-rounder Brandon Scherff a degree of trouble.  Typically, one can draw next to nothing from snap counts in June, but don’t be shocked if Mbu emerges from the August scrum as the Redskins’ starting nose tackle.

Have we found our nose tackle of the future – or at least the present – within these options?  Does a dark horse not discussed in detail here (undrafted rookie Ondre Pipkins out of Texas Tech, for example) rise in August to fill the void?  Or does help possibly come from the late preseason waiver wire?  Only time will tell, but fixing what has long been a gaping hole in the middle of our front line – both figuratively and literally – would go a long way toward improving the defense overall.