It is easy to look at the Washington Football Team and understand the defense played an essential role in 2020's success — especially as the offense stumbled with four quarterbacks, ranking 30th in total yards, 25th in passing and 26th rushing.
Defensively, WFT finished No. 2 overall, allowing opponents to average just 304.1 yards per outing. That was enough to help coach Ron Rivera's squad win five of the last seven games and clinch the NFC East.
In Year 2 under defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, the training wheels must come off. Now, Washington will be tasked to build off the success of 2020 and compete for the title of top defense in 2021.
Of course, finishing with a top-tier unit always comes with added pressure, but it's not just about numbers.
“The challenge for me is to not concentrate on statistical rankings but how we can help the football team win games," Del Rio said with the team in the middle of OTAs. "That’s what we are here for and that’s what defense is all about.
"We have to find a way to get the ball back for our offense more often and that’s the challenge. Every year there is a new set of challenges."
Washington is hoping the youth movement can meet in the middle with veteran talent to build a roster ready to win. Second-year defensive end Chase Young has not been to OTA's, but according to Del Rio, the two have spoken in the last 24 hours.
Young will be at camp soon. That's fine. Already here is 2021 first-rounder Jamin Davis.
Since being selected with the No. 19 pick last April, the hope is that the Kentucky linebacker can be more than just a tackler. Having a defensive line like the one in D.C. will help any second-level defender makes stops.
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For Del Rio, having the upside and versatility of Davis allows for more unique formations come September.
"I think Jamin is a really good football player. He’s in the mix there to be a big contributor," Del Rio said. "But he’s got a lot of work to do, and that’s the theme of what I’m saying to you all today because that’s how I feel. We have a lot of work to do and we're just getting started.”
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Davis' coverage skills were well-documented coming out of Lexington. Despite being just a one-year starter, that didn't stop him from recording three interceptions in coverage for the Wildcats — tied for the most at linebacker in the SEC.
Those coverage skills will be warranted with the loss of linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, who signed a two-year deal with the Houston Texans this offseason.
Davis though isn't in the only new player looking to explode in the secondary.
Washington added do-it-all defensive back Benjamin St-Juste from Minnesota in the third round. They also signed William Jackson III from Cincinnati and Bobby McCain from Miami to join the squad as likely starters. If that wasn't enough, WFT is expecting big things from second-year defender Kam Curl.
Curl's role could change with the return of Pro Bowl strong safety Landon Collins. Although it was mentioned that Collins could transition to linebacker, the 27-year-old told reporters last week he expects to stay at his natural role.
Del Rio said that Curl's decision-making and communication skills will allow him to work at multiple roles.
“He fits wherever we put him and he’s done a great job of that," Del Rio said on Curl. "He played multiple positions last year and really had a fine year. We expect him to continue to be who he is."
Washington's secondary finished the season on a high note — allowing an average of just 191.8 yards per game through the air. The addition of McCain, St-Juste, Jackson, and Davis not only should keep them in good stat stead there, but should also help them contend for the No. 1 pass defense with the Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams lost cornerback Troy Hill, safety John Johnson III and coordinator Brandon Stokley this offseason.
That's fine on paper. It has to work on the field. Del Rio knows the secondary group will be competitive throughout camp, but this is the time to show who can stand out.
OTAs are a time to learn. Del Rio is pleased with the back end's adaptability thus far as Week 2 continues to unravel.
Said Del Rio: "The competition is obvious. Guys are doing a great job of coming out, working and learning. This time of the year that’s what it’s all about. They can count. You look around and guys are trying to create roles and opportunities. We are going to give them those opportunities to show us their stuff.”
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