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The Commanders’ Armchair GM: Comparing Washington’s Roster to a Championship Contender, Defense – Part 1, “Front Seven”

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By: MattInBrisVegas

Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Who are the cornerstone pieces? How much work is there to do?

This offseason, for the first time since 1999, Washington football fans can look forward to seeing their favorite team be remade by some of the league’s top experts, free from interference by a meddling owner.

In my opinion, this paradigm shift requires a recalibration of expectations. For the past four years, offseason discussions on Hogs Haven have focused on what it would take to break through the 0.500 barrier. Which sub-par starters need to replaced with average or better players? Will we get lucky and ride an easy strength of schedule to a second place finish in the division?

The Commanders’ new General Manager, Adam Peters was instrumental in transforming the 2-14 San Francisco 49ers into a perennial championship contender. Within three seasons of his hiring by John Lynch to reboot a moribund franchise, without a QB, the 13-3 49ers were back in the Super Bowl. That experience provides a new benchmark to which the armchair GMs of Hogs Haven should aspire. Rather than asking whether a player can play as an adequate starter, we need to start asking whether he belongs on a playoff team roster.

In the first two editions of the Armchair GM, I have had a look at the common elements of Super Bowl team rosters, and how the roster that Peters inherited compares to that profile on offense. Providing meaningful evaluation of the defense proved more challenging, and I had to split the defense into two parts to keep the articles to reasonable length. In this edition I will take a look at what building blocks he has to work with on what we used to call the front seven of the defense (DL and LBs) and where he needs to make improvements. The final edition will examine the secondary and provide a summary of where we stand on defense as a whole.

Approach: Grading Commanders’ Players Against the League

In this and the previous article, I used a broad range of statistics to compare the Commanders’ starting players to other players around the league at their positions. The details of the approach and the rationale are provided in the previous article. In short, I used productivity statistics and other composite metrics which are not confounded by playing time to get a true picture of how well the Commanders’ players performed when they got the opportunity.

Players were graded using five categories:

Blue – an elite player at the position, defined as an All Pro, Pro Bowler, or a player with stats equivalent to or better than players who earned those distinctions

Red – a player in the range from a better than average starter to just below elite

JAG – Just A Guy. This moniker might seem a little unfair to certain players, because this category includes average NFL starters, who are good football players. It extends from there all the way down to the worst starter in the league at a position. JAG- indicates players near the bottom range of starters at their positions.

Pink – an early-career player who has flashed potential to develop into a Red, usually but not always in limited opportunities

Established veterans who are on the cusp between JAG and Red were assigned to one of the two categories. They don’t get to be Pink, because it’s unlikely they will blossom into Reds with more playing time.

Grading and Rankings

Grading: Commanders’ players were graded based on how they compared to the average (median) starter at their position across a range of stats. The cohort of “starters” used for these comparisons was actually the n players who played the most snaps at the position, where n is an estimate of the number of starters across the league. That can get tricky for positions like linebacker and safety where different teams have different numbers of starters and non-starters on some teams can get more playing time than starters on other teams. In those cases, I provided medians for a few different numbers of starters.

Ranking: To give another perspective, players were also ranked within a larger cohort at their position, set to take in all the starters and additional significant contributors. The rankings are shown in parentheses in the tables. These rankings were particularly useful to identify players who were near the extremes for their positions.

Defensive Statistics

Many of the defensive statistics I used to grade players should be familiar, such as Reception Rate and opponent’s Passer Rating in coverage, or are just opportunity-adjusted versions of familiar statistics, such as Missed Tackle Rate in place of Missed Tackles and Pressure Rate in place of total pressures.

A few of the stats I used deserve special mention. These are intended to improve on traditional metrics used for ranking players and may be unfamiliar:

Stop Rate – A stop is a PFF Premium Stat, which is defined as a tackle that causes an offensive play to fail. It is the opposite of a “successful play”, which provides the basis for the more familiar offensive statistic Success Rate. A tackle is a stop if the offense did not score and failed to gain 40% of the yards to go on first down, 50% of the yards to go on second down or failed to convert on third or fourth down. Stop Rate (Stop %), used in this article, is number of stops as a percentage of defensive snaps.

Stop Rate is a major improvement over tackle counts as a measure of defensive performance, because it differentiates between good tackles and bad tackles. For example, Stop Rate differentiates between a linebacker who diagnoses plays and stops runners for minimal gain and one who tends to arrive late and tackle runners after they have gained a first down. The two players might have identical tackle counts, but one is an asset on defense and the other is a liability.

Stop Rate does not tell the entire story, because it only measures what happens when the defender makes a tackle. It doesn’t tell us directly how often a player failed to get into position to make a play, and it doesn’t count missed tackles. But it tells us a lot more about a player’s contribution on defense than simple tackle counts.

Run Stop Rate – Run Stop Rate is the same as Stop Rate, but only calculated for plays in run defense.

Total Pass Defense Rate – This metric takes in all the ways that a defender can make a play on the ball in the air. It is the sum of interceptions, pass breakups and passes deflected at the line of scrimmage, as a percentage of passing plays.

Pro Football Focus vs Pro Football Reference

For the stats geeks among us, I used Pro Football Focus Premium Stats for nearly all the stats in this article because they provide much better separation of players by actual position including down-linemen vs 4-3 defensive ends, edge defenders vs off-ball outside linebackers and cornerbacks vs safeties. The numbers of things like pressures and targets in coverage may differ to Pro Football Reference or NFL official stats, because PFF counts things differently.


How the Commanders’ “Front Seven” Stack Up

Washington Commanders v Atlanta Falcons
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Linebackers

Super Bowl Team Profile: At least one Red player

The Commanders’ linebackers were graded in three general categories: Tackling, Run Defense, Pass Defense.

Tackling performance was graded based on Stop Rate and Missed Tackle Rate (Miss %). Missed Tackle rate is simply missed tackles as a percentage of tackle attempts. It is shown in red to remind readers that, unlike most stats shown, it is best to have a low rank.

Run defense was graded based on Run Stop Rate. This is a huge improvement over tackle counts and PFF’s own subjective grades, because it differentiates between tackles that stuffed the offensive play, and those that happened after the runner achieved his goal.

Pass Defense was graded based on Pressure Rate (Press %) on blitzes, opposing receiver’s Reception Rate (Rec %) in coverage, expressed as percentage of passing targets and Total Pass Defense Rate (Tot PD%). Reception Rate is red, because it is best to rank low.

Last of all, I included Forced Fumble Rate just for fun. It wasn’t useful for grading, because so few LBs had any FFs.

Ranking: Commanders’ LBs were ranked against 88 LBs who played 250 or more defensive snaps.

Commanders Players:


Cody Barton

*FREE AGENT* Age 27, 6th year, 13 starts in 2023, MiBV valuation waste of money

Grade: JAG-

Commanders’ fans commented throughout the season that Barton tended to arrive late and tackle players after they had made big gains. That impression is borne out by his 30% stop rate, which was the lowest of the top 64 LBs, and ranked 84th out of 88 LBs (min. 250 snaps). His Run Stop rate was a little better than his overall Stop Rate figure, but still ranked 78th out of 88 LBs. He was quite simply one of the worst LBs in the NFL at making stops.

Like all of Washington’s LBs, Barton was much better than average in Missed Tackle Rate. His Pressure Rate on 26 blitzes was also significantly better than the average starter.

Barton allowed a higher than average Reception Rate in coverage and had one of the lowest Pass Defense Rates in the NFL. He defended passes at less than 1/3 the rate of the average starter and ranked 78th out of the top 88 LBs.

Jamin Davis

Age 25, 4th year, 13 starts in 2023, 2024 cap hit $4.4 million, under contract through 2024

Grade: Red

Davis’ overall Stop Rate fell right between the medians of the Top 32 and Top 64 LB and ranked 46th out of 88 LBs. His Run Stop Rate was much better than the average starter. Davis’ Missed Tackle Rate was also low for a starting LB.

Davis was less effective than average at generating pressures on blitzes (n = 33). He was one of only 41 LBs to force a fumble and he had 2, which gave him the 7th highest Forced Fumble rate out of 88 LBs.

Davis allowed a lower Reception Rate in coverage than the average starting LB (Top 32 or Top 64), and had the 13th lowest Reception Rate among the top 88 LBs. His Total Pass Defense Rate of 0.90% was also significantly higher than average for a starter.

In summary, Davis was about average for a starting LB in overall stops, and better than average in run stops, in coverage and making plays on the ball in the air. The reason that Davis had an average overall Stop Rate despite being better than average at run stops and pass defense is that he allowed the 6th highest yardage per reception among LBs at 12.1 Y/Rec.

Davis has improved every season with the Commanders. In 2023 his overall productivity ranged from average to above average in the most important aspects of his game.

Khaleke Hudson

*FREE AGENT* Age 27, 5th year, 8 starts in 2023, OTC valuation $1.59 million

Grade: Red

In limited opportunities, Hudson was more productive than his colleagues in several important categories. He had the 10th highest overall Stop Rate among 88 LBs and was well above average for starting LBs in Run Stop Rate, in Pressure Rate on blitzes, and total Pass Defense Rate.

The one blemish on his game, among the stats used here, is that he allowed a high Reception Rate in Coverage. However, he did a good job of keeping receivers in front of him, as indicated by the fact that he only allowed 7.9 Y/Rec in coverage, which tied for 73rd among 88 LBs. Overall he was well above average at stopping offenses short against the run and the pass.

Though not covered in this analysis. Hudson also adds value as a core special teamer. A creative defensive coordinator should be able to find a role for a player like Hudson. But he is a free agent, so that might not happen with the Commanders.

David Mayo

*FREE AGENT* Age 30, 11th year, 5 starts in 2023, OTC valuation $978k

Grade: JAG

Mayo catches a lot of flak from fans who forget that he is a backup. As such, his productivity on the field was actually better than the average starter in overall Stop Rate, Missed Tackle Rate, and Pressure Rate on blitzes (6th in Pressure Rate, although only 12 blitzes). I just can’t get over him allowing the highest Reception Rate in coverage of any LB in the league with no plays on the ball in 61 targets. He is an absolute liability in coverage.

Position Group Summary: Jamin Davis has steadily improved and is now playing like at the level of an average to above average starter. Khaleke Hudson did not get the playing time he should. He doesn’t rate that highly by traditional stats, but expressing his productivity in Stop Rate reveals that he was better than the average shutting down plays. He is a bargain, and the Commanders would do well to re-sign him. David Mayo played very well against the run for a backup but is a liability in coverage against RBs and slot receivers.

NFL-Washington Redskins at Green Bay Packers
Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Defensive Line & Pass Rushers

Super Bowl Team Profile: One Blue player and at least two other Red starters on the defensive line as a whole. One Blue or two Red pass rushers.

Defensive Tackles

The Commanders’ DTs were graded on tackling, run defense and pass defense. The new stats that we didn’t see with LBs are Sack Rate (Sack %) and Batted Pass Rate (Bat %), both expressed as percentages of pass plays. Median values are shown for the Top 64 and 96 DTs in snap counts, which are intended to approximate all the starters on teams with 4-man and 3-man defensive fronts plus a few more.

Commanders’ DTs were ranked against 141 DTs who played a minimum of 200 defensive snaps.

Commanders Players:


Daron Payne

Age 26, 7th year, 17 starts in 2023, 2024 cap hit $21.6 million, under contract through 2026

Grade: Red

Despite having a down year in 2023, Payne was still a better than average starter at DT in key categories. A year after his 12 sack career performance in 2022, Payne dropped back down to earth with a pedestrian 4 sacks. However, his overall Stop Rate and Run Stop Rate remained above average for starting DTs.

Payne did fall below league average in Pressure Rate and Sack Rate. But he was above average in Batted Pass Rate and was one of only 38 DTs to register a forced fumble, with two to his credit.

The only real blemish on his record was a 17.7 % Missed Tackle Rate, which was 26th highest among 141 DTs.

Jonathan Allen

Age 29, 8th year, 16 starts in 2023, 2024 cap hit $21.6 million, under contract through 2025

Grade: Red

Allen also had a down year, by his standards, but still played better than the average starting DT. He played above the median of the Top 64 at his position in Overall Stop Rate, Run Stop Rate and Pressure Rate. He was only a little off the average in Missed Tackle Rate and Sack Rate (n = 5.5). He only batted one pass and had no forced fumbles. For a guy having a bad year, he wasn’t really bad in any category. We are just used to seeing him be more productive.

John Ridgeway

Age 24, 3rd year, 2 starts in 2023, 2024 cap hit $985k, under contract through 2025

Grade: JAG

Ridgeway was a bit below average for a starter in overall Stop Rate and Run Stop Rate and well below average in Pressure Rate. He did manage to get his hands on a pass, which gives him a good Bat Rate.

Phidarian Mathis

Age 25, 3rd year, 2 starts in 2023, 2024 cap hit $985k, under contract through 2025

Grade: JAG-

It is interesting that 3rd year player Mathis is only one year younger than Daron Payne, who is going into his 7th.

Mathis seldom saw the field in 2023, and when he did, he was one of the least productive DTs in the NFL. His overall Stop Rate ranked 140th out of 141 DTs (min 200 snaps). His Run Stop Rate Ranked 137th and his Pressure Rate ranked 129th. The only glimmer of positivity was that he had a lower than average Missed Tackle Rate.

Abdullah Anderson

*FREE AGENT* Age 28, 6th year, 0 starts in 2023, valuation $584k

Grade: Red

The DT who should have got more playing time was Abdullah Anderson. While he only played 113 snaps, he made them count. Anderson was above average for a starting DT in overall Stop Rate, Pressure Rate and Sack Rate, and about league average in Run Stop Rate. He was even a little better than average in Missed Tackle Rate. Of course, it’s hard to say if he could maintain that for a who season. But with an OTC market valuation around vet minimum, he might be worth keeping around.

Depth: Benning Potoa’e (28 def. snaps in 2023, 2024 $915k)

Position Group Summary: The interior DL is the Commanders’ strongest position group with two Red starters under contract for the next two years. The only real issue for Peters to address here is the lack of any young, up and coming depth players to provide a succession plan for the starters.

Washington Commanders v Los Angeles Rams
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Defensive Ends

The Commanders traded their two starters at the trade deadline, so we are looking at the players left over to see if Adam Peters has anything to work with. Washington’s DEs were graded against all edge rushers, including 4-3 DEs and 3-4 OLBs, which is made possible by using PFF Premium Stats.

The statistical categories remained the same as DTs, but their weighting in grading was completely different. Edge rushers earn their living by pressuring the QB, so I leaned more heavily on Pressure Rate and Sack Rate. Forced Fumble rate was dropped from the table, because none of Washington’s remnant DEs forced any. For your reference, the median Forced Fumble Rate of the Top 64 DEs was 1.19% of defensive snaps.

Commanders’ DEs were graded against the median of the Top 64 edge rushers (min 522 defensive snaps), since all teams have two starters. DEs were ranked against the 117 edge rushers who played a minimum of 280 defensive snaps.

Commanders Players:


Casey Toohill

*FREE AGENT* Age 27, 5th year, 8 games started in 2023, OTC valuation $2.0 million

Grade: JAG

Toohill was below average for a starter in every major category for an edge rusher. His Missed Tackle Rate was a little lower than average and his Batted Pass rate was better than average. The latter might be kind of flukey, since he only batted one pass. Toohill was particularly deficient in generating pressure, but was just a little below average in generating sacks. He is a free agent, and there is no obvious reason to keep him.

James Smith-Williams

*FREE AGENT* Age 26, 5th year, 7 games started in 2023, OTC valuation $1.6 million

Grade: JAG

Like Toohill, Smith-Williams had a big opportunity to demonstrate he was starter material once Sweat and Young left town, but he came up short. Smith-Williams was worse than average in every single statistical category. His Pressure Rate was the best of the remaining DEs who got significant playing time, but still fell short of expectations for an average starter.

K.J. Henry

Age 25, 2nd year, 3 games started in 2023, 2024 cap hit $1.0 million, under contract through 2026

Grade: JAG

Rookie K.J. Henry was better than expected in some aspects of the DE role. He played like an average starter in overall Stop Rate, Missed Tackle Rate and Run Stop rate. However, he was well below average in generating pressures and sacks. Like Toohill, his Batted Pass Rate looks good, but really he just batted one pass. He is kind of young and has time to improve on a cheap rookie contract.

Andre Jones

Age 25, 2nd year, 2 games started in 2023, 2024 cap hit $940k, under contract through 2026

Grade: JAG

Rookie Rajin Cajun Andre Jones got very limited playing time. He proved to be very good at batting passes, with three knockdowns in only 171 defensive snaps, but that was the only thing that stood out about him.

Efe Obada

*FREE AGENT* Age 31, 7th year, 0 games started in 2023, OTC valuation $768k

Grade: JAG

The aging Commanther got very little playing time and excelled in no categories.

Jalen Harris

Age 24, 2nd year, 0 games started in 2023, 2024 cap hit $915k, under contract through 2024

Grade: JAG

Harris also played a few snaps in 2023 and failed to distinguish himself.

Depth: Joshua Pryor, Brandon Bouyer-Randle

Position Group Summary: After trading Montez Sweat and Chase Young, the Commanders left themselves with a bare cupboard at DE. Second year players K.J. Henry and Andre Jones might have some developmental potential and value on special teams. Other than that, the team needs a fresh start.


FRONT SEVEN SUMMARY


The Commanders’ defensive front remains the team’s strongest unit, even after trading their starting DEs mid-season.

In round figures, the average Super Bowl team had one to two Blue players in the front seven and close to three Red players. The Commanders have the three Red players in Jon Allen, Daron Payne, and Jamin Davis, who has shown continuous improvement since he moved to OLB.

What they are lacking in this comparison is any Blue players. Based on what we have seen in previous seasons, it is not unreasonable to speculate that one of the DTs could step up to the elite level in a better defensive unit.

The biggest issue in the front seven is the lack of talent at DE. There is also a total void at middle linebacker, and a lack of young depth players who have shown potential to step up to a starting role at an average to above average level.

Up Next

In the next edition, I will review the state of the Commanders’ defensive secondary and summarize the state of the defensive roster.


Originally posted on Hogs Haven