Barely 24 hours into the most active offseason in franchise history, the Redskins had acquired two defensive linemen on their way to amassing a league-record payroll.
On March 2, unrestricted free agent defensive end Phillip Daniels signed an $11 million deal (including a $3 million bonus) over five years, after being cut by the Bears for salary cap reasons. The next day, defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin landed an eight-year, $31 million contract, including an $8.3 million signing bonus. Griffin signed after owner Daniel Snyder's private plane, RedskinsOne, was dispatched to his home town of Brundidge, Ala., to bring him to Redskins Park.
The swiftness of the deals and the measures Washington took underscored the desire to upgrade the weakest area of the team last season: the defensive line.
But as Coach Joe Gibbs prepares his team for its first preseason game Monday against the Denver Broncos in Canton, Ohio, NFL experts don't view the defensive line much differently.
The unit is still being dogged by similar questions from last year:
Who will pressure the quarterback? What did the Redskins see in a defensive tackle (Griffin) who mustered one sack last season? If Brandon Noble doesn't recover from a severe right knee injury, who steps in at nose tackle? Who is Joe Salave'a?
The answers may start coming Monday. But the unit, keenly aware of the skepticism, has used it as motivation.
"We'll define who we are on the football field," said Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache, the de facto defensive line coach. "We've got a long way to go. We'll make our reputation in the weeks and months ahead. I love when people don't believe I can do something. I hope our guys love it too, because that's one of the most powerful things there is: when someone tells a good man he can't."
Defensive end Regan Upshaw agreed: "It's nothing but motivation for us. We have to prove ourselves. We feel like we have a good group."
The main reason doubts remain is that the line doesn't appear to have improved markedly, particularly in pass rushing, from a unit that floundered last season. The Redskins were ranked 26th out of 32 teams in sacks with 27 with defensive linemen chipping in only 121/2. No lineman had more than 21/2 sacks. Washington ranked 26th against the run. Tailbacks went for at least 100 yards in a game seven times.
Only two starting positions are settled on the line. Renaldo Wynn, the only starting holdover from last season, is back at left end, and Griffin is slated for left tackle. The Redskins hope Noble is healthy enough to start at nose tackle after missing last season with a knee injury. Daniels and Upshaw are officially competing at right defensive end. However, Daniels (abdominal muscle strain) appears likely to be the regular season starter after he mends.
Griffin is the line's most significant addition, and perhaps the only potential Pro Bowl player. A gifted athlete, Griffin has the ability to stop the run and pressure the pass. The 27-year-old was considered the most complete defensive tackle available in free agency, with a mix of size, power and quickness. (The New York Giants wanted to re-sign Griffin but considered his initial asking price of a $10 million bonus too high.)
Griffin has been criticized for not improving much since his rookie season and has been plagued by ankle ailments. However, after offseason ankle surgery before the 2003 season, Griffin finished with a career-high 68 tackles (including 48 solo), although he added only one sack.
Daniels played in Chicago the previous four seasons under Blache, who strongly recommended the defensive lineman to Washington. Daniels possesses the versatility to play right and left end and tackle. In 2001, Daniels collected nine sacks, although he since hasn't come close to that total.
Selected in the fourth round by Seattle in the 1996 draft, Daniels has started all but four games over his NFL career. Daniels is expected to give Washington a sturdy run-stopper on the right side. Last year, Daniels recorded 41 tackles, 12 assists and 21/2 sacks.
The return of Noble, who plays directly across the center in Washington's 4-3 defense, would be like a new acquisition. The fifth-year veteran flourishes as a run-stopper, occupying players and allowing teammates to make plays.
"He's not pretty," Blache said, "but makes others look pretty."
Without Noble, the Redskins would have no clear-cut starting nose tackle. Salave'a, a 6-foot-3, 295-pounder known for his strength, appears to be the top candidate to spell Noble, with Jermaine Haley (6-4, 325) another possibility.
After being selected in the fourth round by the Titans in 1998, Salave'a has started only one game. But the high-octane lineman, nicknamed Big Joe, has been a solid NFL reserve.
"I don't make decisions based on names," Blache said. "Guys who try to sweet talk or brown-nose their way into the lineup won't cut it. Your play is going to be documented on film."
Wynn, a seven-year veteran known for his strong work ethic, has looked the sharpest among defensive linemen in training camp. Since joining Washington in 2002, Wynn has played through nagging injuries yet has started every game.
Now, Wynn says he is as healthy as he's been since joining the team. "Renaldo has been out here killing people," Upshaw said.
Upshaw, considered the line's best pass rusher with 341/2 sacks in his eight-year career, may end up as the X factor in collecting sacks. Last season, Upshaw was forced to play at left end because of Bruce Smith's presence. Upshaw never got comfortable, and a knee injury didn't help the situation. Upshaw, who is quick off the edge, likely will come off the bench behind Daniels and Wynn, mostly in passing situations.
Upshaw cites the new coaches as being as important as the new additions on the line. Last season, Washington's staff had the least experience in the NFL. Conversely, Gibbs's staff is one of the NFL's most experienced: Blache had been a head-coaching candidate before being lured to oversee Washington's defensive line. "We have a different kind of coaching staff," Wynn said. "We have proven leaders."