With free agency right around the corner, it’s time to look ahead to potential free agent fits in Washington. Between now and the second week of March, when player movement begins, The Outsider will take a look at players who make sense for the Redskins.
The focus of the offseason is expected to be rebuilding the defense, starting up front in the trenches, so that’s where we’ll start. It’s often said that in a 3-4 defense, the nose tackle is the most important player. That applies more to a traditional two-gap scheme instead of the one-gap scheme that Washington has favored over the past few years. But a big body at the heart of the defense would go a long way to improving a bottom-10 run defense.
Big name: Dontari Poe, age 26
Poe is coming off somewhat of a down year with the Kansas City Chiefs, by his standard, but he still offers a rare blend of size and mobility. At 6 feet 3 and 346 pounds, Poe is a huge body who can be stout in the middle of the defense. He’s almost too big to be blocked one-on-one in the run game consistently. He commands plenty of double teams and will make offenses pay when they don’t.
Here, the Carolina Panthers look to run right at Poe, who lines up on the outside shoulder of the right guard.
The Panthers have their center help the guard secure Poe before he peels off to pick up the linebacker. As soon as the center peels off, Poe begins to dominate the remaining blocker. He uses his right arm to shove the guard back outside, giving him space to work inside if he needs too.
But as the run develops and the running back attempts to escape a linebacker by bouncing his run outside, Poe gets his hands inside on the chest of the guard, tossing him back inside as Poe works to the correct gap.
After tossing aside the guard, Poe works into the backfield and helps secure the tackle for loss on the back.
That was a good example of Poe’s strength, but he’s also very athletic for someone his size. That makes him versatile. Most nose tackles of his size come off the field in nickel and dime packages and are replaced by smaller, quicker players who are more adept at rushing the passer. But Poe has a rare quickness that allows him to be an effective pass rusher.
On this play against the Texans, Poe lines up directly over the center.
Poe uses a head fake to the left of the center before working back across his face. He gets his left arm on the right shoulder of the center, enabling him to shove the center inside and allowing him to use a swim move with his right arm to get past the center.
Poe then looks to close on the quarterback as the center desperately dives to try and slow him down. The quarterback just about manages to get away his throw before Poe arrives, but he is unable to find a receiver and the pass falls incomplete.
He has shown a slight drop off in production in his past two seasons, where his effectiveness as a pass rusher hasn’t quite been the same as it was a few years ago. He had one and a half sacks in 2016 and just one sack in 2015, while in 2014 he had six. But at 26, Poe is still young and offers a skill set that isn’t easy to find. Having an every-down 3-4 nose tackle is a luxury in the modern NFL. For that reason, Poe is expected to attract plenty of attention in free agency, if the Chiefs even allow him to hit the market. Spotrac projects his market value to be $13 million in average annual salary with a five-year, $66 million deal.
Good value: Brandon Williams, age 27
Williams is much more of a traditional 3-4 nose tackle than Poe. He’s not a special athlete in the way Poe is, and doesn’t have the same burst off the line of scrimmage. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s more in line with what is expected of a 6-foot-1, 340-pound nose tackle. What Williams offers is fantastic run defense. Since earning a starting role in Baltimore, he has been one of the top run defenders in the NFL. He can line up as a zero-technique over the center and two-gap, but last year the Ravens did a good job of moving him around and matching him up against the opposition’s best run blocker.
Here, Williams aligns on the outside shoulder of Cowboys right guard Zack Martin. The Cowboys run an outside zone run to their right.
Williams uses his hands perfectly, getting them inside on to the chest of Martin. From there, Williams uses his strength and leverage to control the block, maintaining gap integrity on the outside shoulder of the guard.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott has nowhere to go on the outside, so he opts to cut back inside behind Martin. Williams reads the cut, staying low and getting under Martin to drive him back as he works across the face of the guard to get back inside and clog up the lane, assisting the tackle for no gain.
Later in the game, the Cowboys attempt to run at Williams again.
Like before, Williams matches up against Martin on an outside-zone play.
Williams strikes quickly with his hands, getting them inside before Martin can react. Williams then stays low, getting under Martin and driving him back to position himself on the outside shoulder, just as he did on the previous play.
This time, rather than cutting back, Elliott stays on his original path. Williams uses his strength to shove Martin inside and disengage, working off the block to make the tackle on Elliott for no gain.
Williams is such an effective run defender that teams often opt to run away from him. But that also presents a problem.
Here, Williams lines up on the right shoulder of the center. The Giants elect to run an outside-zone play to their left, away from Williams. Running away from a stout run defender like Williams is a logical idea, however, it creates a tough problem for the back-side guard. The right guard has to reach and cut off Williams to keep the cutback lanes open.
But Williams is too strong for one blocker to reach across his face and cut him off. Williams simply drives the guard backwards into the backfield as he pursues the running back.
As the back looks to make his cut, Williams positions himself so he can work inside but still be able to get back outside if the runner cuts his run all the way back behind him. Once the back has made his cut, Williams then works off the blocker and makes the tackle for a loss.
Williams isn’t a flashy player and the Ravens usually took him off the field in obvious passing situations. That limits the number of snaps he can play, meaning his value is slightly less than a more-versatile player like Poe. But run defense shouldn’t be underestimated. Williams is one of the best run defenders in the league and would be a strong addition to any defense.
Under the radar: Johnathan Hankins, age 24
Hankins is one of the youngest free agents in this class. He’s only 24, meaning he should be able to provide maximum value over the life of the contract, as opposed to older players who may begin to drop off in the later years of a deal, after they reach 30. It also means any team signing him can expect him to still improve as a player.
Hankins can be somewhat inconsistent. At times, he appears to just be going through the motions and can go missing. But when he’s at his best, he can be very effective as both a run defender and pass rusher.
Here against Washington, Hankins lines up on the outside shoulder of left guard Shawn Lauvao.
Hankins is a player who has good size, but also makes the most of his hand usage. As the ball is snapped and handed off, Hankins works to get his hands inside on the chest of Lauvao. While he does that, he positions himself on the outside shoulder, preparing for a cut back, all while keeping his eyes in the backfield.
As he reads the run of Matt Jones, Hankins drops his hands, catching Lauvao leaning too far forward. Hankins uses a swim move to get himself past Lauvao and inside to fill the running lane.
Jones has nowhere to go and Hankins makes the tackle for no gain.
The use of hands is obvious when watching Hankins. When he’s successful, it’s often because of how well he uses his hands to win blocks. This includes when he rushes the passer.
This time, Hankins lines up on the outside shoulder of New Orleans Saints’ left guard Andrus Peat, but he attempts to work inside, attacking the A gap between left guard and center.
Hankins shows some quickness, bursting across the face of Peat from the snap. Hankins gets his right arm inside on the chest of the blocker while attempting to beat him for speed inside. He surprises the guard, but the guard manages to shuffle his feet to recover position slightly.
Hankins then squares up the guard, knowing he has leverage with his hand placement. With his hands inside, he pulls down, pulling Peat off-balance.
The guard can only grab on and hold to delay Hankins from getting to quarterback Drew Brees. The hold is clear, preventing Hankins from closing on Brees, but goes uncalled.
Hankins will have to improve his consistency, as most young players do, but he has plenty of positive traits to build on. He has the size at 6-2, 320, to fit well as a nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme, but still offer some penetration to fit the one-gap scheme and stay on the field in obvious passing situations. Hankins would also come with the added bonus of weakening a divisional opponent, taking a starting defensive lineman from the Giants.
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