Da’Ron Payne is a proven playmaker, a stout run-stuffer capable of clogging lanes and taking down targets with sheer brute strength and enviable athleticism. But that’s not all former Alabama defensive tackle is, Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said.
“He’s not just a run stopper,” he said of the 6-foot-3, 311-pound Payne, whom they selected 13th overall Thursday night in Round 1 of the NFL Draft. “I know he didn’t have a lot of sacks last year (one), but he can disrupt the passing game. If you watched him against Georgia (in the national championship game), you might say he’s the best defensive lineman in football.”
Gruden added: “At the end of day, pro football is about being able to run the ball and stopping the run. We have to stop the run better and Da’Ron Payne will help us do that.”
The Redskins, who finished 7-9 last season, need all the help they can get on defense. They finished 12th in the league in total team defense, ninth in passing (213.8 yards per game), but 32nd against the run (134.1). The 20-year-old Payne will now help to offset their subpar run defense, anchoring a line that boasts plenty of young talent in Jonathan Allen, Anthony Lanier II and Matt Ioannidis. The rookie may be young by the NFL standards, but building chemistry with the unit won’t be difficult for Payne given his Crimson Tide ties. He’ll reunite with Allen and outside linebacker Ryan Anderson, both of whom were drafted out of Alabama by the Redskins in 2017, in the first and second rounds, respectively.
The real test for Payne, however, starts in a few months when he faces real NFL competition. But Gruden is confident in Payne’s playmaking ability — and that includes his pass-rushing skills.
“He can get back there,” the coach said, explaining that Payne can push the pocket and thus create more sack opportunities for his teammates. “I think Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and Ryan Anderson will be very happy to have Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne in the middle.”
Highlighting the defensive tackle’s versatility, Gruden said Payne can play the nose tackle position, as well line up in the three-technique defensive tackle position in a four-man front, and five-technique defensive end position in a three-man front, but “we will start him at nose and see how it goes,” he said.
Several prospects with big names and big upside — like Virginia Tech inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and Florida State safety Derwin James — were still on the board when the Redskins were on the clock Thursday night. But Payne wound up being “the perfect fit” for the Redskins, according to Gruden.
“Yeah, he was up there [at the top of our board],” he said, referring to Payne. “There’s a lot of scenarios we tried to play through and guys were getting picked, and we’re happy as heck to get Da’Ron. He’s one of our top guys.”
Gruden acknowledged that Edmunds, who went at No. 16 to the Buffalo Bills and James, who was taken one pick later by the Los Angeles Chargers, “are great players,” but added, “for what we were looking for, all the work we’ve done on Da’Ron Payne … I think the room was unanimous on who we should pick.”
Now, the organization is eager to see this young but talented player improve in time.
“Stats don’t always tell a story about pass rushers,” said Gruden. “And I think being a 20-year-old kid, as strong as he is, as big as he is already, he’s got room to grow. Having [defensive line] coach [Jim] Tomsula work with him, I think it’s going to be a great match and be fun to watch.”