But as the defense transitions to Jack Del Rio’s 4-3 scheme and welcomes the addition of second overall pick Chase Young, the player who stands to benefit the most might be Sweat.
“He’s a guy that we liked when he was coming out of the draft,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “. . . He’s a tremendously gifted athlete. Again, going back and watching his tape and seeing how he was, he was growing and developing. I’ll be honest, just kind of going back and looking at him from his college tape and remembering him putting his hand on the ground and how explosive he was off the line of scrimmage and then seeing it again . . . with his ability and Chase’s ability and that whole group of guys we have, we have the ability to have a special unit.”
Sweat, a 6-foot-6 former tight end who ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, played in a four-man front for most of his two years at Mississippi State. In 2017, he led the SEC in both sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (16), and as a senior he recorded a career-best 12 sacks.
But as a rookie outside linebacker in Washington’s 3-4 defense last season, he produced only seven sacks, most of which came in the second half of the season.
“I feel like I developed more of a rush plan going into the games than I had more earlier in the year,” Sweat said Thursday in a video conference call with reporters. “ … Moving later on into the season, I started studying my opponent more, studying the teams … the snap counts, the plays they like to run the most out of a formation, just things of that sort.”
To prepare for the scheme change and his shift to defensive end, Sweat bulked up this offseason, tacking on close to 15 pounds since the end of last year to now weigh around 265. He also studied film to review his mistakes from 2019 and expand his knowledge of the position.
“When you know what you’re doing, you can do it fast,” Washington defensive line coach Sam Mills III said. “A big component of our defense is penetrating and attacking. We’re going to put pressure on the offense and not just sit back and let them dictate to us what’s going to go on. I think part of getting after the quarterback is going to be just our approach to it and being more aggressive.”
Because Washington has depth to envy up front, Mills said he plans to use his linemen in a rotation of sorts to keep them fresh. But the focus will undoubtedly be more on wreaking havoc and disrupting the passer, and for Sweat it will be less on dropping back. Last year, he was used in coverage on 66 snaps, the 16th most among edge defenders last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
With Young on the other side of him, Sweat figures to see more one-on-one opportunities when rushing the passer. Should an opponent try to double-team and chip-block Young, it’ll have fewer resources devoted to Sweat, and vice versa.
Such was the case in 2012, when Del Rio was defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos and his unit featured the edge-rushing duo of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. The tandem recorded 29.5 sacks that season, a Broncos franchise record for a pair of defenders.
“I mean, the wins are the most important thing as a team,” Sweat said. “But every D-lineman loves to get sacks. That’s definitely a highlight of my play.”