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Commanders select pair of Alabama players on Day 2 of NFL draft

Phidarian Mathis, a defensive tackle out of Alabama, was selected by the Washington Commanders with the 47th overall pick in the NFL draft. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt, File)

After turning to the Big Ten for a playmaker in the first round of the NFL draft, the Washington Commanders went all-Alabama on Day 2 to bolster their defensive line and add to their rushing corps.

At No. 47 overall in the second round, Washington took Phidarian Mathis, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound defensive tackle from Alabama. Then in the third round, using the 98th pick it received from the New Orleans Saints on Thursday, Washington drafted one of Mathis’s college teammates, running back Brian Robinson Jr.

“We got tougher today,” General Manager Martin Mayhew said Friday night.

Mathis is now the Commanders’ third defensive tackle from Alabama, joining starters Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne.

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“They’re my big bros,” Mathis said. “... Payne, we talk all the time. It’s a blessing to be back with Payne and also get a chance to play with Jonathan Allen.”

At the least, Mathis provides sorely needed depth on a line that lost its top two reserves, Tim Settle and Matt Ioannidis, this offseason and rotates players often to keep its starters fresh.

“Not just depth, but a guy you know is going to get snaps,” Washington Coach Ron Rivera said. “Matt played over 50 percent of the snaps, and this is a young man that’s going to get an opportunity play a good number of those as well.”

But Mathis has the potential to be a future starter. Washington was bound to face difficult decisions with its starting defensive line, which is composed of all first-round picks. It re-signed Allen last year and it will soon have to shell out higher salaries for ends Montez Sweat and Chase Young.

Payne could be the odd man out. He’s under contract for only one more season, and if he’s not traded or re-signed earlier, he will be a free agent in March. When asked if drafting Mathis changed how he felt about Payne, Rivera immediately responded, “No, not at all.”

“This, again, is about bringing a guy in, giving him an opportunity to contribute and be a part of what we’re trying to do,” he said. “I think people jump to the conclusion that just because you don’t do anything now doesn’t mean that you can’t do something later. A lot of things have changed. … When you get a veteran quarterback that has a salary, it’s going to impact your salary cap and how you respond to it. It’s a difficult thing as you figure out the best way to pay players, and sometimes you can’t do it right away. That’s kind of the situation we’re in now.”

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Although they’re only 11 months apart in age, Mathis, 24, was a redshirt freshman at Alabama in 2017 when Payne was a starting junior. After biding his time for a few years, Mathis was elevated to a starter, showing his strength as a run-stopper while flashing his potential as a pass-rusher. Last season, he finished second on the team with nine sacks and had 25 quarterback pressures. He was also named a team captain, which he thinks intrigued Washington coaches.

“They know about my leadership, they know I’m a hard worker, they know I love football, they know I’m a great role model,” Mathis said. “Those are just the things they told me.”

Similar to first-round pick Jahan Dotson, who admitted Thursday he didn’t expect to be taken as high as he was, Mathis said he was anticipating going in the third or fourth round. Rivera said that was likely due to his agent trying to manage his expectations ahead of the draft. But that wasn’t the only reason Mathis was surprised to get the call from Washington.

“The crazy thing was, we could not find a hat,” Mathis said. “That’s the only hat we didn’t have. My dad was coming through from Atlanta and he said he found this hat. It’s not the Commanders hat; it just says Washington. I told my dad, ‘Man, it’s gonna be crazy if they call me and it’s the only hat I don’t have.’ ”

Robinson, a 23-year-old back built more like a linebacker, adds size to a rushing corps led by Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic. Like Mathis, Robinson had to wait years behind a line of talented backs at Alabama, including Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs. But when he was turned loose, his production was eye-popping.

Named first-team all-SEC last season after totaling 271 carries for 1,343 rushing yards and a conference-high 14 rushing touchdowns, Robinson has been described by analysts as a “bruiser” and a “bulldozer” who translates to more of a short-yardage back in the NFL. At Alabama, he showed a bit of his versatility in tallying 35 catches for 296 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2021 and contributing on special teams.

More significant, however: Robinson had only two fumbles in his 66 career games at Alabama.

“I saw the stat flash that this is a guy that breaks tackles, over 800 yards after contact,” Rivera said. “That’s pretty impressive. And he’s been consistent in protecting the football over his career. He’s also a different type of back than what we get from Antonio and what we get from J.D. We have a trifecta of guys that you’re going to feel real good about in terms of mixing up things.”

Washington has five picks remaining — two each in the fourth and seventh rounds and one in the sixth. The team still needs help at linebacker and has yet to add to its secondary, a group that lacks a “Buffalo” nickel and depth across the board.

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