The long, dramatized run-up to the NFL draft is full of two toxic distractions: smokescreens and overthinking. Teams lie. Everyone devotes too many brain cells to speculation, whether sensible or outlandish. The whole exercise dismisses clarity, and then when the obvious happens on draft night, it suddenly feels exotic.
Got it? Okay. Now let’s talk about Chase Young.
After Cincinnati selects Joe Burrow with the first pick Thursday night, the Washington Redskins should grab Young at No. 2 within seconds of coming on the clock. They should consider trading down only if the deal would still allow them to get Young or if some team makes a ridiculous offer that includes a treasure trove of high picks over multiple drafts. Washington should place an astonishingly high value on the Ohio State defensive end, and when you quiet your mind, there are too many compelling reasons to ignore.
Many regard Young as the best talent in this draft. If football weren’t such a quarterback-driven sport, he would be a legitimate challenger to Burrow for the No. 1 pick. In this case, the Bengals’ need at that position — and Burrow’s status as an Ohio native — gives Washington a chance to add a player with superstar ability to a roster desperate for an athlete with franchise-player talent. Young, a prodigy who played at DeMatha High, has been front of mind since the 2019 season ended. Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who played with Young at Ohio State, left for the offseason with a simple message.
“Two words: Chase Young,” he said. “That’s all I got to say.”
That’s all he needed to say. You can make legitimate arguments about the many needs the Redskins have as Coach Ron Rivera tries to rebuild the franchise. You can imagine the possibilities of using the No. 2 pick to trade down and fill more holes. But the biggest issue with the roster is that it lacks a game-changing, top-five-at-his-position, perennial all-pro who plays a premier position. Ideally, if you want to chase championships, a team would like to have three or four of those players. The Redskins have none.
Throughout his career, Ryan Kerrigan has been close to that level, but he will be 32 when the 2020 season begins. He is also coming off his least-productive year (5.5 sacks), and he missed four games, the first absences of his career, because of a concussion and a calf injury. Landon Collins played at that level for one season — before he arrived in Washington. Brandon Scherff, who will play under the franchise tag this season, is the real deal and definitely among the top five at his position, but guard is not a premier role. And Trent Williams, well, he is just technically a member of the franchise at this point.
There is plenty of solid young talent, including Haskins, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Matt Ioannidis, Terry McLaurin and Derrius Guice. But the team doesn’t have a defining player, someone so gifted and deserving of the opponent’s attention that he makes the game significantly easier for his teammates.
Young is that kind of talent. The coaches need to smooth out some rough edges and teach him the nuances of pass rushing at the NFL level, but his continued improvement doesn’t require magic. It’s all about polishing and refining.
For the past five years, the Redskins have done a solid job of drafting and stockpiling good players who have contributed to a good culture in the locker room. In that sense, they have functioned the way a franchise should. But what did stringing together good and pretty good drafts do for former coach Jay Gruden? The Redskins went to the playoffs once, hovered around .500 and then fell apart last season. Some of the blame can fall on Gruden and the old coaching staff, but you must look at what the Redskins were building.
They weren’t ambitious enough or, rather, they weren’t skilled enough in going beyond the template for team building and understanding when to play it safe and when to go after dynamic athletes who tilt the game in their favor. The greatest example is the 2018 draft, when they took Payne at No. 13, even though a highly regarded safety, Derwin James, was dropping inexplicably. Payne is a good player, and he will be even better under Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. But James was an all-pro as a rookie with the Los Angeles Chargers (who grabbed him with the 17th pick), and he plays a more pivotal position in today’s NFL, with its emphasis on speed, versatility and the ability to make plays in space.
In 2018, Washington overthought the obvious pick. Rivera would be wise not to start his tenure with a similar mistake.
When weighing value, there are ways to crunch the numbers and make a strong case for trading down. My colleague, Barry Svrluga, did just that recently. But if Washington projects Young to be a superstar, as many other teams do, the value of such a talent is difficult to scale.
Consider how much teams covet those qualities in a defensive lineman of any kind. Over the past 10 drafts, there were just three years when a pass rusher wasn’t the first non-QB selected.
All drafts are eye-of-the-beholder guessing games, and a number of approaches can work. So it shouldn’t be ignored that there’s a long history of NFL teams agreeing on one point: If you have a high draft pick and your quarterback situation doesn’t need to be addressed, take the defensive player who can do the most damage up front if he grades out well. There’s a relatively low bust rate for pass rushers at the Young level. For every Dion Jordan, you can point to Joey and Nick Bosa, Von Miller, Jadeveon Clowney, Bradley Chubb and Myles Garrett.
For the Redskins, Young’s impact could be similar to how Nick Bosa completed the San Francisco defensive line. The 49ers were loaded with young defensive linemen who were high draft picks, but they still chose Bosa at No. 2 last year. They could have traded down and addressed other needs, but they chose a superstar who helped them turn their defensive line into the NFL’s best position group. Because of their ferocity up front, they went to the Super Bowl.
Of course, the San Francisco roster was in better shape than the one in Washington. But drafting Young could make that D-line — which isn’t as good as its investment just yet — special. In particular, the attention required to keep Young in check could be the key to unlocking all that Allen has to offer. He could allow Kerrigan to slide into a role on the opposite side that would extend his time as a standout player. His arrival would put Montez Sweat and Ioannidis — who combined for 15.5 sacks last season — in specialized, non-starter roles. The defensive line’s rotation would be incredible and multifaceted, and Del Rio’s track record indicates he knows how to leverage such a gift.
Then, when the unit has established itself as a force and each player has trade value, you can deal some of the pieces that seem superfluous. The 49ers did that with DeForest Buckner this offseason instead of paying him. Washington doesn’t have physical freaks of the 49ers’ caliber, but this principle still applies: Quality defensive linemen are precious commodities, and a surplus of them opens plenty of team-building possibilities.
We like to think of team building in terms of balance. Roster weaknesses inform need, but you have to remember that the best teams in professional sports desire overpowering strengths and manageable weaknesses. In striving to be great, you have to decide where to be great, especially in the parity-fueled NFL.
If he fulfills his potential, Young would help clarify the direction of the Redskins in the Rivera era. To get him, the franchise need only relax, watch Cincinnati snag Burrow and make the no-brainer selection.
Momentum can be that simple. The Redskins can overthink it, or they can move on to the truly challenging parts of their latest rebuilding effort.
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