Over the past few months, Redskins.com has interviewed position coaches about younger players who have made significant contributions so far this season. Here's who we've interviewed so far:
This week's conversation is with outside linebackers coach Chad Grimm about the evolution of first-rounder Montez Sweat, who has five sacks and has started every game during his rookie campaign.
Question: How would you evaluate his performance based on the expectations coming into the year?
Chad Grimm: Well, the expectations were always high with the high draft pick, first-round pick.
I don't think you can ever just look at the stats and say that this guy is this good because he had this number of sacks or whatever that may be. I always think of Khalil Mack.
Defensive line is a tough position early on in a career having to deal with those big offensive tackles who have been playing a long time. It is a developing position. But I think just to go with the synopsis of his entire season, I think the first thing you have to look at is that he started every single game, which is an extreme accomplishment on its own [with] just the physicality and the number of reps and the number of hits. For a young rookie to be able to start every game and be dependable, I think that's an accomplishment on its own.
Looking back at the whole year, I think he was above average by far versus the run. He was a physical presence, he set a good edge, which is one of the hardest things for a young defensive end to do. So, I thought he showed great physicality, toughness in those kinds of situations versus the run.
And I think if you look from the first couple weeks of the season -- we played Dallas Week 2 and now we're playing them the last game of the year, so we obviously see that film again -- I think the development of his rush is solid progress.
How fast someone develops, you never really know. I'm a third-year outside linebacker coach, so by no means do I think I'm the best in the league. So, do you say, "Oh, well if he had the absolute best, what would he look like?" I don't know. You don't know. You just have to take what you see, see the growth, see the continued development and feel good about that, and I think if you see his progression as far as his angles in the rush, his pad level -- the use of his hands is probably the biggest thing – he's had a solid progression, and I think he's off to a great start for his career.
Q: Where has be made strides against the run?
Grimm: In the run game he's been fantastic since we got him. He had a lot of experience at Mississippi State and Michigan State and that was really his strength; just his length and his ability to use it.
He has solid strength that will continue to grow and that will help him with some other aspects, but he's been a really solid pure edge setter versus the run.
He had rookie mistakes at times -- he'd get caught looking inside maybe -- and he's learning the scheme like every rookie does, and those errors and mistakes, they're common throughout rookies.
And you can see that now he's become more comfortable with the scheme, and some of the little nuances where he got caught where his eyes shouldn't be or doing things he probably shouldn't do, he's improved and corrected those things.
It's just becoming more comfortable. Preston Smith was kind of the same way. I remember I was here during his rookie year, and he had similar issues. But they begin to learn the game more, they become more comfortable with the scheme and they understand what they're trying to do. And they eliminate those minor mental errors you could call them of trying to do too much or just trying to understand what's going on around them that helps them play better.
So, I think that's been the biggest difference. Where some balls might have gotten around the edge and certain things early in the season, [Sweat] has completely eliminated them. It was never a lack of physical ability. It's just understanding what's going on around him with the other 10 guys.
Q: Where do you think he made the biggest strides as a pass-rusher, and what does he need to do to take that next step forward?
Grimm: He was pretty raw. He relied on pure physical ability in college. Obviously, he's a 4.4 [second] 40 [yard dash] guy, so he'd just get off the ball and he'd be around tackles simply with his get off and his burst.
In the NFL, there's a lot of great defensive ends that have the same burst, the same speed, that kind of thing. You have to win with more than just your natural attributes. You have to win with hands, you have to win with your angle, you have to win with your pad level – all of those kinds of things. In college, you can be great at one thing and you win with natural ability, but it doesn't work in the NFL like that.
It's tough to knock him because he was winning all of the time in college simply by just getting off the ball, so he had to develop those attributes. He's been working on them, and it's something that defensive ends continually build. Even Ryan Kerrigan, still, is working on different ways to work his hands to improve his rush ability.
It's a never-ending process, but [Sweat] understands that, which is the first thing towards growth or correcting the issues. So, he's made a strong point to emphasize and work on his hands and continue to grow as a rusher, and I think you can see that at the later end of the season versus the first.
Like I said, in college, he was beating guys with just pure get off. And now he has a little bit of a foot freeze and a long arm. He can still win with speed, obviously, since that's his best attribute. But he's developed a variety of tools that he's starting to use, and you can see it starting to translate into his game.
It's probably a little tough for [Sweat], I can imagine, but he's a very heady player. He watches more film than most guys, and I see him all the time just sitting around here, watching tape, watching tackles, how they set, and that's the other biggest thing: he understands where he needs to raise him game, and then he also puts in the work with it. That's 90% of the monster to defeat and to overcome, so I think he's going to be a really good football player.
Like I said, defensive line is usually one of the harder positions to come in and be a big impactful player, and so I think he's got a solid platform to stand on. I think with his rookie year, everyone will look back on it as far as evaluating and say, "That was a really solid first step."
It's still going to come down on him to continue to grow and to continue to put in the work like he has been, but everything I've seen from him leads me to believe that he's going to go on and make great strides in the coming years.
And usually that's how it works. Khalil Mack and guys like that, if you look at just the numbers you would say very so-so I guess -- I think [Mack] had 4.5 [sacks] his rookie year. But then he just took off from there. So, there's no telling with a guy like [Sweat]. When it clicks in his mind and he finally gets it completely and he's still putting in the work like he is, he'll take off and be a big-time player.
Q: Are there any sequences or plays that stick out in your mind that show Sweat's continual growth of the course of his rookie campaign?
Grimm: If you look back at the first game of the year against Philadelphia, he was going up against Jason Peters, who's been a Pro Bowl tackle multiple times in his career. If you actually watch his rush, he's doing his best to work around, but he's not attacking the guy, he's not threatening him with an angle or scaring him. He's just trying to, kind of like college, rely on his speed.
And then the other one that sticks out in my head is Buffalo [in Week 9]. He really should have had probably three sacks against Buffalo – he had one – but he's just slightly figuring out kind of what he's supposed to do in the defenses. There was one [play] down in the red zone that we got a hit on the quarterback -- I think he threw it away -- but he came clean through the B gap. But if you actually watch, he's hesitant in a way of unsureness. He's not 100% sure of what's going on around him and he's figuring it out. And then all of the sudden he gets a quarterback hit whereas someone like a Ryan Kerrigan, who knows exactly what he's doing, exactly what's going on around him, if there's no hesitation then it's sack easily, unblocked.
Early in the year, a lot of times he'd transition into a power rush, and it wasn't a smooth transition. He would lose speed, and as he converted from speed to power, he would lose momentum in his transition.
But there was a rush last year against Peters that was smooth as could be – just straight into a long arm – and he drove him straight back into quarterback [Carson Wentz].
No game is perfect. There are plays certain weeks that you say, 'Wow, I'm so glad that it finally clicked and he got it now.' And you see the results of that. But it's a continued process with everyone.
I'm trying to think of other [sequences]. I know the Peters rush last week … and then I'd say Carolina [in Week 13]. He got a bad quad contusion, so he only played the first half, but I'd say Carolina was when it finally started clicking for him. You saw the results show up with a sack and a half in the first half, and really he would have had a lot more opportunities in the second half, but unfortunately he got hurt in the game. But that Carolina game was probably the first one of the year that you could tell he was comfortable, he's understanding and he's just playing football and just letting his abilities take over.
Q: What are some other things Sweat has endured during his transition from college to the NFL?
Grimm: Kerrigan has always played the left, and that's been one of the harder things for [Sweat], too. People don't understand that he played the left side I think like 97% of his college snaps. Just getting used to taking off on a different stance on the right side, but there's a lot that goes into it, too. Now your vision's all different, your steps are different, you're working the hands on the other side.
So, he's not only getting used to just the greater talent level, but he's also transitioning from the left side to a pure hand in the ground to a right-side defensive end and also, obviously being a 3-4 team when we're in base, we ask them do a lot more coverage types of things.
Q: Yeah, I saw that last week against the New York Giants.
Grimm: Yeah, we just felt like last week the base defense gave us the best chance to slow down [running back Saquon] Barkley. He got hot early, and we just wanted to mix it up on them -- give them a different look -- and put an extra defensive lineman in there to help stop the run. So, when we do that against their 11 sub personnel, we ask the outside linebackers to be in coverage.
He's done a really good job with that. He's such a big guy that as long as he's close to where he needs to be, he eats up windows and stuff like that. He's done a fantastic job as far as everything we've asked him to do and the difference of what he was asked to do in college, which is night and day. I think he's picked up a lot of it, and athletically, he's phenomenal.
When he understands things and he's completely thorough on everything, he does it as well as anyone in the league. It's just that growth, and it's hard. It's a lot different than the college schemes are. The NFL is a completely different ball game.
Q: People do not even think about switching sides or switching stances. Not many people take into account how much those things matter.
Grimm: It's so hard. When anything you ever do is put your right hand in the ground and look at the ball and get off on the ball, well now you're standing up and who knows, what your assignment is going to dictate where your eyes need to be. Where he's only had one thing he ever worried about, which was putting his right hand in the ground and getting off on the snap. Now, all of the sudden, he might have, throughout our defense, he's probably got 50 to 100 different schemes of where his eyes need to be, where his alignment is, what he's focusing on and what he's seeing, and all of that stuff is completely new to him.
And then on top of that, whereas a college team normally has three or four different schemes defensively, with an NFL team you're talking about 20 to 30. So, he's constantly new things and then understanding not just his spot but the 10 around him, which helps him understand how to do his job better.
It's a lot of learning, a lot of new stuff and I think you can tell how intelligent he is because he's picked it up fairly well. I've been pleasantly surprised and happy with his growth and his development mentally with the schemes as much as anything.
Q: Lastly, what do you think Sweat can do this offseason to maximize his growth entering Year 2 in the NFL?
Grimm: The biggest thing for him is to continue that growth and gains in the weight room. Strength is always a big deal. You're playing against the best tackles who typically are five-, six-, seven-year guys who have been working out in an [NFL] weight room that long. So strength and conditioning, obviously.
Also, he's flexible, but he's got a little bit of hip stiffness that he can continue to loosen up, like everyone. Yoga is a big thing we always emphasize to these guys, just loosening himself acrobatically.
And it's just doing different drills or athletic-type movements in space. Maybe dropping and running angles and re-directing and stuff like that. Just stuff that he was typically never asked to do. Besides rushing, those athletic movements and continuing to grow with those. That will help him in everything he does.
Strength is the biggest, continuing to work on becoming as flexible and nimble and as loose as he can become and then the continued development of his rush hands.
When he was coming out of college, his [rush hands] weren't a knock on him because he was beating people with pure speed. But now he realizes and everyone realizes that you can't do that in the NFL because of the talent level, so just the continued growth of working his hands, getting the tackles' hands down and different things he does on that end.
Physically, his burst, his get off, all of that stuff is already phenomenal, so I think if he just fine tunes a couple of aspects of his flexibility and his rush and just the hands, he'll be, I believe, a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive end. It's just a matter of how fast that comes.