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Washington 2021 Position Reset: Defensive End

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With Super Bowl LV capping off the 2020 season, it is time to look ahead to the 2021 campaign.

Over the next few weeks, Washingtonfootball.com will break down the position groups and lay out who the team could potentially add via free agency and the draft. These are the positions that have been covered so far:

Next up are the defensive ends:

On The Roster

Rookie defensive end Chase Young was the biggest story for the position heading into the 2020 season. Not only was he the No. 2 overall pick, but he was also viewed as one of the best pass-rushing prospects in the past decade. And he did not just meet the expectations set by himself and others; he surpassed them.

Young made immediate waves during his NFL debut against the Philadelphia Eagles, recording four tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. From that point on, it was clear to other teams that they would need to find a way of containing the defensive end. "[Young]'s a talented player, a young guy with a lot of juice, a lot of energy, specimen, freak of nature, all those things," Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray said. "We're gonna have to obviously block him, do a good job on offense and execute."

Head coach Ron Rivera believed Young could impact a game beyond just recording sacks, and that was obvious in the last seven games of the season. He forced and recovered three fumbles, defended three passes, had eight quarterback hits, notched 22 tackles, tallied 4.0 sacks and scored a touchdown in that time span. That earned him a slew of accolades, including Defensive Rookie of the Year.

"He's so talented that even for a rookie getting your first couple looks in this league, his talent helps some things," said defensive line coach Sam Mills III. "There's a couple plays there where he just let his athletic ability take over. 'Hey, if you know what you're doing and you go there fast, good things will happen.' That's what we let take place."

While Young received most of the national attention, second-year pro Montez Sweat was also worthy of recognition by putting up similar or better statistics on a weekly basis. In his first season as a 4-3 defensive end, he improved in nearly every category; he led the team with 9.0 sacks, batted down six passes, hauled in his first interception and returned it for a touchdown and forced two fumbles -- all while starting in all 16 games for the second straight season.

But one of his biggest improvements was defending the run. Although he recorded five fewer tackles in 2020 than in 2019, he bumped his Pro Football Focus run-defense grade up to 87.0, which was behind only Khalil Mack and T.J. Watt. That was enough for PFF to name him Washington's most improved player.

PFF's Ben Linsey wrote that Young and Sweat could be "one of the league's best edge defender duos for years to come." Mills said they are not at the point in their careers yet, but they do have a skillset that will allow them to grow. And according to Mills, they're helping each other do that by always communicating and competing with one another.

"They're two young players, and they still have a lot to learn. They're still growing and maturing. It's going to be fun to watch them do that because each game you see them learning something new, putting something else in their pocket and taking it along their journey with them."

The emergence of Sweat and Young meant that 10-year veteran Ryan Kerrigan would have to take on a lesser role than he was accustomed to, but the four-time Pro Bowler still managed to be productive with 5.5 sacks on a career-low 38% of the defensive snaps. His mentorship to Sweat, Young and the rest of Washington's young pass-rushers also proved to be invaluable, as Young often mentioned how Kerrigan showed him how to take care of his body to have a long career.

"I always thank RK for doing that, and I always thank him for the type of man that he is and just [taking] me with open arms and teaching me the game," Young said after the season. "RK knows it's all love, and we're going to have this relationship forever."

Kerrigan also made his way into Washington's record books by surpassing Dexter Manley as the team's all-time official sack leader. In his second-best pass-rushing game of the season, according to PFF, he brought down Carson Wentz twice and led Washington in sacks. "To have my name up there with them now, it is awesome," Kerrigan said. "I don't think I could ever dream of anything like this. It is really special to me."

The other three defensive ends on Washington's roster -- Ryan Anderson, James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill -- did not have as much of an impact but still found ways to contribute.

Anderson made nine tackles (one for a loss) in nine appearances before being placed on Injured Reserve with a knee injury, while Toohill was mostly a special teams player but did record two tackles as well as a quarterback hit in eight games. Mills loves Toohill's energy and sees him as "a student of the game" who was constantly studying and would text Mills questions throughout the season.

"When you have guys like that in your room, it makes it a lot easier," Mills said. "It makes it fun to teach. You look forward to their success."

Washington moved Smith-Williams to defensive tackle once Matt Ioannidis suffered a season-ending injury. Like Toohill, he was primarily a special teams player and impressed his teammates and coaches with his willingness to play multiple positions. That versatility is viewed as an asset for Smith-Williams, because regardless of where he plays next, the coaches know he has the skills to produce.

"James is so talented. James could play a lot of different positions for us," Mills said. "So, we're excited about that. That's number one. Number two, James is really mature. I joke with him all the time and tell him he's an old man. He's got a very confident and very serious approach to the game."

The Washington Football Team's top defensive plays from the 2020 season.

Free Agency

Washington seems to be set in terms of starting-caliber defensive ends, but there several options the team could pursue if it wants to bolster the position. In addition to Kerrigan being set to become a free agent, veterans like J.J. Watt, Justin Houston, Solomon Thomas and Bruce Irvin are available. You can check out all of the impending free agent defensive ends, HERE.

Draft

Should Washington choose to improve the position through the draft, Kwity Paye (Michigan), Azeez Ojulari (Georgia) and Joseph Ossai (Texas) lead the edge defender class. Check out a list of all the prospects, HERE.

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