Taking a look at the Washington Redskins positions entering training camp. Today: Defensive line.
Returning starters: Jason Hatcher
Up for grabs: The starting jobs appear set with Paea, Knighton and Hatcher from left to right. But Chris Baker could somehow wrestle the left end job away from Paea. I don’t think that will happen; Paea fits nicely with what the Redskins want to do up front and he was a key free-agent signing. But having Baker does provide the Redskins with solid depth. And that depth should be more beneficial in nickel situations when they have more players who can collapse the pocket -- provided Hatcher stays healthy, of course.
What they still need: They’re in pretty good shape up front, both with the starters and the reserves. So what they really need is for Knighton and Hatcher to play well. For Knighton that means being in shape. He spent the offseason losing weight (had heard he was near 400 pounds when he signed). He can play at a higher weight than most but the Redskins still wanted him to lose some pounds. (They included a weight clause for $450,000 in his contract.) For Hatcher, playing well means staying healthy. He showed flashes of his talent last season, beating double-teams and making some plays in the backfield. But a lingering knee injury prevented him from having a big season. He wasn’t bad, but Hatcher wasn’t as disruptive as needed. Playing in a heavier one-gap scheme should fit the strengths of both Hatcher and Paea.
Pivotal year: For Knighton. He signed only a one-year deal -- a few teams apparently were scared off by the weight. If he wants a multiyear deal, he must stay in (relatively) good shape and produce. If that happens, the Redskins would be happy to give him the contract he wanted this offseason.
Don’t forget about: Jean Francois. He’s an excellent fit for what the Redskins want and should work well with their nickel package. His quickness was evident in the spring. Another guy to not forget is Frank Kearse. He played well as a backup last season and can help at multiple spots. He’s not a guy I spent much time discussing with anyone this offseason, but he helps with depth.
One question: Where does Kedric Golston fit in? He’s been a key reserve since 2008 and still helps on special teams and is a good pro in the locker room. But will there be room for him this season?
Outlook: It’s good. The Redskins knew a key to improving the defense was getting stronger up front. Bowen was a nice player for a couple of years, but his injuries had greatly reduced his effectiveness. And Cofield might not be ready to play until the season begins after offseason surgery so the Redskins had little choice but to move on. If all goes well, this could be their best front in several years -- but we’ve all seen too many years when it doesn’t all go well. Still, they have versatility with Paea, Hatcher, Jean Francois as quality rushers in nickel packages. Last season, Hatcher was the lone inside threat and his knee prevented him from doing damage. Baker can help here, too. If Knighton loses enough weight and regains some quickness, he can help collapse the pocket out of their base 3-4 defense. This group should be the strength of the defense -- and that’s what the Redskins intended. The best way to help the secondary: improve the front. It starts with being better against the run on first down. The Redskins were 19th in this area in 2014, allowing 4.11 yards per carry. With Knighton, they have a true run-stopper. The nice thing about him is that the Redskins can vary their gap responsibilities if they want because he can definitely be a two-gap player.