ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Commanders expected more from their defensive line and, by proxy, their ability to contend for the playoffs, in 2023.
With a losing record (3-5), and a front that has failed to live up to expectations, the Commanders took a sharp turn at Tuesday's trade deadline, offloading two former first-round picks: defensive ends Montez Sweat and Chase Young.
At one point, the Commanders wanted to build around a line that also included fellow first-rounders Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen at tackle. But after lackluster results, and with numerous holes elsewhere on the roster, they opted to go another direction -- adding future assets while continuing to believe, according to team sources, they can compete this season.
Washington received a high second-round pick from the Chicago Bears for Sweat -- the 26th overall pick in 2019 -- and a third-round choice for Young -- the second overall pick in 2020 -- from the San Francisco 49ers.
Here's what the deals mean.
What does this mean for the direction of the franchise?
This means it has future assets. Washington now has three draft picks among the top 50 in 2024 and five in the top 100. The Commanders also have glaring needs along the defensive line and could use help in their back seven on defense, among other spots. They also have approximately $90 million in salary cap space. They can attack free agency and the draft.
Washington still wants to win this season, despite what trading Chase and Sweat might look like. The Commanders did not want to unload all of their pending free agents because they want to compete in 2023. That's one reason, a team source said, they did not trade backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett; they want to be covered in case something happens to starter Sam Howell. Washington coach Ron Rivera has made it clear how much he values Brissett.
The extra draft capital gives them the ability to collect more young talent -- or be aggressive if they want to trade up. Owner Josh Harris, who also owns the Philadelphia 76ers, has watched the Philadelphia Eagles operate in this manner.
Why did Commanders trade both of their defensive ends?
Both would be free agents this offseason, and, based on these moves, the team no longer wanted to invest as heavily in one position group. Now, one source said, the Commanders can build a more balanced roster through spending and draft picks. Washington already had paid two other first-round picks along the front in Payne and Allen. The group was supposed to provide the foundation for defensive success. But Rivera was honest when asked whether they had played to the level he anticipated this season.
"Not consistently enough," he said. "You see it, but you've got to see it all the time, and that's really the mark of when it really comes together, is that it's consistent."
Throughout the offseason, team sources said they wanted to extend Sweat. And, if Young produced, they could always use the franchise tag on him and keep both players. After all, if Howell played well, it gave them a young quarterback on a rookie contract. Plus, Washington has all that cap space for 2024. The combination added up to keeping both -- if the Commanders wanted.
But, while Sweat and Young had combined for 11.5 sacks this season, the team had lost five of its past six games. Internally, multiple sources said, it became clear the Commanders needed more help elsewhere -- and it would be difficult to keep Sweat or Young. Sweat would have been the preferred choice long term, one source said, but the potential cost of his deal -- Spotrac listed his market value around $25 million a year -- combined with the Bears' offer made trading him the best option. Had it only been a third-round pick, a source said, it's unlikely the team would have traded Sweat.
There was also concern, multiple sources said, about Young's long-term durability after he suffered not only a torn ACL but also a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee in 2021. Indeed, sources said, medical concerns prevented some teams who had expressed interest from making an offer.
Another factor hinged on potential compensatory picks. Because Washington has a lot of cap space, it can be active in free agency. If the Commanders sign an expensive player, it would negate what they might have lost in Sweat or Young -- and they would not have received a compensatory pick.
There were also concerns about the lack of on-field chemistry among the starting defensive line, multiple sources said. According to sources, when Rivera said three weeks ago that the mantra of "Do Your Job" was directed as much at the defensive line as any group, Young was a particular target of that message; one source said the team viewed trading him as "addition by subtraction." A source said a lack of gap discipline impacted not only the pass rush but defending the run.
The coaching staff also knew that, two years ago, when Washington played without Sweat and/or Young for six games, it went 4-2 and improved in every key statistical category -- going from allowing 29.9 points per game to 17.5 and from 400 yards allowed to 284. But Sweat and Young are also having more productive seasons than in 2021.
Finally, for Washington to improve this season it'll take a lot more help from the back seven. The Commanders rank 31st in points and 29th in yards because that group has a lot of holes. If they don't stop allowing big plays -- they lead the NFL in 22 pass plays allowed of 25 or more yards -- then not enough will change to turn their season around.
Louis Riddick says the 49ers' trade for Chase Young is a great move as they bolster their defensive line.
What does this mean for Ron Rivera and his staff?
Because it's the fourth year under Rivera -- and they have a new owner in Harris -- the staff was already under the impression it needs to produce this season to stick around, as one coach said recently. At 3-5, and with no winning season yet, they have not produced.
But this could also help them. If Washington can right its season, Rivera & Co. can make a stronger case for being retained after making moves the owner approved and then showing they could still win. And they'd also have left the franchise in a good spot for the future. Rivera has said this season also is about seeing whether Howell can be the long-term answer at quarterback.
Before the season, Rivera told ESPN he didn't worry about his future.
"If we go 8-8-1 this year and he fires me and next year they win the division and 40 of the 53 players we drafted and it's the same quarterback, I'm vindicated," Rivera said. "Send me my Super Bowl ring. That's the way I look at it. I want us to be right and to see this community have that excitement again."
What involvement did new owner Josh Harris have in the decision?
Harris, of course, was involved in the process -- as any owner would be. But his style also represents change for Washington, which was used to a more frenetic decision-making process under previous owner Daniel Snyder, multiple sources said.
In this situation, Harris tasked the front office with collecting information -- in the form of offers. General manager Martin Mayhew and assistant general manager Marty Hurney solicited offers on multiple players, then involved Rivera. The group then took those offers to Harris, who quizzed them about the potential deals. He wanted to understand the process, why they might want to keep a particular player, or why, say, a third-round pick for Young represented good value. Then they'd make a collective decision. Sometimes they rejected a deal -- like a sixth-round offer by one team for quarterback Brissett, according to sources.
It's the same way he has operated with the other pro sports teams he owns, including the 76ers and the New Jersey Devils.
How will the Commanders fill the holes at defensive end?
Two years ago, James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill filled in when Sweat and Young were injured. That will be the case again this season. Both Smith-Williams and Toohill will be free agents after the season.
Smith-Williams has played 183 snaps, and Toohill has played 102. Toohill has a career-best four sacks; Smith-Williams, more of a run-stopper, has one. They also have veteran Efe Obada and two rookie ends in KJ Henry, a fifth-round pick, and Andre Jones Jr., a seventh-rounder who flashed during the preseason.
But Washington's defense will still funnel through its tackles, Payne and Allen. The Commanders bolstered the interior with backups John Ridgeway, whom they claimed off waivers after the Dallas Cowboys cut him last season, and Phidarian Mathis, a second-round pick in 2022.