What to make of the Commanders' defensive line after free agency and draft

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What to make of Commanders' D-line after free agency and draft originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

From 2016 to 2020, Washington invested draft capital in Matt Ioannidis, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Tim Settle, Montez Sweat and Chase Young, as the franchise attempted to build one of the more feared defensive lines in the sport.

During this offseason, though, the team has largely disassembled that unit it spent heavy resources on.

So far, the Commanders have released Ioannidis and allowed Settle to sign with Buffalo. A report from The Athletic's Ben Standig, meanwhile, suggests that the organization is presently "not expected" to offer Daron Payne, who's entering the final year of his contract, an extension.

With two interior options gone and one starter trending toward a future departure, Ron Rivera and Martin Mayhew selected Alabama's Phidarian Mathis in the second round of the recent NFL Draft. While many outside of Washington believed taking Mathis that high was a reach, the truth is that the unit required reinforcements after losing a pair of veterans the month before.

So, what should be made of this group now?

Jonathan Allen, Chase Young and Montez Sweat — who recently had his fifth-year option exercised — are all tied to the Commanders through the end of 2023. Therefore, the questions really begin with Payne.

There was some scant speculation that Payne could be dealt during the draft, but obviously, no such move occurred.

Sure, there's always a chance that a later swap happens — if another squad suffers an injury during training camp, maybe, or even at the trade deadline during the season — but currently, it looks like the 24-year-old will suit up for Rivera in 2022 and then hit the open market after that.

Should Payne's situation unfold that way, Washington would possibly be in line to receive a 2023 compensation pick, which would at least be something but certainly wouldn't feel like a victory. That might be why Rivera tried to keep hope alive about a Payne extension last week.

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"Just because you don't do anything now doesn't mean that you can't do something later," the coach told reporters Friday night. "When you get a veteran quarterback that has a salary, it's gonna impact your salary cap and how you respond to it. It's a difficult thing. You try to figure out the best way to be able to pay players and sometimes you can't do it right away. And so that's kind of the situation we're in."

Despite Rivera's remarks, it's tough to envision the team being able to properly compensate Payne after previously doing so with Allen and likely wanting to do so with Sweat and/or Young, too. Plus, there are the ongoing Terry McLaurin negotiations to consider.

Therefore, Rivera's best course of action may be to use Payne in 2022 — a campaign that'll be pivotal for Rivera's tenure — collect the comp pick and figure out how to replace him come next March or April. That's not exactly satisfying, and a surprise change in direction is always possible, yet that's where this particular story is headed.

Payne's unclear standing means that Mathis has to emerge as an early contributor in his rookie season.

Like Payne, Mathis' strength lies in stopping the run. That said, he did rack up 9.5 sacks for the Crimson Tide before turning pro and Mayhew believes he has "sneaky" pass-rush ability.

Losing Payne for next to nothing would be softened if Mathis proves the critics of his choice wrong and becomes a reliable defender alongside Allen.

Then, of course, there is Sweat and Young, two edge rushers who must match their production with their talent. Young especially needs to get healthy and bounce back after tearing his ACL halfway through a near-silent 2021, while Sweat still hasn't fully broken out in the NFL.

When you put it all together, the defensive line is in a more precarious spot than most would've ever envisioned as it was being constructed.

By getting rid of Ioannidis and Settle, not finding a solution yet with Payne and grabbing Mathis in the second round, Rivera has opened himself up for derision if the front isn't successful in 2022. Perhaps the reshuffling will ultimately unlock the defensive line's potential, which would be such a welcome development.

Or, perhaps, it'll only exacerbate its demise.