The Washington Commanders have one of the NFL’s best defensive lines. Having spent four consecutive first-round picks on the defensive line, you should have a dominant group.
But it wasn’t until the 2022 season that Washington’s defensive line seemingly put it all together to become one dominant unit. A big reason for Washington’s defensive surge this season is fifth-year defensive tackle Daron Payne.
Through 15 games, Payne has already established career-highs in tackles for loss and sacks. Payne has 9.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss, which is tied for No. 3 in the NFL — with teammate Jonathan Allen.
The bad news for Washington is Payne is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March. While there was talk last offseason that Washington would let Payne walk, head coach Ron Rivera has said at every turn how much the Commanders want and need Payne back.
If the season were to end today, where would Payne rank among potential free agents?
According to Pro Football Focus, which ranked the top 25 prospective free agents for 2023, Payne comes in at No. 12. This, of course, is before teams use the franchise tag to keep players off the market.
Payne showed early in his NFL career that he could be a stout run-defender from the nose tackle position, with his 86 defensive stops against the run the most in the NFL from 2018-20. And he has now continued to build on his pass-rush arsenal to the point where he’s now a problem for interior offensive linemen trying to keep their quarterback upright. Payne has 80 quarterback pressures since the start of 2021, 10th-most among interior defenders, with his 11.9% pass rush win rate a very respectable figure on the inside.
Payne still needs to put all his tools together for a complete season where he’s a positive factor in both facets, and he’s shown he has the talent to do just that.
What Washington fans do not want to hear is the franchise tag. However, with Payne this close to free agency, it’s difficult to believe he and the Commanders will agree to a new contract, making the tag an option.
It should be another interesting offseason for Washington.