Up until the surprise signing of Wide Receiver DeSean Jackson, the Redskins major free agent acquisition was Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jason Hatcher. Hatcher was coming off an 11 sack season with the Dallas Cowboys and the hope was that he could add a penetrating threat along the defensive line that could help open up the rest of the defense. The Redskins defensive line managed a meager 5.5 sacks last year, and the hope was that Hatcher would boost that total by a significant amount. Hatcher was the Redskins only significant free agent defensive addition, to a unit that ranked 30th in the league in scoring last year. The hope was that between him, fellow defensive lineman Barry Cofield, and outside backers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, the Redskins could generate enough of a threat to hide the deficiencies along the rest of the defensive unit.
Fast forward to the start of training camp and the outlook for the Redskins defensive front doesn’t look as promising. Hatcher had to have minor knee surgery late in the offseason, which landed him on the PUP list to start training camp. Though it is right now fully expected that he will be ready for week 1 of the regular season, any significant lost time at this point can be seen as a set back. Hatcher is learning a new defense and working with new teammates, all of which takes reps to get comfortable with. In addition his missed time will likely lead to him not being fully conditioned for the 16 week grind of an NFL regular season, and could make him less than 100% effective at the start of the year.
The other thing that is concerning is that when talking about a knee injury, the effects of the injury/surgery can last for some time, particularly among older players. In addition to not being fully conditioned, his knee might simply might not be near 100%, which will further impact his effectiveness level. Another concern is the potential for him to come back too early and put too much strain on a knee that’s not 100% leading to a more significant injury. This fear is what could lead to the Redskins being extra cautious in how quickly they bring him back and just how much they use him when they do.
With Hatcher’s outlook more murky the Redskins are left to rely on a defensive line group that is actually weaker than it was a year ago at this point. The other defensive lineman placed on the PUP list to start camp was former top defensive end Stephen Bowen, as he recovers from a microfracture surgery. Bowen was an average to above-average defensive end his first two years in Washington, before injuries really slowed him down this past season. Though outside the organization the hopes for him to have much of an impact this year were already low, the Redskins spoke highly of him and didn’t move to cut his massive contract or workout a lower deal. The thought was that as a key reserve, he may be able to offer positive contributions off the bench. Now with his placement on the PUP list and his timeframe for a return even more murky than Hatcher, the Redskins defensive line looks pretty thin.
The Redskins will rely on a group of returning players in Barry Cofield, Chris Baker, Jarvis Jenkins and Kedric Golston to handle the majority of the work right now. Cofield has proven himself to be a pretty good player, capable of disrupting a lot of plays in the backfield and for the most part holding his own at the point of attack. Baker and Jenkins have both flashed potential and made some nice plays, but both disappear far too often to be counted on as full-time starters. Golston is a solid back-up, but he will get exposed if he’s asked to play more than 10-15 snaps a game. That is a weaker line-up (given the absence of Bowen) than the unit that was below-average last year, and right now that is the best the Redskins can field. It will improve when Hatcher returns, but how much so is a major question for the Redskins.
If that isn’t bad enough, history shows that injuries will likely thin out this group over the course of camp and the regular season. Defensive linemen suffer injuries at a pretty high rate, and the Redskins have seen at least one top 4 defensive lineman suffer a major injury in each of the last three years. In addition to the major injuries, nagging injuries will come into play as well. There were weeks last season where the Redskins had 2-3 of their defensive linemen on the injury report and even when they played, their effectiveness level was well below where it should have been. That is why depth is so important along a defensive line, and right now that is a real concern for the Redskins heading into this season.