* As the 2022 NFL season inches closer, NBC Sports Washington’s Ethan Cadeaux takes a look at the fantasy football outlook of multiple Washington Commanders players. Next up: will the Commanders defense return to fantasy relevance?
Every NFL season there are teams that overachieve and turn into fun success stories. But, for every one of those squads, there’s another one that falls way short of preseason expectations. The Washington Commanders’ defense in 2021 fits that latter category.
Expectations entering the 2021 season were extraordinarily high for Washington’s defense. The unit was coming off an impressive campaign under Jack Del Rio, as it finished top five in almost every major statistical category. Star pass rusher Chase Young won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020, then proclaimed during minicamp last summer that the group had what it took to be the NFL’s best.
Fantasy football players bought into the hype surrounding Washington’s defense, too. Del Rio’s unit, which finished as the sixth-best defense in 2020, was drafted as a top-five fantasy defense in every format last year.
The hype quickly died off. Washington’s defense came out of the gate sluggish and allowed 29-plus points in five of its first six games. Although the group played better towards the end of the season, Washington’s defense should have remained on waivers for the remainder of the year en route to a 27th overall fantasy finish. Not ideal.
Fantasy owners are determined not to make the same mistake again. Currently, Washington’s defense is ranked 24th by FantasyPros, firmly in the do-not-draft territory. It’s hard to imagine many teams will have the Commanders’ defense rostered come Week 1.
However, there are multiple reasons to be optimistic for a bounce-back season by Del Rio’s group, both in fantasy and in real life.
To begin, Washington had one of the hardest schedules across the NFL in 2021. The Burgundy and Gold were the only team to face all four teams that made the conference championship the previous year (Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Buffalo and Kansas City). There’s a real argument that the quarterbacks on each of those respective teams — Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes — are the four best signal-callers in the entire sport.
In 2022, the Commanders have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL — a similar scenario to when the defense blossomed in 2020.
Washington opens its season against Jacksonville and Detroit, the two clubs that picked first and second in this past April’s NFL Draft. Although both of those teams have improved this offseason, they still held the top two picks in the draft for a reason. The Commanders have a prime opportunity to come out of the gate strong and set the tone for an important 2022 campaign.
Personnel-wise, Washington’s defense has multiple impact players that should be more comfortable in 2022 with a year in Del Rio’s system under their belt. Cornerback William Jackson III, a prized free-agent signing last March, earned strong reviews from defensive backs coach Chris Harris at the end of minicamp. Second-year cornerback Benjamin St-Juste had a fantastic offseason, too, after moving to nickel cornerback.
Additionally, pass rusher Montez Sweat is fully healthy after missing seven games last year. Young, who only played in nine games last year before suffering a torn ACL, should return to the lineup early on in the season if he’s unable to play in Week 1.
As a whole, Washington’s defense returns 10 starters from 2021. Landon Collins is the only missing piece. Just based on a pure continuity standpoint, the Commanders defense should only improve from 2021.
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However, it’s worth noting that there are still some question marks. The jury is still out on linebacker Jamin Davis, whom the team drafted 19th overall in 2021. Cole Holcomb is set to man the Mike linebacker position, but depth throughout the entire linebacker unit remains a concern. If Holcomb were to go down, the Commanders would be in an extremely tough spot.
Plus, the team lost two excellent depth pieces along its defensive front, as Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle both signed with different teams this spring. Pass rush depth behind Sweat and Young remains unproven, too.
If Washington’s defense is able to remain healthy, though, the group should perform at a much higher level than it did in 2021. Couple that with a favorable schedule for much of the season and the Commanders defense could certainly return to fantasy radars once again.
Defense is the No. 1 most-streamed position when it comes to fantasy football. Even if the Commanders’ unit goes undrafted in your fantasy league, there’s a realistic chance they make a difference on someone’s roster by the end of the season.