Redskins' defense suddenly features youth, talent, optimism

Washington hopes the leadership of new safety Landon Collins will fill a void in the secondary. AP Photo/Nick Wass

ASHBURN, Virginia -- The Washington Redskins' defense hasn't been in this position in a long time. As in decades. The players are young and talented. And because it's the spring, the optimism can't be punctured.

They added two first-round picks -- one through a late-season waiver claim, one in the 2019 NFL draft. And their top addition in free agency was selected 33rd overall in 2015.

Washington likely will have at least seven -- and possibly eight -- starters who are 25 years old or younger on defense. Of that age group, five were first-round picks. They haven't had this sort of youthful defensive base in the past 20 years.

"We're all very excited about the prospects of our defense being fast and physical," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "Things are looking up."

The Redskins need this defense to play well all season for them to have a chance at the playoffs. It could be a similar formula to last season: using the run game and defense to power a strong start. That, plus a lack of turnovers, keyed a 6-3 start, before injuries decimated Washington's offense. Also, the coaches want to be patient with rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins. The more the defense produces, the more likely they can be patient and let him develop.

Regardless, an organization that hasn't had a defense finish in the top 10 in points or yards allowed since 2009 has legitimate optimism. There are four reasons why:

Defensive line: Washington's front includes 2017 and 2018 first-round picks Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, respectively. The Redskins also have Matt Ioannidis, who was recently signed to a four-year extension, Tim Settle and Caleb Brantley.

"We haven't done anything as a defensive line," Allen said. "We're going in with that mentality and just ready to kick some ass."

Linebacker Reuben Foster: Gruden was infatuated with Foster before the 2017 draft, and had Allen not fallen to the Redskins at pick No. 17, they might have drafted Foster instead. He oozes potential with his athleticism and speed.

But he comes with caveats: He has only played a combined 16 games in two years, thanks to injuries and suspensions. He wasn't suspended for a late November incident that led to his release from San Francisco, but he does need to build trust. If he's not available, the inside looks a lot different. The Redskins hope it helps being surrounded by possibly five former Alabama teammates on the starting defense, including perhaps his closest friend, Ryan Anderson. Foster must ultimately prove himself on his own.

"Obviously, Reuben Foster is a wild card for us," Gruden said.

Safety Landon Collins: He is the new tone-setter, and though many have said the Redskins overpaid to get him, they don't care. They considered him a blue-chip talent, and even if he's "just an in-the-box safety," that doesn't matter, either. As one member of Washington's organization said, "He's an elite in-the-box-safety." Collins has issues in coverage; he also has strengths, namely knowing how to use his leverage in zone looks and playing to his help. His leadership will fill a void in the secondary, as well. The Redskins still need to settle their free safety position, and they need more consistent play at cornerback.

After he was signed, Collins told Redskins senior vice president of player personnel Doug Williams that he wanted to live in a quiet place near the facility; he wanted to get home quickly and study after practice.

"That's what you want to hear," Williams said. "That's a good feeling."

Linebacker Montez Sweat: The third and final big new piece actually replaces someone who attended the same high school (Stephenson in Stone Mountain, Georgia) and college (Mississippi State): Preston Smith. The Redskins knew all along that Smith would sign elsewhere in free agency and never made him an offer, knowing how many strong pass-rushers were in this draft class.

Sweat fell to pick No. 26 (the Redskins traded into this spot) because of reports that he had a heart condition, which was later called a misdiagnosis; the Redskins agreed with this change. He also had been suspended while at Michigan State, prior to transferring to Mississippi State.

"To get him at 26 is incredible value," said ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, who studied Sweat before the draft as part of the SEC Network coverage. "There's no question he has top-10 traits on the edge. He's 260 pounds and ran a 4.41 in the 40."

They have Anderson, a second-round pick in 2017 who sets a violent edge in the run game. But they like to rotate their pass-rushers, and considering they played nickel 70 percent of the snaps last season, Sweat will play. And if he plays the way they hope, he will make an impact. If that happens, then perhaps for a change, the defense will do something the Redskins have long needed: produce.