ASHBURN — From one of the first few moments when Daron Payne arrived at the Redskins’ facility more than a year ago, cornerback Josh Norman coined a nickname for the defensive lineman. It’s not one Payne particularly thinks is fitting, either.
Norman appears proud of it.
“His nickname, he will tell you, is Ferdinand — like Ferdinand the bull,” Norman said with a laugh. “You think I’m playing, but it is. Like a bull in a china shop, how he just squeezes through those little holes.”
“You know him,” Payne said. “He’s weird.”
The story of Ferdinand, as the classic goes, involves a gentle bull who would rather smell flowers than fight in the ring. For that reason alone, the label might not be completely accurate. Inside the trenches, Payne is a force — grappling with, and often overpowering, opposing offensive linemen. The 22-year-old does so with a rare blend of power and speed.
When the Redskins’ defensive line is discussed, it’s often done so as a unit. Washington has invested significant draft capital at the position in recent years — using first-round picks on Jonathan Allen and Payne in back-to-back drafts. They also traded up to No. 26 this year to take pass rusher Montez Sweat.
But to talk about them collectively overshadows Payne’s importance to the group. During his rookie year, the 6-foot-3, 320-pound lineman played 77% of the defensive snaps and recorded five sacks. Payne presents something the Redskins desperately lacked under coach Jay Gruden: a dynamic, physical defensive tackle.
Now a year older, the Redskins have seen further growth in Payne’s game.
“He’s one of the strongest players on our team, he’s very agile and he’s very smart and plays with a great motor,” Gruden said. “So that’s a hell of a combination for a defensive lineman.”
Payne demonstrated this ability all throughout his rookie season, as well as last week’s preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals. As he drove back a Bengals offensive lineman, Payne lept up and swatted Andy Dalton’s pass — deflecting it right to safety Montae Nicholson.
Perhaps just as impressive, Payne proceeded to keep pace with Nicholson down the field as the safety returned it for a touchdown.
“He’s a freak, he’s a freak,” Nicholson said. “I don’t even know what else to say. Athletes like that don’t come around very often.”
Gruden said, when it comes to the defense, it starts with the line. He said the three core linemen — Payne, Allen and Matt Ioannidis — all have the “same desire to be great,” which has helped their development. Allen echoed a similar mentality during OTAs, when he said the goal of the line was to make others as “uncomfortable” as possible.
Payne, meanwhile, feels there is plenty of build upon after his first season. For Payne, part of last year was about proving he could get after the quarterback — something he says he wasn’t asked to do at Alabama.
With the Redskins, he looked perfectly capable in that area, but thinks he can up his sack total in 2019. Payne, though, said he wasn’t worried about hitting a specific number.
“I just like to go out there and play football,” said Payne, who describes himself as a dog. “I have fun playing and whatever comes to me, comes to me.”
As Payne spoke to reporters this week, his teammates along the defensive line had fun at his expense.
They threw crumpled paper balls and tried to distract Payne, who is typically reserved in interviews.
Norman, too, isn’t the only Redskin to give Payne his own nickname: “Major Payne” and “Big Payne” are other names used inside the team’s locker room. Fellow tackle Tim Settle doesn’t have a preference, saying he prefers to use a variety of them.
“He can have whatever name he wants to as long as he keeps doing what he’s doing,” Settle said.