Jack Del Rio doesn’t coach basketball, but from afar, the Redskins defensive coordinator can relate to that age-old cliche of having only one ball to go around. The saying is usually used to described superstar teams and the balance they have to strike on offense.
For Del Rio, that balance means finding the right amount of playing time for Washington’s suddenly crowded defensive roster.
Nobody would confuse Del Rio’s unit with a super team, but the Redskins, talent-laden on paper, will have to determine which 11 defenders should take the field this fall. There will be tough choices. For example, how many snaps should Ryan Kerrigan get with Chase Young and Montez Sweat — two young pass rushers — also in the mix? There are, arguably, similar predicaments at linebacker and cornerback.
Del Rio said there’s one sure-fire way to settle the issues — competition.
“You’re fired up for having all of these guys, but then they can’t all go on the field at the same time,” Del Rio said on a Zoom call Thursday. “That is definitely one of the things that I’m going to have to navigate.”
Both Del Rio and coach Ron Rivera said earlier they liked the talent they were inheriting in their first year in Washington. But that hasn’t stopped the overhaul of a defensive unit that finished sixth worst in points (27.2) and yards (385.1) per game. The Redskins signed five new defensive players and drafted four others.
The additions have fundamentally changed the outlook. The Redskins will likely have five new starters (cornerback, safety, linebacker and defensive end) in Week 1, featuring players who weren’t on the roster in 2019.
At cornerback, Del Rio said he expects a competitive group. Washington’s biggest signing this offseason was bringing back Kendall Fuller on a four-year, $48 million deal after the 25-year-old spent the last two years in Kansas City. Del Rio was coy in how the Redskins would use Fuller on defense — such as in the nickel or the outside — but praised the cornerback’s versatility. If Fuller is a near-lock for one starting spot, the other side is expected to be between Ronald Darby and Fabian Moreau.
Washington’s biggest uncertainty is at linebacker, a group Del Rio called “an interesting mix.” The team re-signed Jon Bostic, added veterans Thomas Davis and Kevin Pierre-Louis in free agency and have young talent in Cole Holcomb and Shaun Dion Hamilton. And there’s a wild card in Reuben Foster, a former first-rounder who is coming off a significant knee injury and has yet to play a snap since signing with Washington in November 2018.
Del Rio said the Redskins are acting as if Foster will “be there,” but the team is still waiting for the 26-year-old to receive medical clearance.
Then, there’s Young — the second overall pick whose arrival figures to impact not only the defensive line, but the rest of the team as a whole. Del Rio has coached superstar pass rushers like Julius Peppers, Von Miller and Khalil Mack and said the “sky is the limit” for someone like Young.
Collectively, the changes “give us a chance,” Del Rio said.
“We looked at a lot of needs when we got here and talked about the wish list of approaching and filling holes on defense, giving us a chance to be competitive,” Del Rio said.
Del Rio sounded excited having to sort through it all. Before joining the Redskins, the former Oakland Raiders coach had been out of football since 2018 and spent last year as an analyst for ESPN. He used the off-time to study the league’s new trends.
Even without the study, Del Rio has been around long enough to know the qualities of an elite defense. The coach has overseen some top defenses in his day as he’s coached a top 10 unit seven times in 16 seasons, spanning from his time as a defensive coordinator (Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos) to being a head coach (Jacksonville Jaguars, Raiders).
Del Rio thinks there’s a common thread between them.
“You have to be tough,” Del Rio said.