- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2021

ASHBURN — For years with the Chicago Bears, offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. regularly lined up across the line on Sunday afternoons from top-tier pass rushers. But no one, arguably, was more elite than the guy he faced during the week in practice, his now-former teammate Khalil Mack.

On Tuesday, the first day of mandatory minicamp, Washington’s newest offensive lineman went up against his latest practice-field nemesis: Chase Young.

Mack’s a tough act to follow, but Young made an impression on the veteran. 

After practice, Leno had one prevailing thought: Young is going to be a “very, very, very” good football player for a long time, he said.  Three very-ies.

“The one thing that he has is just the way he reacts,” Leno said. “He’s just playing football. He’s not going out there with a plan and if the plan doesn’t work, he’s thinking about it. No, he’s just playing ball.”

Leno’s analysis wasn’t exactly groundbreaking — plenty of offensive linemen around the NFL learned quickly why the pass-rusher went No. 2 overall last year.

But Leno’s assessment was a reminder of what a force the 22-year-old can be. After skipping Washington’s voluntary practices over the last two weeks, Young returned to the team facility and showed he still took his offseason training seriously. 

Young looked explosive, flying off the edge and stopping short of hitting the quarterback. There is no contact allowed, after all. But the performance was a promising sign that Young can take another step after registering 7 ½ sacks in 2020. 

Young’s impact as a rookie went much further than sacking the quarterback, which is why he nor his coaches ever stressed about the total number. Still, more sacks could be in store for the reigning defensive rookie of the year given that truly elite pass rushers tend to see a dramatic improvement in the category in Year 2. 

Mack, for instance, went from four sacks to 15. Denver’s Von Miller recorded a career-high 18 ½ in 2012 after winning the defensive rookie of the year award in 2011 with 11 ½. That same year, J.J. Watt went from 5 ½ to 20 ½.  There are exceptions, of course, but the bar is still high for Young. 

“That’s going to come natural to me, being more comfortable just because it’s Year 2,” Young said of his growth.  “I’ve done it. … I’m definitely trying to get my play recognition down way better. And really (improve on) just all parts of my game, the run game, the pass rush, my hands, my get off and staying low around the edge. 

“There’s a lot of things in my mind that I’m working (on) when I step on the field.”

So, where was Young before this week? Young said he was rolling “in and out” of Ashburn in the first two phases of the offseason, showing his face and working out with teammates. But Young had prior commitments that caused him to skip the voluntary practices.

Those commitments included a slew of commercial and television appearances, working with Under Armor and eBay. He even filmed an episode of ABC’s “Celebrity Family Feud.”

Young was in contact with Washington’s coaches, which is why they don’t seem to mind the absence. Besides, coach Ron Rivera said, Young was still working out so they knew he wasn’t going to arrive out of shape. Young said he’d work out in the mornings before filming, starting at 6:30 a.m. and train for a few hours until shooting began at 10 a.m. 

In those workouts, Young focused on “working from the ground up” — or in other words, his feet.  Young would practice barefoot or in toe shoes to improve his flexibility and speed — he can lift and press his big toe without moving the others, he beamed. 

When Young returned, he noticed the additions made to the defense. After finishing as a top-five unit last year, Washington added first-round linebacker Jamin Davis through the draft and signed cornerback William Jackson III. 

Young embraces the unit’s lofty expectations. He said Washington had to “have a vision” and doesn’t shy away from it.

“If you look on paper, we could be the top defense in the league,”  Young said. “But now we’ve just got to do it. We’ve got to put it on the field. That’s just everyday working and holding each other accountable.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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