ASHBURN — Standing behind the play, Chase Young was as vocal Tuesday as he had been all of camp. “Great ball, 11!” the Commanders defensive end yelled after Carson Wentz fired off a perfect touch pass to Terry McLaurin. “Great ball!”
When he’s not working off to the side field on his rehab, Young’s role in practice has largely been reduced to this: Cheering for teammates. That’s all he can do as he recovers from a complicated torn ACL.
The Commanders moved Young from the active/physically unable to perform list to the reserve/physically unable to perform list Tuesday, meaning the former defensive rookie of the year will miss at least a minimum of four games in the regular season.
Young’s absence doesn’t come as a big surprise since coach Ron Rivera had previously indicated the 23-year-world would miss at least the team’s season opener. But the procedural move again underscores the importance of getting more production out of whoever fills Young’s spot.
That’s an area that Washington has struggled to fill since Young went down last November.
“In the back of their minds, if anything, this should signify — minimum — that, ‘I’ve got four weeks, I got to go out and do what I have to do,” Rivera said. “For however long he is out, those guys got to recognize that this is their opportunity.”
The primary replacements for Young have been edge rushers James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill — both of whom are entering their third seasons. The duo, though, combined for only 3½ sacks in 2021. The lackluster production is partly why Washington added veteran Efe Obada in the offseason and have continued to sprinkle in other young rushers like Shaka Toney and William Bradley-King in practice.
Smith-Williams is still likely the favorite to start, but Rivera praised Toohill after Tuesday’s practice when asked about younger players who have stood out in camp. Toohill’s practice habits, Rivera said, “have been tremendous.”
Toohill said he recognizes opportunity knocking. After starting six games last year, the former seventh-round pick of the Eagles in 2020 returned to Washington in the offseason focused on improving on the “minute” details of his craft — subtle techniques, like precise hand placement on blockers. And he has a willing supporter in Young, who Toohill said has been preaching advice to the defensive linemen during practice.
“He’s not sulking, he’s not just saying things to say things,” Toohill said. “He’s being very helpful with technique. He’s being very detailed with all of us.”
Yet questions remain. After Saturday’s preseason loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Rivera appeared frustrated with his team’s lack of pass-rushing discipline as the problems contributed to Washington’s inability to get off the field. Specifically, Rivera highlighted a scoring play in which Toohill overshot his rush — allowing Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes to break free and find his receiver.
The best case scenario for Washington to replace Young may be for edge rusher Montez Sweat, the player who starts opposite of Young, to get off to a fast start. But like Young, who had just 1½ sacks in nine games before the injury, Sweat is also coming off a disappointing 2021 campaign as he logged only five sacks in 10 games. Can Sweat rediscover his form?
Even if Sweat produces, Washington will likely need another reliable edge rusher or two to play well. In 2020, when Young and Sweat combined for 16½ sacks, the defense also got steady play from Ryan Kerrigan, who had 5½ sacks despite playing in a reserve role. Kerrigan rejoined Washington this summer, but in a coaching adviser capacity.
As for Young, the earliest he will be eligible to return is Week 5 (Oct. 9) against the Tennessee Titans. Even then, the pass-rusher might not be ready.
Young’s ACL injury, after all, differed from the traditional tear. The former first-rounder told reporters earlier this offseason that surgeon Dr. James Andrews had to graft his left patellar tendon to reconstruct his right knee.
“It’s hard to predict on recovery time,” Rivera said. “His injury is a little bit more severe than the average one is. And because of that, the timeline is a little bit longer. What is that timeline? I can’t tell you.”