ASHBURN — Daron Payne generally lets his “social media guys” handle his Twitter account. But when the Washington Commanders defensive tackle logged in to the platform the other week, he decided to change his profile picture to a popular meme.
Payne’s avatar is now an X-ray of a chest with a dog transposed in the image. Or in other words, he’s got that dawg in him.
“That was me,” Payne said with a smile. “For sure.”
Payne says he’s contemplating changing it again, but the picture is appropriate for the type of season that the 25-year-old is having. Through 12 games, Payne has already notched career highs in sacks (6½), tackles for loss (13) and passes defended (5) — the latter of which have come in huge moments. This past weekend, Payne’s tip of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota’s pass helped cornerback Kendall Fuller grab the game-sealing interception in Washington’s latest win.
In the last year of his rookie deal, Payne’s career year couldn’t have come at a better time for the defensive lineman as he’s now likely to receive a massive payday after the season.
Payne was already in line for a big contract regardless, though his breakout season may cause the Commanders to rethink their future plans.
Before the season, Washington seemed to be preparing for Payne’s eventual departure. In April, the Commanders drafted second-rounder Phidarian Mathis, a defensive tackle who coincidentally went to Payne’s alma mater in Alabama. Washington’s selection of Mathis, too, followed the four-year, $72 million contract the team gave to defensive tackle Jonathan Allen a year prior.
Teams rarely commit top money to two players at the same position, especially on the interior of the defensive line. But Payne’s star-making campaign could force the Commanders to break conventional wisdom — if they want to keep him.
“I’d like to hope so,” coach Ron Rivera said when asked if he envisions a long-term deal for Payne in Washington. “The young man is a solid, stout football player. He seems to really have grasp on to things and playing alongside Jonathan.
“The two of them are a really good tandem. … That’s the kind of tandem you want to keep.”
The duo of Payne and Allen — longtime teammates, dating back to their days at Alabama — have set the tone for Washington’s defensive turnaround in 2022. As the Commanders prepare for Sunday’s game against the New York Giants, the two linemen have combined for 13 of Washington’s 30 sacks and 30 of its 88 quarterback hits. “They make life miserable inside,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said of Allen and Payne.
But part of their dominance this season has stemmed from the jump in Payne’s game. After last season, coaches emphasized to the defensive lineman needed to do a better job of finishing plays — an assessment Payne agreed with. There were too many plays, Payne said, in which he might “win” on the rep but fail to make the sack. He focused on his craft in part by attending a pass-rushing clinic hosted by Buffalo Bills defensive end Von Miller in June.
Despite Payne’s leap, there are still questions about whether Washington will commit to locking up the 2018 first-rounder after the season.
Brandon Thorn, an expert in offensive and defensive line play for Trench Warfare, expressed skepticism that Washington would pay Payne after giving Allen his deal. Mathis, Thorn said, would still be a suitable, cheaper replacement for Payne — even though the rookie is out for the season after tearing his meniscus in Week 1. Thorn views Allen as one of the best interior linemen in the NFL — perhaps the second best behind the Rams’ Aaron Donald, he said — while Payne is a tier below.
And in the future, Washington will also have to decide whether to try and sign edge rushers Montez Sweat (a free agent in 2024) and Chase Young (2025) to new deals.
“Just the investment in the defensive line, period, is going to make it nearly impossible to bring back Payne, especially considering what he’s going to be able to get paid from a team who has no good defensive tackles,” Thorn said. “He’s probably going to a team that definitely doesn’t have a Jonathan Allen. … He’s going to be the Alpha.”
If that proves to be correct, Payne will in line for a major payday. Allen, by contrast, is the league’s fifth-highest interior defensive lineman with an average salary of $18 million per year. The four above him all make at least $20 million per year, which could be a starting point for Payne’s next deal.
But for those who hope Washington keeps Payne consider this: No team currently has two of the 10 highest-paid defensive tackles on the same roster. The closest example of a team committing such big money to the interior is the Indianapolis Colts, with defensive tackles DeForest Buckner (four years, $84 million) and Grover Stewart (three years, $30.75 million) being the second and 16th highest-paid players at their position respectively.
Paying a premium at one position is much more common with edge rushers. Both the Chargers (with Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack), the Titans (with Harold Landry and Bud Dupree) and the Raiders (with Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones) are paying more than $15 million annually to two players at the position.
For the Commanders, though, the success of their rush starts from the inside. With Allen and Payne.
“It’s easier to find a dominant outside guy than it is to find a dominant inside guy,” Allen said. “That’s my true belief.”