So the “Pot Roast” experiment lasted just one season at Redskins Park, after Terrance Knighton confirmed via Twitter he’ll be leaving Washington and entering free agency:
The move is something of a surprise, even if Knighton didn’t exactly do the job he was hired to do last season. Despite his massive frame and well-earned reputation as one of the NFL’s toughest run stoppers, the Redskins still ranked 26th against the rush in 2015.
Still, waving goodbye to Knighton so soon does create a rather large hole at the heart of Washington’s D-line. A 6’3″, 354-pound (at least) hole to be exact.
Fortunately though, this year’s free agency class offers a plethora of shiny new options general manager Scot McCloughan can consider for the most important position in Washington’s 3-4 scheme.
But first the Redskins must decide exactly what type of player they want at the nose tackle position. Specifically, do the Burgundy and Gold want a sumo-sized, two-gapper who will play directly over the center, absorb blocks and create plays for others?
Or do they want a quicker, more active gap-splitter, a nimble lineman better suited to the one-gap style of 3-4 favoured by defensive coordinator Joe Barry?
Free agency boasts strong candidates for both types:
The Sumo-Sized 0-Technique
Damon Harrison of the New York Jets clearly leads the way in this field. The player dubbed “Snacks” tips the scales at 350 pounds.
But he’s also likely to tip the balance of Washington’s salary cap toward the red. Bleacher Report‘s NFL Insider Jason Cole has already reported the price is likely too rich for the men from Gotham City. Cole also named the Tennessee Titans as the leading suitor for 27-year-old Harrison.
Yet while Harrison is an immovable object in the middle of a three-man line, he sometimes lacks the leverage needed to really control things in the trenches. Standing 6’4″ makes him a little too tall for the classic 0-technique.
Perhaps the most intriguing player for McCloughan to consider here is Nick Fairley. He’s rarely hit the heights expected since being drafted 13th overall in 2011 by the Detroit Lions.
But one of the problems has been many having the wrong expectations for Fairley. The former Auburn star was expected to be another Ndamukong Suh, even though his game is about different qualities.
Still just 28, Fairley is not a dynamic playmaker who will live behind the line of scrimmage. Instead, he’s a malevolent mass of humanity who will fill gaps and put up a brick wall against the run.
His traits belong over center where a player who has been dogged by niggling injuries and questions about his effort, would revive his career.
Gordon McGuiness of Pro Football Focus recently identified the need to use Fairley sparingly as a key factor every potential suitor must be aware of:
“His worst season so far came when he was asked to play 693 snaps, so perhaps the key to getting the most out of Fairley is limiting his usage.”
Considering how little teams use their base defensive front in today’s game, keeping Fairley fresh should be no problem at all for the Redskins. Using him in 3-4 looks to stuff the run, before swapping him out for a pass-rusher in nickel situations, would suit both player and team perfectly.
One below-the-radar option to be aware of is Cam Thomas. He played for Barry with the San Diego Chargers, and at 335 pounds, has the size to block out the sun.
The Active Gap Plugger
Jaye Howard leads the way among the Jeremiah Ratliff-style nose tackles. The ex-Seattle Seahawks draftee actually played on the nose for the Kansas City Chiefs at the start of last season.
Mammoth marvel Dontari Poe eventually took his job back, but Howard was still a prominent member of KC’s fearsome front.
Any lineman with the flexibility to play end or nose guard, either in the gaps or directly over a blocker, will always have value. Howard offers plenty of that following a season that saw him record career-best marks for tackles (57) and sacks (5.5).
The 27-year-old would fit in Washington as a player who could play a shade technique just off the shoulder of a center. This position would let Howard split the A-gaps or even slant across into the guard-tackle B-gaps, something that would let Barry call more line stunts and twists.
The Chiefs won’t want to lose such a flexible friend. But with linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, along with cornerback Sean Smith, also ticketed for free agency, the numbers won’t allow KC to keep all of their defensive arsenal intact.
If McCloughan doesn’t want to pay over the odds for Howard, his search for a more cost-effective choice should focus on Ian Williams of the San Francisco 49ers. At 6’1″ and 305 pounds, he’s got classic over-the-center size.
The 26-year-old actually plays bigger than his measurements. While they compare him to Harrison as a force against the run, Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling of the league’s official site credit Williams “possibly with more value on passing downs.”
Each of the nose tackles on this list are the right side of 30 for McCloughan. They also all offer excellent value for what the Redskins need, namely an active run-stuffer to anchor their base defense.
Fairley is the gamble, but may offer the biggest reward. Alternatively, either Howard or Williams would give Washington a young and versatile D-lineman eager to earn greater attention for his talents.
Whichever way he goes, McCloughan must not overlook addressing the key position up front ahead of the new season.