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Washington can’t afford to keep Allen, Payne, Sweat and Young together for long

Washington Football Report


It’s almost unbelievable to think that the Washington Football team is able to line up four starters on the defensive line that were each selected in the first round of the draft and taken in consecutive years.

  • Jonathan Allen was selected 17th overall in 2017.
  • Daron Payne was picked 13th overall in 2018.
  • Washington used two second-round picks to trade into the first round and take Montez Sweat with the 26th pick of the 2019 draft.
  • In 2020, with the #2 overall pick in the draft, Washington drafted a generational talent in Chase Young.

Collectively, the four make up a young dynamic defensive front that led the WFT defense to finish the 2020 season ranked 5th overall in yards allowed and 6th overall in points allowed. It has to be scary for opposing offenses to have to game plan for this incredible defensive front.

Related content: Change from Ronald Darby to William Jackson III signals more aggressive defense for Washington Football in 2021

But in today’s salary cap league, it simply can’t last. A quick check of the salaries for the top defensive tackles in the league shows players like DeForest Buckner, Chris Jones, Kenny Clark and Grady Jarrett earning between $17m and $21m per year. Menwhile, edge rushers like Joey Bosa, Myles Garret, Demarcus Lawrence and Frank Clark all earn over $20m per year.

On veteran contracts, then, Washington’s front four is worth roughly $80m based on what comparable veteran players are earning. That’s roughly 44% of the league’s current salary cap. Incredibly, because of the way rookie contracts are structured, Washington is actually paying these four 1st round picks a collective $25.4m – which is less than Chase Young, all by himself, would be worth on a free agent contract.

As we look to the future, the cost of signing these players will go up annually, but so will the salary cap. The fact remains, it simply won’t be possible to re-sign all four of them and keep the group together over the coming four seasons that would see each of them in turn finish his rookie deal and sign a veteran contract. There simply isn’t enough money to go around. Jonathan Allen will play on the 5th year option next season. There’s every reason to believe that each of these players in turn will have their 5th year option exercised. But it will get very expensive very fast. Something will have to give eventually.

Having invested heavily in each player in terms of draft capital, the Washington front office should be looking to get something back when one or more of the players eventually leaves. There is always the possibility of receiving a compensatory pick in return for a player leaving in free agency, but counting on comp picks is a dicey business and the best the team can hope for is a late third round pick.

It seems as if the brains trust of Rivera, Mayhew and Hurney should be planning to trade one or more of these players after this year or next, hopefully for a 1st or 2nd round pick. But who should they try to move?

Jonathan Allen is seen as a vocal team leader. Having already reached his 5th year option season, it seems a bit late to try to maximize his trade value. He will almost certainly be offered a contract extension, and it seems likely that Allen, who played his high school football in northern Virginia, would accept.

Chase Young is the kind of generational talent that the franchise should try to keep for his entire career. Last year’s rookie of the year is probably the best player the team has had since Sean Taylor played for the team. He was voted captain by his teammates at the end of the 2020 season. This Maryland native should be untradeable.

That leaves two players in this group who are potential trade options: DT Daron Payne and DE Montez Sweat. Payne currently has one year left on his rookie contract (plus his 5th year option), and Sweat is a year behind Payne. Right now, Payne is 25 years old; Sweat, surprisingly, is two years older at 27.

The time to trade Payne would probably be this year, while he would bring a high return. The team is especially deep at the defensive tackle position with both Matt Ioannidis and Tim Settle on the roster. Ioannidis would start for most NFL teams and Settle is a high-end backup who can start if needed. Ioannidis is signed through 2023 for about $7m per year; Tim Settle is playing on the final year of his rookie contract. The front office should be trying to extend Settle now, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the former Virginia Tech player wants to leave in free agency next year in hopes of signing with a team where he would see a lot more playing time.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect a trade of Payne this season. The priority for Ron Rivera is resetting the culture and establishing winning football. What Payne adds to those efforts trumps all other considerations.

However, it may be a very real possibility for Washington to trade Daron Payne a year from now, allowing him to play his 5th year option season with a new team. That would take advantage of the 4 lowest cost years of Payne’s contract before trading him for a draft pick.

Montez Sweat will have the bigger cap hit when he signs his first veteran contract. He is also older than Daron Payne, and the team controls his contract for three more seasons. Trading him next year when he is 28 years old, with two years of control left would likely optimize his trade value, but it would waste two or three years of outstanding play at attractive salary cap costs. Allowing Montez Sweat to play out his rookie contract and fifth year option, which would take him to age 30, might be the optimal choice. Edge rushers tend to play effectively to age 31 or 32 before seeing productivity fall. This would allow Washington to get the best out of him, and then hope for a 3rd round comp pick when he leaves.

Let’s look at how this might all play out from a salary cap standpoint:


Above each player’s name, you can see his current age. The blue boxes are 5th year options. The brown boxes are proposed contract extensions.

Under this plan, Washington will never have it better than in the 2021 season, when they have all four 1st round picks, Ioannidis and Settle for a cost of right around $33m.

  • By trading Payne and his approximate $11m 5th year option salary, and relying on Ioannidis and probably a drafted player to play alongside Allen, the team can stay at about the same cost in 2022.
  • The cost of the unit would jump in 2023 with John Allen’s jump in cap hit, Sweat’s 5th year option cost and a contract extension for Ioannidis.
  • In 2024, however, the cost of the unit would come back into line as Sweat leaves in free agency and the team fills the roster with draft picks.

By 2027, only Chase Young would remain from Washington’s current formidable 2021 defensive line.

Many fans see it as the highest priority for the front office to keep this young defensive line together for as long as possible, seeing it as the heart of the team. The fact is, however, that the NFL is a sport where teams are remade every year, and rosters are highly volatile from the beginning of a season to the end as injuries bite.

The priority of the front office needs to be to maximize resources (draft picks and cap space) to field the best team possible every year. The rules of the game – draft, salary cap, rookie salaries, free agency, comp picks, and the like – force General Managers and coaching staffs to make difficult value decisions all the time.

It’s possible that the 2021 season will be the last time we ever see this amazing front-four of Allen, Payne, Sweat and Young together on the field wearing the same-colored jerseys. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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