Now, we'll evaluate the Defensive Line.
This is a unit that was in disarray in Mike Shanahan's first year with the team, and that was a huge contributing factor to the entire defense being ranked 31 overall last year in terms of yards allowed. The Albert Haynesworth debacle really hurt, and while I thought Anthony Bryant proved to be a somewhat stable nose at times, it was clear an upgrade was needed. Defensive End also had to get better, and even more with the eventual release of veteran Phillip Daniels. The Redskins went into the offseason and draft with the mindset to improve the line, which should help improve the play of the other levels... and this proved true.
Stephen Bowen: Bowen was an incredible surprise this season for many. I noted often that this was a guy who contributed strongly when he got on the field in Dallas, and with an increased load, hopefully he'd pan out. Well, he toppled the sack totals of the entire D-Line LAST year in his first season with Washington, and he really helped plug gaps and provide space for not just Brian Orakpo on the edge, but the ILB's blitzing up the middle. He has a very strong push and a really good knack for sniffing out the play early in order to disrupt things in the backfield. Everyone will tell you he needs to do better, I'm sure he'd be the first to say it... but anything better than his solid outing this year would net him the respect of every single offensive lineman he goes up against. Throw in the adversity he dealt with this season having lost one of his premature twins and the other fighting for months to be healthy enough to come home (the child is safe, strong, and healthy now, thankfully) and you've got a physically dominant guy, who is young, and has tremendous character. Bowen will be a leader on this defense for years to come.
Adam Carriker: Adam is a guy who, in St. Louis, never seemed to maximize his potential. He had very high expectations entering the league, but he never seemed to fit as a DT/DE in the 4-3. Stabling off his weight between 295 and 305, Carriker seemed to play more natural, with higher energy, and he really fits as a DE in the 3-4 helping to penetrate with his initial burst of power but commanding attention from blockers to help free up someone else. It's safe to say that Carriker has been one of the better performers on this defense, and this past season was a huge step into an even brighter direction having had teammates around him who fit the scheme.
Kedric Golston: Golston got injured towards the end of the year, but he had been playing at a real high level. This is a guy who has stuck on this team for a while now, and his move to DE in the 3-4, like Carriker, appears to suit his strengths greatly. This is a scrapper, with a high motor, and he is capable of recovering to chase the ball-carrier down. He's got to work on his gap technique a bit more, especially against the run, but he's still a young guy as well, who seems to get better year after year and is getting a lot more comfortable, especially in a good rotation when legs are able to stay fresh.
The other DE's didn't play enough this season to warrant a fair grade, although I can say that Balmer seemed to be a very comfortable fit in this scheme as well, and it will be interested to see if he is competing for a starting spot at either position next year, especially with a healthy Jarvis Jenkins returning to the lineup.
Barry Cofield: Cofield is a guy who Mike Shanahan said from the get-go, had a very high motor and played in as many snaps as possible, and would prove to be a unique fit at NT if he was comfortable, but they were confident would make for a dominant DE if NT didn't pan out. Both Mike Shanahan and Jim Haslett have said of Cofield in recent weeks that next season, he could prove to be the best NT in the entire league once he settles with this year under his belt, and entire offseason to practice, and having the DE's around him in a better rotation. From what I saw this year vs. both the run and the pass, I'm confident that Cofield already played up to the level of a top 5 NT, and it's really believable that with the obvious improvement that should come with time spent in this scheme with these teammates, that Cofield will be among the very best at NT.
Chris Neild: This is a kid who started off the season tremendously. In his first game, against the Giants, Neild registered 1.5 sacks, which is very high for a defensive lineman in the 3-4, even higher for a NT. He stabled out as the year went on, but he continued to plug gaps when he did play and showed a good burst. He eventually looked like he was getting beat a little too frequently, but as a rookie in one of the most important positions on the defense, he really didn't look terrible, showing some flashes of brilliance which we hope he will capitalize on soon.
What do I think the D-Line is graded overall? B+. This is a unit which was very strong all year, even with multiple injuries and replacements. When a healthy group returns next year with even greater rotation, they can be among the most dominant in the league, and should really wreak havoc on offenses week after week. They will only make the jobs of those behind them easier, and should eventually provide the linebackers with lanes to blitz through and stockpile stats. DB's, naturally, would feast on mistakes this causes... and while this still sounds a bit like wishful thinking because we don't know for certain that Jarvis Jenkins will play 16 weeks at the level he looked like he would be playing and we pray he will perform at, the writing is on the wall for this unit playing strong enough already to do some good things.
Next up: Offensive Line