The Washington Redskins have a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball. They have established veterans on all levels providing leadership. Those veterans are joined by several very talented young players. Which of these young players could take the next step in their development and put together a true breakout season? I look at three players who I expect to either build on strong performances last year or succeed in their first year as a starter. Rookies are exempt from this list because they cannot have a “breakout” season without first playing a season in the NFL.
3. Shaun Dion Hamilton – LB
Shaun Dion Hamilton (SDH) will probably be the only player that was on the team last year as a reserve that will have a starting role this coming season. Drafted in the sixth round, SDH was picked to eventually move into a starting spot. Where he was drafted had more to do with his injuries in college than his actual play. A cerebral player with excellent athleticism and adequate size for the position, SDH will look to take control of the Mike linebacker spot this season.
Hamilton was used sparingly last year, until Week 14 when he became one of the starting inside linebackers and held onto that spot for the rest of the season. In those four starts, he had 23 tackles and 1.5 sacks. However, beyond the numbers, he showed the ability to recognize plays and, most importantly, he showed the ability to cover. The Washington Redskins have lacked a linebacker who can hold his own on passing downs since London Fletcher retired in 2013.
As long as he can stay healthy, there’s no reason he can’t produce this year. With the injury to Reuben Foster, it becomes highly likely that SDH is the every-down linebacker. Jay Gruden had some positive words about SDH, calling him one of the two “most improved” defensive players in a recent press conference. I expect a big statistical season in the range of 110 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions.
2. Jonathan Allen – DL
Jonathan Allen had what some would view as a “breakout” season last year. He tallied eight sacks and was consistently dominant both as a pass rusher and run defender. However, this year I’m expecting Allen to take the next step — the step that firmly puts him in the elite conversation. At the end of 2019, I expect people to mention Allen when talking about players like Fletcher Cox, J.J. Watt, DeForest Buckner and some of the other great interior defenders. Aaron Donald is in a class of his own and while I’d love a scenario where Allen rivals him, I don’t find it realistic enough to give it much thought.
Allen showed last year why he was at one point considered a rival to Myles Garrett. Injuries caused a slight drop on draft night, but the Redskins were more than happy to turn in that card. Two years in and Allen has set up what could be a magical season. The Redskins haven’t had a dominant interior defensive lineman in, well in at least as long as I’ve been alive.
Allen has a great supporting cast around him. He has several guys that demand double teams and can win one-on-one situations. This means Allen will consistently get favorable match-ups on pass rush reps. I firmly believe Allen will dominate out of the gate and will put together a season that looks like 65 tackles and 12.5 sacks. He’ll be dominant in all facets of the game and play himself to his first Pro-Bowl berth and maybe even All-Pro consideration.
1. Quinton Dunbar – CB
Quinton Dunbar was already having a breakout season last year before injuries kept him off the field for over half the season. When Dunbar was healthy, he wasn’t only the best corner on the team, he was one of the best in football. According to PFF, Dunbar led the NFL in the percentage of targets either pass defended or intercepted. Dunbar knocked away or intercepted a ridiculous 60% of passes thrown his way last season.
Dunbar has taken some time to develop into the player he is. However, that’s to be expected of a guy who went undrafted out of Florida — as a wide receiver. Dunbar has only been playing cornerback for a few years now. Every year he gets more and more comfortable. Now it’s time to put it all together.
If Dunbar can live up to the expectations some Redskins fans expect, he’ll end the season as the team’s undisputed best cornerback. Sixteen games from Dunbar is what’s really important, and if he plays well teams may stop targeting him as much. However, Dunbar could be in for a season with 60 tackles, six interceptions, 20 pass deflections. A season like this wouldn’t just make Dunbar the best corner on the team, it’d put him on the map as one of the best in football.
Matt Valdovinos is a writer for PFN covering the Washington Redskins. You can follow him @MVScouting on Twitter.