Commanders brass feels team ‘got tougher’ and more physical with Day 2 selections

Commanders brass feels team 'got tougher' with Day 2 selections originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Over the past half-decade, the Commanders have had a habit to draft players from the University of Alabama. Since 2017, Washington has added seven former Crimson Tide standouts to its roster, headlined by Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne.

On Friday night, the Alabama-to-Washington pipeline was once again in full effect. The Commanders used both of its Day 2 picks of the 2022 NFL Draft on former Tide players, beginning with defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis 47th overall before later adding running back Brian Robinson Jr. at pick No. 98.

By adding a pair of former Alabama players to their roster, the Commanders brass feels the team improved in two main areas on Friday night: physicality and toughness.

“I think we got tougher as a football team today. I think we got more physical,” general manager Martin Mayhew said during the post-draft press conference.

“I think Phidarian makes us more physical playing defensively, playing against the run. I think obviously we got more physical running the ball as well, so those guys have a history of doing that, and we like that about them.”

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In Mathis, the Commanders added a physical defensive tackle who has a knack for finding the quarterback. During his 2021 campaign with the Tide, Mathis finished with a career-best nine sacks, the second most of any Alabama defender.

“He gives us an opportunity to push that pocket back into the quarterback’s lap,” head coach Ron Rivera said.

Mathis’ sack totals in 2021 are atypical for an interior defensive lineman. But if his pass-rush ability is able to translate to the NFL, the Commanders will have another Day 2 gem.

Entering the draft, adding to the defensive line depth was a must for the Commanders after the team released Matt Ioannidis and let Tim Settle depart in free agency. Behind Allen and Payne, the unit is especially thin.

When Washington selected Mathis 47th overall, the franchise passed on some talented players such as Georgia LB Nakobe Dean and Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker. By taking a defensive tackle, the thinking was the Commanders drafted for position rather than the best player available.

Although Mathis won’t start for the Commanders initially, Rivera made it clear that he views the second-rounder as more than just a depth piece.

“I think a big part of it too is not just depth, but a guy that you know you’re gonna get snaps,” he said. “Matt [Ioannidis] played over 50% of the snaps. [Mathis] is a young man that’s gonna get an opportunity to play a good number of that percentage as well.”

Rivera also mentioned that the selection of Mathis has no implications on Washington’s ability to extend Payne long-term. The 2018 first-rounder is entering the final year of his rookie contract and was rumored to be a possible trade candidate. It’s worth noting that Payne and Mathis overlapped for one year at Alabama and have spoken consistently since then.

In Robinson, Washington didn’t necessarily address a pressing need, either. The team returns its top two running backs in Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic, while Jaret Patterson remains in the mix as well.

But by drafting Robinson, Washington adds a runner who brings a different level of physicality than the rest of the backs in the room.

“As far as Brian’s concerned, love the physical downhill style,” Rivera said. “I saw the stat flash that this is a guy that breaks tackles over 800 yards after contact. That’s pretty impressive. He has been as consistent protecting the football over his career, I think is another thing that you like, but he’s also a different type of back than what we get from Antonio and what we get from J.D.”

Rivera went on to say that the team has multiple ideas for how to mix in Robinson with Gibson and McKissic. Gibson handled a heavy workload in 2021. Adding Robinson to the mix should only help lighten the load for the third-year pro.

Robinson, who described his running style as a mix of physicality and elusiveness, had to earn his stripes at Alabama. He didn’t have a major role in the Tide’s offense until his fourth season in Tuscaloosa, where he split carries with current Steelers star Najee Harris in 2020.

The 2021 season, Robinson’s fifth and final year in Alabama, was the first time he had the chance to be the lead back. Robinson made the most of his opportunity, too, finishing with over 1,300 rushing yards and 16 total touchdowns while earning first-team All-SEC honors along the way.

All three of Washington’s draft selections thus far have been four-year college players. Mathis and Jahan Dotson, the Commanders’ first-round selection from Penn State, were both team captains as seniors. Robinson was a leader for the Tide as well.

“You like to see a good play history when you look at guys’ stats and look at their production over their college careers,” Mayhew said. “So, it’s something that we like to see. Guys that have played and have been durable and have a ton of starts in college, those guys are more attractive to us than guys that came on just for one year.”

In Dotson, Mathis and Robinson, Washington has targeted not only talented football players but high-character individuals as well. That’s not a coincidence as Rivera and the rest of his staff continue to try and turn the franchise around.

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