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NFL breakout players 2018: Adolphus Washington’s presence will be felt all over the Bills defense

Washington should get more opportunities to rush the passer this year. That’s scary.

Indianapolis Colts v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

Scheme changes aren’t always kind to young defensive linemen. Adolphus Washington was drafted in 2016 to play in Rex Ryan’s 3-4 defense, and he ended up with 11 starts as a rookie. Ryan had him lining up all over the place along the defensive line, including as a 5-technique on the edge of offensive tackles. Washington finished that season with a respectable 21 tackles, two and a half sacks and a pass defensed.

Not bad at all!

But then Rex and ‘em got the ax. Sean McDermott, Washington’s new head coach who’s now in his second season, switched the defense to a 4-3 scheme. Now, I know some folks will have you believe there isn’t much of a difference between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes any more, but the techniques and alignments used in each scheme can be very different even if both employ four down linemen a lot.

While the 6’4, 295-pound Washington is pretty much prototypical size for the 5-technique role he had under Ryan, the scheme switch meant he would be more of a full-time interior defensive tackle.

At the beginning of last season Washington played a little bit of 3-technique and a little bit of nose tackle as a backup, and played pretty well. He showed steady improvement, in particular as a nose tackle, and as fate would have it, starting nose tackle Marcell Dareus (who probably should have been the starting 3-technique instead, but that’s a story for another time) quickly fell out of favor with the new coaching staff. Dareus was eventually traded to the Jaguars after a Week 7 win over the Buccaneers. Washington took over the starting nose tackle job in Week 8 and went on to start all but one of the remaining regular season games as well as the first playoff game in 18 years in Buffalo.

I think it’s safe to say Washington handled the scheme change well.

Even though he isn’t one of those humongous defensive tackles that just eats up space, Washington is still strong at the point of attack and hard to move. In new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s 4-3 scheme, the nose tackle lines up in the A gap with no tilt, and they play the run with more of a read and react style rather than trying to penetrate and get upfield. Washington did a good job of fighting to stay in his gap against the run, and he improved as a pass rusher from the A gap as the year went on. By the end of the season he’d racked up 33 tackles, a sack and two passes defensed.

That was a good start, but I think he can still continue to improve and be more productive.

Now normally after turning in a decent season like that in your second year, you might assume you would automatically be the starter again the next season. This time, however, the addition of former Panthers first-rounder Star Lotulelei complicates things a little for Washington. I don’t think they brought Lotulelei in to be the 3-technique, and I don’t think they signed him for $50 million over five years to have him riding the bench.

On the other hand Kyle Williams, who started as the 3-technique last season, is headed into his 13th season in the NFL. He’s starting to slow down and hasn’t had more than 5.5 sacks since 2013, which also happens to be the only year he has had over 5.5 sacks. So hell, maybe they did bring Lotulelei to play 3-technique, which would have Washington continuing to start at nose tackle.

Or, like I said before, maybe they didn’t. Either way I don’t think it makes much difference when it comes to Washington’s potential to break out this year.

Even if Washington doesn’t start this season, he has shown that he can play well at multiple positions on the defensive line.

As a backup he would be able to rotate in at both at 3-technique and nose tackle, which might actually allow him to more fully showcase all of his talents versus only playing nose tackle as a starter. I’m sure he would like to start, but if Washington gets more opportunities to pass rush as a backup this season, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for him or the team.

After watching how easily he adjusted to the scheme change last year, I have every reason to believe Washington will adjust well again this season to whatever rotation he finds himself in. We are likely to see him blow up one way or another in 2018.

Confidence level: Moderate