The player picked right after Chase Young was traded. Why that matters for Washington.

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Ahead of the 2020 NFL draft, there was an Ohio State defender some analysts were calling a “dream prospect.” A player with outstanding physical skills, a strong understanding of the game and exceptional leadership abilities. He was, everyone agreed, a future star and was taken near the top of that year’s draft. But his professional career hasn’t gone the way many envisioned. 

No, this isn’t about Chase Young. 

Well, not exactly anyway. 

The Detroit Lions traded cornerback Jeff Okudah on Tuesday to the Atlanta Falcons in exchange for a 2023 fifth-round selection. By dumping Okudah to Atlanta, the Lions are giving up on the 2020 third-overall pick who was taken just one spot behind Young, his former college teammate. 

The Lions’ trade of Okudah doesn’t directly affect the Commanders. But their decision to move on from a once top-rated prospect in Young’s own class further highlights the tough decisions a franchise must make when a player with Okudah’s pedigree doesn’t live up to the billing. 

The Commanders themselves face a difficult choice on Young: Pick up the edge rusher’s fifth-year contract option ahead of next month’s May 2 deadline. Or take the first step toward moving on from a player the team had hoped would become a franchise cornerstone. 

If the Commanders pick up the nearly $17.5 million option, Young will be under contract for 2024. But if the team declines it, the defensive end will enter the final year of his rookie-scale deal in 2023 and can possibly become a free agent the following spring. 

The Commanders are still undecided on what to do — even as teams around them make definitive decisions.

Last week, coach Ron Rivera told reporters that Washington still needs to see how Young, who played three games last season after tearing his ACL in November 2021, is physically in offseason practices before making the final call.  Washington begins its offseason program April 17, though the workouts are voluntary for players until the team’s mandatory minicamp in June.

“That’s the thing that will drive a big part of the conversation,” Rivera said about Young’s health. “As we continue to work through this and talk about it, it will be about seeing him and watching him. … We’ll continue to work through these things — talks to the doctors, talk to the strainers, strength and medical — and just kind of get a feel for where he is.” 

Young and Okudah are similar in that injuries have derailed their careers. Months before Young went down, Okudah suffered a season-ending torn Achilles in Week 1 of the 2021 season. The cornerback returned the following season, appearing in 15 of 17 games. 

But there are key differences between the two situations. Young, for one, has a track record of producing in the NFL in ways that Okudah hasn’t. The pass rusher was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020 thanks to his 7 ½-sack season. And unlike the Lions, which underwent a regime change in 2021, Washington still has the same coaching staff that selected Young second overall. Perhaps Lions general manager Brad Holmes was more eager to finalize a trade for Okudah because he wasn’t the executive responsible for the selection.

And yet, the Commanders are undecided on Young for a variety of reasons. Last month at the NFL owners’ meetings, Rivera suggested that the Commanders’ potential sale also complicated the decision on Young. “We don’t know what the new ownership wants,” said Rivera, who added he didn’t know whether the team would be sold in time before the May 2 deadline. 

Beyond that, Washington has made defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne two of the 10 highest-paid players at their position, so the team must decide whether it is really willing to pay up for another defensive lineman. And despite Young’s standout rookie year, the reality is that the pass rusher has only had 1 ½ sacks since then. 

Another factor: Montez Sweat, an edge rusher who has been more productive than Young, is also entering the last year of his deal and could use a contract extension. The likelihood that all four of Allen, Payne, Sweat and Young stick together beyond next season appears to be unrealistic. 

If Young is the odd man out, then should Washington look to trade the pass rusher now as the Lions did with Okudah? It may be wise to look for future draft compensation if the Commanders decide that Young isn’t a part of their long-term plans. Then again, if Young’s trade value is similar to what Okudah fetched, then a measly fifth-round pick might not do Rivera and Co. any good in a must-win year. 

There are risks in turning down Young’s option, too. The next owner, for instance, could wonder why Rivera didn’t take an extra step to lock down one of the faces of Washington’s franchise, which may put the coach in an awkward position with his new boss. And if the pass rusher returns to form and has a stellar 2023, the Commanders would likely have to use the franchise tag — which is projected to be worth nearly $24.5 million, or $7 million more than Young’s fifth-year option — if it wanted to retain him. 

There’s no easy answer when it comes to a player who was once labeled a generational talent. 

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