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Which cornerbacks ‘on the bubble’ will make the 53-man roster?

Like most positions on most NFL teams, projecting the roster “locks” at a position group isn’t usually very difficult. The hard part of roster projection is figuring out what happens at the last one or two spots where the coaches are evaluating four or five backup players who may be largely comparable to one another in terms of overall skill level. Often, there’s very little that separates the three or four guys competing for the one or two roster spots that will finish out the position group. These are the guys who are “on the bubble”.

With Washington’s cornerback group, let’s first quickly identify the roster locks, and then we can get to the challenging task of figuring out who will win the competition for the backup roles.

Cornerback locks

Kendall Fuller

There is no doubt at all that Kendall Fuller will be on the 2021 Washington roster. The only question about Fuller revolves around how the coaches will choose to use him.

Fuller was originally drafted by the Redskins in 2016, but was sent to Kansas City as part of the 2018 trade that brought Alex Smith to Washington. In that 2018 offseason, the Chiefs were fighting to fix an ugly salary cap situation and wanted Fuller as a low-cost CB option since he was still on his rookie contract at the time. When Fuller’s rookie deal ended, he returned to Washington via veteran free agency.

Emilee Fails

Fuller is a good boundary corner, but during his first two seasons in Washington, he developed a reputation as one of the best young slot corners in the league. In Kansas City, he was most effective when he played safety, as he was asked to do for an extended period in 2019 due to injuries to other players.

Fuller could find himself playing a traditional boundary corner position in base defense, but then being asked to step up as a slot defender or to play as a third safety in 3-deep schemes on passing downs.

William Jackson III

Jackson was signed in veteran free agency from the Bengals in March. The signing of Jackson, who is known primarily for his skills as a press-man corner, at first seemed out-of-place for a primarily zone defense. Some analysts saw it as a poor fit.

However, subsequent comments by coaches have indicated that the Washington defense will be more diverse than it was last season – using Jackson’s skills to add more man-to-man coverage, to press receivers more aggressively, and to rely on him as a “lockdown” cornerback who can take care of one side of the field, freeing up the safety to concentrate on the other half.

Emilee Fails

Jackson and Fuller were each signed to similar contracts. Both are among the top-10 salary cap hits for WFT in 2021. If we didn’t know they were roster locks because of what they do on the field, we would know it from their contracts.

Jimmy Moreland

Moreland was drafted in the 7th round of the 2019 draft. He is a good player on a cheap contract. Moreland may be the primary slot defender, or he may take a more versatile backup role, but he will be on the defensive roster in 2021.

Benjamin St-Juste

I probably would have listed St-Juste as a lock simply based on his third round draft pedigree. Coaches and general managers don’t like to use early round draft picks on guys in April just to cut them in August.

But St-Juste has Juste-ified the team’s faith in him with his early performances in minicamp. Initially seen by some analysts immediately after the draft as a possible free safety prospect, it has become clear that the Washington coaches plan to use him as a cornerback.


Why I like the decision to draft Washington’s new defensive back, Benjamin St-Juste

If his early promise continues through training camp and the preseason, it may mean a different type of defensive scheme for Washington in 2021, as Mark Tyler has mentioned frequently on this site. With St-Juste playing so well as a boundary corner, it allows defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio — as mentioned above — to use Kendall Fuller as a slot corner in nickel or dime coverage, or to drop Fuller back as a third safety when the team plays 3-deep zone.

The combination of William Jackson as an every-down shutdown boundary corner and the fast-developing St-Juste who is a tall, long, strong and athletic boundary corner who played best in college in press man coverage means that the Washington defense can utilize the positional versatility of players that head coach Ron Rivera prioritizes so highly.

“On the bubble”: The final two spots in the cornerback group

There’s always the possibility that head coach Ron Rivera and GM Martin Mayhew decide to keep 5 or 7 cornerbacks. Chances are, they will keep 10 or, at most, 11 defensive backs, and with the positional flexibility of players like Fuller and Kamren Curl, the distinction between corner and safety positions may be blurred a bit. But for today’s purposes, let’s assume that the coaches keep six CBs.

We’ve identified four roster locks. Who is in competition for the remaining two spots?

There are actually seven players competing for those final two spots in the cornerback group:

  • Greg Stroman - drafted by Washington 7th round 2018
  • Danny Johnson - undrafted college free agent signed by Washington in 2018
  • Darryl Roberts - 7th year veteran linebacker signed as a free agent in March
  • Torry McTyer - Undrafted out of UNLV in 2017, McTyer spent two seasons with the Dolphins and parts of another two seasons with the Bengals. In 2018, as a member of the Miami defense, he played 347 defensive snaps, primarily as a backup and in nickel coverage.
  • Linden Stephens - Undrafted in 2018, Washington is Stephens’ 6th team. He has been primarily a practice squad player, but has 66 career defensive snaps and some experience on special teams.
  • Cole Luke - 2017 undrafted player who was primarily on the practice squad of Carolina Panthers for 2 years; signed a free agent by Washington this offseason.
  • Jordan Brown - Drafted by the Bengals in 2019, Brown has never played a snap in the NFL.

I’m ready to predict that the final four players on the list (McTyer, Stephens, Luke, Brown) do not survive the final cutdown to make the 53-man roster. I think there’s a good chance that one or two of them winds up on the practice squad; my best guess about that would be Luke and McTyer, but predicting practice squad spots in June is a fool’s errand.

Of the three remaining veterans — Stroman, Johnson and Roberts are the players I believe are “on the bubble”. My personal projection is for Johnson and Roberts to win the competition. Stroman has been with the team for three seasons and hasn’t developed beyond a low-end backup and has not been able to prove his worth as a punt or kickoff returner.

Darryl Roberts

Roberts has proven himself to be a capable borderline backup/starting cornerback playing with the Jets and Lions. He seems to be the player that Washington always hoped Fabian Moreau would be.

Darryl Roberts is a very flexible defensive back. In 2020 alone, he took 234 snaps as slot corner and 195 snaps a boundary corner. He also lined up for snaps in every phase of special teams: punt coverage, punt returns, kickoff coverage, kickoff return, and FG/PAT units. That’s what you need in a backup corner.


Washington signs former Lion & Jet Darryl Roberts as CB depth

Darryl Roberts #29 of the Detroit Lions breaks up a pass intended for Allen Lazard #13 of the Green Bay Packers
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Roberts is also capable of playing free safety — in fact, per PFF, Roberts lined up as a free safety for 291 snaps in 2018. This is the kind of flexibility that Ron Rivera values.

With Fuller and WJ3 seemingly locked in as the starting boundary corners, and Jimmy Moreland looking like the best of the young DBs on the Football Team, adding someone with Darryl Roberts’ experience and flexibility looks like a good move, especially given his low-cost contract ($1.6m cap hit in 2021).

Though Roberts is a little older at 30, his game experience and positional flexibility likely give him an advantage, at least over Stroman, who doesn’t play a key role on special teams.

Danny Johnson

While Johnson and Stroman are roughly equivalent as backup cornerbacks, I think Johnson wins the roster battle over Greg Stroman because of the former’s kick return skills. Again, while not much separates them as backup corners, Stroman struggled as a punt returner under Jay Gruden, making bad fair catch decisions and struggling to make significant yardage on returns, while Danny Johnson proved to be an above-average KR last year.

Danny Johnson with a big return against the Lions
Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images


Who will return kickoffs and punts this year?

Per Pro Football Focus, among players who returned at least 15 kickoffs in 2020, Johnson had the following rankings:

  • 7th in number of returns at 24
  • 10th in total return yards at 573
  • 16th in average per return at 22.0
  • 11th in PFF grade at 66.5

Bottom line

Darryl Roberts and Danny Johnson are my picks as the fifth and sixth cornerbacks on the 53-man regular season roster; Roberts is a capable defensive back who, like Fuller, can play boundary corner, slot corner or safety, and who is also a big contributor on special teams. While Danny Johnson is not as skilled as Roberts as a backup corner, I think he is better than his other camp competition aside from Stroman and has the added benefit of being a good kick returner.

We have a long way to go with training camp and three preseason games, and that could change the outlook, but right now, I project the 6-man cornerback group for 2021 to be William Jackson, Kendall Fuller, Benjamin St-Juste, Jimmy Moreland, Darryl Roberts and Danny Johnson.