Washington went to the well early and often in the 2023 NFL Draft. Cornerback was widely considered the deepest overall position in the entire draft class and Ron Rivera and company took full advantage of that depth, selecting Emmanuel Forbes 16th overall and following that up at number 47 with Quan Martin, a versatile slot corner/safety.
Now that the dust has settled and we have a chance to view the current roster, there seems to be a bit of a log-jam at cornerback - which, if you believe competition brings out the best in guys, is a good thing. Rivera has said, and shown, that his early draft selections do not sit - they play. So just how will Forbes and Martin fit in, and who may be the odd man out of the starting rotation?
First, let’s take a look at the type of defense Washington wants to run.
Under Jack Del Rio the Commanders use a base 4-2-5 look. Just how that fifth defensive back is used is what leaves some questions. The famed Buffalo Nickle is where a safety (usually Kam Curl) is brought down into the box to act as a third linebacker (as Jack and Ron put very little emphasis on the linebacker position). This weakens the unit slightly against the run versus the more traditional three linebacker set that features a MIKE, WILL and SAM, but strengthens it against the pass with a guy who can help cover tight ends and drop much easier into hook/curl/seam zones. During the post-draft press conference, the staff mentioned Quan Martin as a guy who could also play Buffalo Nickle, saving some of the wear-and-tear on Curl.
The more traditional base defense, especially against teams who are heavy 11-personnel, is what teams referred to as Nickle (but has now become most team’s base look), where the third linebacker is subbed out for a slot corner. The slot corner is usually a bit smaller that your traditional boundary corner but possesses great short-area quickness and smooth change-of-direction skills to cover shifty slot receivers.
Del Rio’s scheme is zone-heavy with lots of matchup-man and cover 2 looks. They do run some cloud cover 3, where the strong safety is used as a robber in the intermediate part of the field, as well. Jack doesn’t blitz as often as most coordinators, instead relying on his front four to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He will utilize the Bear Front, but that’s more about stopping the run than rushing the passer.
Now that we know the type of defenses Washington likes to use, let’s take a look at how certain players fit into the scheme.
2022 saw Kendall Fuller and William Jackson start out on the outside, with Benjamin St-Juste playing the slot, however the staff was trying to force a square peg into a round hole with Jackson - and that experiment ended quickly with Jackson being benched (although the staff called it an “injury”). St-Juste took over on the boundary and played very well before getting injured week 10 against the Texans. With Jackson having been traded to Pittsburgh, the staff played musical chairs in the secondary for the remainder of the season, with Kendall Fuller being the only constant.
The staff was set on improving in the turnover category going into 2023, and the selections of Forbes and Martin showed that. The two rookies accounted for 21 total interceptions in their respective collegiate careers, and totaled nine in 2022 alone. That being said, these two players will see the field early and often this season. Forbes is essentially a lock to start on the outside and Martin should be the team’s primary slot corner. That really leaves three players fighting for one remaining spot at cornerback - incumbents Kendall Fuller and Benjamin St-Juste and newcomer Cam Dantzler, who the Commanders claimed off waivers when he was released by Minnesota.
If you go simply by production and availability, Kendall Fuller would be the player you would think draws the starting assignment opposite the highly-touted rookie Forbes on the outside. After a shaky start to 2022, Fuller played very well down the stretch and finished the season with 52 tackles, three interceptions (two of which were returned for touchdowns), a team best 13 passes defended and most importantly, 17 games started. Fuller, however, has some intriguing position versatility, having played some safety and slot corner. This versatility could see him moving around the defense in various positions while St-Juste locks down the outside. Finally, don’t completely count out Dantzler as a contributor on the outside. The former third round pick played well in Minnesota as a rookie, starting 10 games, and recording 46 tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He had one interception and defended eight passes in 14 games the following season before struggling in 2022.
CB - Emmanuel Forbes, Benjamin St-Juste
CB - Kendall Fuller, Cam Dantzler
Slot CB - Quan Martin, Danny Johnson
Who should start on the outside opposite rookie Emmanuel Forbes?
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Who should play slot corner?
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