The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.
The countdown to training camp has officially begun.
We are two weeks away from the Washington Commanders' first training camp under their new identity, giving the chance for dozens of players to make their case to be on the 53-man roster. And given Ron Rivera’s belief that the team is primed to take a step forward, there will be high expectations on the third year of his tenure.
Commanders.com will be breaking down each position and how they've changed in the past year. After looking at the wide receivers, next up are the cornerbacks.
There were some new faces heading into the 2021 season that the team hoped would improve what was the second-best pass defense in 2020. William Jackson III was a stifling man corner with the Bengals, while Benjamin St-Juste had the size to be physical with bigger receivers.
Washington fans are aware that things didn't unfold as expected, but every member of the secondary that spoke to the media in June believes things will be different in their second year together. The more normalized offseason offered more opportunities to build chemistry, and Jackson mentioned that everyone is playing better off each other.
Most of the team's cornerbacks have returned for 2022. Kendall Fuller is coming off a season in which he had a career-high 16 pass deflections and 77 tackles. Jackson evened out after adjusting to Washington's zone defense, and St-Juste looked healthy in minicamp coming off a concussion that kept him out for a chunk of his rookie season.
Seventh-round pick Christian Holmes is the only notable addition to the group. Holmes will be a mostly developmental project as a rookie, although he has a physical style that could be a trait to build on in his career.
- Darryl Roberts
- Cole Luke
- Torry McTyer
- Linden Stephens
- Christian Holmes
- Corn Elder
-- More chemistry: Rather than upend the entire secondary, Washington chose to keep much of the group intact. Jackson, who signed a long-term contract with the Commanders in 2021, is thankful for the continuity, because he can feel the difference from last year, when he and his teammates were still learning how to play alongside each other.
"We're just starting at a high intensity," Jackson said. "We're playing fast. No one's out there thinking anymore. We're out there playing fast. We know where guys are going to be now. We're just out there having fun and putting it all together."
Jackson added that the unit is more comfortable with each other, and that was clear by the regularity of interceptions the corners plucked out of the air in OTAs. It was a good sign, but they'll need to continue that once the pads come on in training camp.
-- St-Juste playing in the slot:Anyone who attended one of the Commanders' OTAs or minicamp practices noticed that St-Juste was lined up inside in certain packages. That's a new experience for St-Juste, who was mostly an outside corner in 2021.
The Commanders want to get the best players on the field, though, and St-Juste has adapted well to his new role.
"With a bigger, longer guy inside it definitely allows him to be disruptive, allows us to play at a high level," Del Rio said.
St-Juste sliding to the inside allows more flexibility for the Commanders. He has the quickness to keep up with smaller receivers (he was one of the only defensive backs to befuddle Jahan Dotson in team drills) and the size to hang with bigger targets.
Washington is trying to get more defensive backs on the field in 2022. So, having St-Juste shut down the middle should benefit the entire unit.
-- Depth players will need to step up: The Commanders have answers at the top of the cornerback position. There are more questions past the group of Fuller, Jackson and St-Juste. Players like Elder, Holmes and Troy Apke all played well in June at times, but each presents a new set of concerns. Danny Johnson is likely the best backup option, although that still doesn't eliminate the questions about the depth at the position.
The Commanders have the cap space to add another player if they wish, but even with the theoretical addition, the depth players at their disposal will need to raise their level of play.
What to watch
Which version of the secondary are we getting? This is a question that positions beyond cornerback will need to answer, too, but we've seen two versions of the Commanders' secondary. The first was one of the best in the league; the other was not. Both are a possibility.
Like last year, the pieces are in place. Everyone is feeling good about the progress, and there have been promises that things will be better. We've even seen some of that improvement in OTAs.
All that is well and good, but how the secondary performs in the season opener against the Jaguars will be the best indicator for what we're going to see from the group going forward.