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Washington's Secondary Has No Problem Finding Versatility

Bobby McCain runs downfield after securing an interception in the end zone during minicamp. (Emile Fails/Washington Football Team)
Bobby McCain runs downfield after securing an interception in the end zone during minicamp. (Emile Fails/Washington Football Team)

Versatility is not in short supply among Washington's secondary, and that's a good problem to have.

It's a philosophy that Chris Harris instilled in his first days leading Washington's secondary. His players aren't cornerbacks or safeties; they're defensive backs who are expected to perform anywhere on the field. There's little to argue about with that approach, too, considering the group was second-best in passing yards allowed.

The secondary was already full to the brim with players who possess diverse skillsets, but now Bobby McCain as well as draft picks like Darrick Forrest have been added to the mix that includes Kam Curl. Add in players like Landon Collins coming back from injury, and it makes for a crowded bunch.

All those players who can put on multiple hats might muddy up the puzzle of finding roles for everyone, right? Actually, that flexibility ensures Harris that no matter where he puts his players, he's going to get the results he wants.

"Being able to play multiple spots for a DB is huge," Harris said. "It makes you that much more valuable."

When it comes to handling different responsibilities on the field, McCain might be one of the best examples. He started at corner, strong safety and free safety in his final three seasons with the Dolphins. No matter where he played, the former fifth-round pick was efficient, as he grabbed at least one interception in five of the past six seasons.

The spot isn't a concern to McCain; all he wants to do is win games for Washington. And if it means moving around the field, so be it. After all, he's got plenty of familiarity in doing that.

"I can play all five spots on the backend," McCain said. "There's not somewhere you can't put me. I'll do exceptionally well. Whether it's safety, corner, or nickel -- no matter the spot -- I'll do my best to perform and win."

But there are other newcomers who can fit a bevy of roles, too. Forrest might have been considered a core special teams player when Washington drafted him in the fifth round, but he emerged from minicamp as one of the more intriguing players with a handful of interceptions and pass deflections over the three-day period. Head coach Ron Rivera called the rookie "dynamic" for his career at Cincinnati, which included 200 tackles and six interceptions.

Harris is still trying to figure out if Forrest is a strong safety or a free safety. Either way, he believes his newest defensive back has the ability to handle the workload.

"He seems to be pretty sharp and pretty bright," Harris said. "I think he's been doing a pretty good job thus far."

And speaking of intelligence, enter Curl, who made plays all over the field in 2020. His mental capacity was the root of that; it's not easy, Harris said, to go from nickel corner to strong safety to dime linebacker. He proved that he was able to handle all of that, sometimes even from down to down in the same drive, and it helped him finish the year second on the team in tackles (88) and interceptions (3).

There is a good chance Curl will have to do the same thing this year, considering that all the new additions and Collins' return will pack Washington's secondary. Harris has confidence in him, though, especially now that his confidence has grown during the offseason.

"He's got a quiet confidence to him," Harris said. "When you come into the NFL, especially as a lower round want to make sure that you can play. And then once you get in and you see, 'I can play with these guys. I don't care where I got drafted, but I can play with these guys,' that builds some confidence in you."

There are only a handful of starting spots to give out among the 19 defensive backs on the roster, meaning some tough decisions will need to be made once training camp arrives. It's still early in the process, so Harris doesn't want to give a timeline on finding out where players like Curl, Forrest, McCain and others will play. He does know, however, that each player will have a role that plays to their strengths.

"That's one thing that we try to do around here in the secondary," Harris said. "We're still figuring out what everyone's strengths and weaknesses are. That's what that time period now is for."

Washington's secondary set a high bar in 2020, and Harris is aware of that. It will need to perform up to that standard or above in Year 2. So, the group has embraced the Rivera motto of making your strengths stronger. Judging by the work Washington has done in the offseason to retool the backend of its defense, versatility is still at the core of its success.

"The beautiful thing is we've got great competition," Harris said. "It's what I love. That is the way you get better as a team is by creating competition throughout the organization."