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With Super Bowl LV capping off the 2020 season, it is time to look ahead to the 2021 campaign.
Over the next few weeks, Washingtonfootball.com will break down the position groups and lay out who the team could potentially add via free agency and the draft. These are the positions that have been covered so far:
Running Back Wide Receiver Tight End Offensive Line Defensive Tackle Defensive End Linebacker
Next up are the cornerbacks:
Washington's pass defense was actually stronger than some of its other statistics in 2019; it allowed 238.9 yards per game, which was good enough for 18th in the league. Plus, head coach Ron Rivera said during the 2020 Scouting Combine that he liked the cornerbacks on the roster. But with Quinton Dunbar getting traded and Josh Norman being released, the position seemed to be in need of an upgrade.
And thanks to a couple of key additions as well as giving younger players on the roster more opportunities, Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio got the boost they were looking for. The defense was anchored by how it played against the pass, allowing a second-best 191.8 yards per game. It was earned the second-best efficiency rating, according to Football Outsiders, behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I think the guys have been really focused and working hard and understanding where they belong and the techniques we're looking for and what their answers are to certain problems that are presented by the opponent," Del Rio said of the cornerbacks. "I feel good about the work that's being put in."
Washington's cornerback revamp started with Kendall Fuller, who the team re-signed after sending him to the Kansas City Chiefs as part of the trade for Alex Smith in 2018. With Fuller putting up numbers that hovered around his career-highs, bringing him back turned out to be a smart decision. In addition to his four interceptions, he deflected 11 passes and recorded 50 tackles. His overall Pro Football Focus grade of 67.2 was the third-highest of his career.
"Kendall's a very cerebral player. He's extremely bright," said defensive backs coach Chris Harris. "He really understands the game schematically as far as how teams are trying to attack. He's playing with really good technique. He's a good football player and he's finding ways to make plays on the football. It's nothing that I'm surprised at. I thought he was a really good player when we got him. Him playing on the outside -- he actually enjoys it. He could play anywhere. He's really a jack of all trades."
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises from the position came from Fuller's partner, Ronald Darby. The coaches knew Darby could play when he was signed, but he had dealt with injuries for a portion of his career after making a splash in his rookie season with the Buffalo Bills. Not only did Darby stay healthy, but he also started all 16 games and led the team with 16 deflected passes. Together, he and Fuller made a difficult duo for quarterbacks to overcome. Their 27 combined pass breakups plus Fullers' four interceptions was the most among outside corner duos.
"He's a good young man," Del Rio said of Darby. "He's been able to stay healthy for us, which when he's been healthy, he's played good football. That was the biggest thing. He's been nicked up a few times and wasn't always able to be out there. ...He's been dependable. He's been productive. He's been a good teammate. He's been a great addition for us. I'm glad that we have him. It's been a really good year for him."
With Fuller and Darby locking down the outside corner spots, second-year pro Jimmy Moreland played more as a nickelback -- a position he excelled in during his rookie season. He increased his defensive snaps by 15% in 2020, which allowed him to record his first-career interception and forced fumble. Although he did give up more yards, he allowed a 67.7 completion percentage, which was down nearly 12% from 2019.
"He enjoys what he does," Rivera said. "He works at his craft. He brings energy to it. He's an infectious-type personality. That's what you want on your football team, those guys that may not be the star player, but again he's one of those significant role players and he can impact your team."
The rest of Washington's corners took on smaller roles but managed to make the most of their opportunities. Players like Danny Johnson and Cole Luke did not play any defensive snaps, but Johnson found a role as a return specialist while Luke was a special teams player. One of the best examples of this was Fabian Moreau. He played the second-fewest snaps of his four-year career but grabbed two interceptions -- one in Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles that started Washington's comeback and the other that sealed the team's victory against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"Fabian just has the misfortune of having a good group of guys around him," Rivera said. "You look for opportunities to get a guy out there, and sometimes you go beyond it and you don't get him out there as much as you'd like. He's a guy we'd like to play a little bit more."
Darby is slated to become a free agent when the new league year begins on March 17. Washington has the ability to re-sign him if it wants, but there are also a variety of other options in this year's cornerback free agent class. Longtime Arizona Cardinals standout Patrick Peterson is the most accomplished, as he has been voted to the Pro Bowl in eight of his 10 seasons in the league and is a three-time first-team All-Pro. Rounding out the top of the class are A.J. Bouye, Richard Sherman, D.J. Hayden and Jason McCourty. Check out the rest of the free agent corners, HERE.
Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley leads this year's cornerback class and is considered one of the top players regardless of position. Farley opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, but he had a breakout year in 2019 with four interceptions and 12 pass breakups. Some of the other top players at the position include Patrick Surtain II (Alabama), Jaycee Horn (South Carolina), Eric Stokes (Georgia) and Elijah Molden (Washington) Check out a list of all the prospects, HERE.