- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 15, 2020

His eyes were on the quarterback the entire time, letting the play develop. So when San Francisco’s Nick Mullens fired off an ill-fated pass to the flat Sunday, Washington safety Kamren Curl jumped the route, easily grabbing the ball and sprinting down the sideline before somersaulting into the end zone for a 76-yard win-sealing interception return.

Curl’s electrifying play capped Washington’s fourth straight victory and showed why the seventh-rounder out of Arkansas is considered one of the biggest steals of this year’s draft. When starter Landon Collins went down for the year with a torn Achilles in Week 7, the rookie was thrust into a full-time role — and he’s arguably been an upgrade.

In fact, the 21-year-old’s emergence has been so eye-opening that it’s fair to wonder: What happens when Collins, Washington’s highest-paid defensive player, is healthy again? Is Collins suddenly expendable?

The answer isn’t easy. For one, Collins’ contract makes it difficult for Washington to move on, even if the team wanted to in the offseason. Set to enter the third year of a six-year, $84 million deal signed in March 2019, Collins carries a base salary of $12.5 million in 2021 and has a cap figure of $17.2 million. Of that $12.5 million, $5 million is already guaranteed — and the entire base salary will be guaranteed if Collins can’t pass a physical by the fifth day of free agency in March.

If Washington released Collins without his salary becoming fully guaranteed, the team would still carry $18.8 million in dead money to get rid of him. If it does become guaranteed, that dead money figure jumps to $26.3 million.

According to Over The Cap, cutting Collins before June 1 would eat into Washington’s 2021 cap space. If the move is designated a post-June 1 release, that would free up space for next year but would dip into future budgets.

There are, of course, two safety spots on the field. But they’re different roles, and Collins and Curl both work better near the line of scrimmage as strong safeties. Putting either one at safety — the last line of defense — wouldn’t be ideal.

Curl, though, has shown he should be part of the equation.

“He’s far exceeded expectations for a late-round pick to come in and have as big of an impact as he’s had,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said.. “He just goes about doing his job. He’s really matter-of-fact about it. He understands what his assignment is and he goes out and competes.”

Collins went down in Week 7, and Curl, in his six starts since, has 11 more tackles (52 to 41), four more quarterback hits (5 to 1), one more passes defended (2 to 1) and the same number of sacks (2) and interceptions (1) as the three-time Pro Bowler did to start the season.

Collins was off to a rocky start with Washington in 2020. His missed tackles, in particular, were glaring. He had nine through four games, though notably went three straight contests without one before his injury. Curl, by comparison, had 10 missed tackles through 13 games.

Before Collins’ injury, Collins and Curl did share the field at times. Washington used Curl, with his 6-foot-1, 206-pound frame, in its “big nickel” package — placing him as a slot cornerback to help cover bigger tight ends. If Collins returns, it’s possible Curl slots back to that role.

But Curl has clearly impressed. Washington coach Ron Rivera said last month that Curl reminded him of a young Kendall Fuller, a smart cornerback with lots of versatility. Rivera has said that if there hadn’t been a pandemic — which canceled pre-draft workouts — Curl would have likely been drafted a lot higher.

Curl, too, isn’t just catching the eye of the coaching staff. National analysts and pundits have started to praise the former Razorback as well.

On Twitter, NFL Network analyst and former offensive lineman Brian Baldinger shared a video clip of a third-down stop from Washington’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers — highlighting Curl’s impact on the play. He noted how Curl followed tight end Eric Ebron in motion and then flew in to make the tackle on the ball was thrown his way.

“This guy plays like it’s the most important thing of his life,” Baldinger said in the video. “Man, he’s my choice for best seventh-round pick in this whole league. What a player.”

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