ASHBURN | There may be no two words in the English language that coach Ron Rivera might love more than “position flex.” He uses them practically any time in reference to a player who can fill more than one position.
And in the ever-changing landscape of the NFL, that’s become vital not only for players looking for playing time but also for coaches trying to counteract opposing strategies.
Rivera values versatility and that especially seems to be true in the secondary.
Last year, Washington used a combination of Jimmy Moreland and Kamren Curl as its slot cornerback — swapping the players depending on the matchup. Moreland would be matched up against speedy, smaller wide receivers, Curl against bigger, more physical tight ends.
But now in training camp, Washington has experimented with another look: Top cornerback Kendall Fuller kicks inside while third-rounder Benjamin St-Juste lines up outside.
The pairing moves Fuller back arguably to his more natural position — the 26-year-old performs better statistically as a slot corner, according to Pro Football Focus — and takes advantage of St-Juste’s 6-foot-3 size. In theory, the combination may also allow Washington to deploy more man coverage as William Jackson III, who excels in man-to-man, is often the other corner in this package.
Fuller said he doesn’t mind the switch — he still plays plenty of snaps on the outside, too. But the wrinkle is the latest way that Washington is trying to build upon the success it had against the pass in 2020, when the team ranked as the league’s second-most efficient passing defense, according to Football Outsiders.
“You gotta be so versatile,” Fuller said. “You gotta be able to do a lot. You see a lot of different types of bodies in (the slot). We got a good group of guys where we trust anybody that’s in there.”
So, if Fuller is going to possibly see more playing time inside in 2021, what does that mean for Moreland?
First, Moreland will have to secure his roster post. At this point, it would be a major surprise if the third-year corner was among the team’s cuts when Washington has to narrow down 53 players.
But in the offseason, the team brought in veteran Darryl Roberts, a cornerback who had been having a quiet camp until Sunday when he recorded an interception and broke up at least two other passes.
Rivera gave Moreland a vote of confidence Sunday — telling reporters that the 5-foot-11 corner has a “little bit of slickness” that plays well within Washington’s system. In 2020, Moreland allowed only 5.1 yards per pass when targeted.
Rivera indicated the preseason — which starts for Washington on Thursday at New England — will go a long way in determining playing time.
“These three (preseason) games are going to be interesting to watch,” Rivera said.
St-Juste is another interesting name to consider at cornerback. After a strong showing in OTAs, the rookie has continued to play well in camp — drawing comparisons to former Pro Bowler Charles Tillman. St-Juste embraces the comp, saying he watched Tillman when growing up.
St-Juste uses his hands well, jamming receivers at the line and then using his speed to match the route. He often squares off against fellow third-rounder Dyami Brown, whose 4.3 40-yard dash speed makes it challenging for opposing corners to keep up. But St-Juste has done a solid job of preventing big plays.
“I feel pretty comfortable,” St-Juste said.
Washington’s secondary will likely be tested more this upcoming season compared to last year. Namely, the opposing quarterbacks are much better: The team faces Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers back-to-back, and then Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady two weeks later, for instance.
But Washington seems deeper at cornerback, too. Jackson’s addition, in theory, gives the team a true No. 1 corner after signing him to a three-year, $42 million contract in free agency. There are also intriguing pieces on the fringe of the roster like journeyman Torry McTyer and Danny Johnson, the latter of whom could make his way onto the roster again because of his special teams skills.
Washington will have to determine how many cornerbacks and safeties it wants to keep — the team kept 10 in 2020 — but for the first time in a while, the Burgundy-and-Gold have solid options. And flexibility.
“It’s going to be very competitive,” Rivera said. “There’s a lot of good young football players that are competing for spots. That’s what you want. You want to get to that point when you do have to make decisions, they’re going to be very difficult decisions.”