- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2023

On a photo posted briefly to the Washington Commanders’ Twitter page, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was captured watching a prospect at this past week’s NFL scouting combine. But on a notebook in his hands, scribbled notes for Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez could be seen. 

The writing was barely legible in the picture, but the team soon deleted it and reuploaded a cropped version without the notebook — just to be safe.

The initial social media post wasn’t quite like when the team accidentally spoiled the team’s name change by forgetting to blur a Commanders logo sitting on Jason Wright’s lap, but after that incident, it’s understandable why the team would opt to be more than cautious.

At this point, though, Gonzalez — a top cornerback in this year’s draft — might not even be available by the time the Commanders are on the clock at No. 16. Regardless of Del Rio’s notes.

Gonzalez was one of the prospects who put on an impressive showing at this year’s combine — thanks in part to the 6-foot-1 corner’s 4.38 40-yard dash and 41 ½ -inch vertical jump. Analysts suggested his combine performance could help solidify him as the first defensive back off the board — which would likely put him out of range of the Commanders, who have a pressing need at cornerback.

But if Gonzalez is off the board, there figures to be still plenty of top-rated cornerbacks available. Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. told reporters he met with Washington at the combine, and he’s been frequently linked to the team in mock drafts. So has Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon, a 6-foot All-American who had three interceptions and 14 pass breakups last season. 

“This is a really deep group of guys at cornerback and there are a lot of guys that we have interest in,” Commanders general manager Martin Mayhew told reporters last week, “so we’ll see how those guys perform here and we’ll interview him and we’ll make some decisions on that role.”

Mayhew said this year’s class is “a little smaller” in terms of physical size. But he didn’t necessarily indicate that was a knock against them. In an age of spread-out-style offenses, teams need corners who have speed and the ability to get out of breaks quickly, Mayhew said. 

In his latest mock draft, the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah projected five corners being selected in the first round — including Porter to the Commanders at No. 16. The son of former NFL linebacker Joey Porter, the younger Porter has good size (6-foot-2) for the position and describes himself as a press corner who is “gonna get in your face and do my job and do it well.”

The Commanders, coincidentally, have shown an affinity for Penn State alums in recent years as the team has drafted wide receiver Jahan Dotson and defensive end Shaka Toney, while grabbing corner Tariq Castro-Fields off waivers. 

That’s something that Porter also noted when meeting with reporters. And he called Dotson the toughest player that he’s gone up against, even though they faced off only in practice.

“it was great,” Porter said of his meeting with Washington. “Those are great people over there.  Great organization.”

The Commanders have a need at the position after whiffing on veteran William Jackson III, who was benched and then traded last season despite signing a three-year, $40.5 million contract in 2021. Benjamin St-Juste has played well when available, though has missed 13 games across two seasons with various injuries. Kendall Fuller, perhaps Washington’s most consistent corner, is entering the final year of his contract, as well.

Washington could also use help in the slot. Last week, the Commanders cut safety Bobby McCain — who the team moved to the inside more than midway through last season. Reliable veteran Danny Johnson is set to be a free agent.

Teams don’t typically use high draft picks on slot corners, but there are a few first-round talents who can play both inside and out, such as Witherspoon, Alabama’s Brian Branch and South Carolina’s Cam Smith.

And even if the Commanders pass on a corner in Round 1 — coach Ron Rivera has talked about the team’s desire to upgrade its offensive line — the team could opt to address the position on Day 2 or 3. 

Michigan’s DJ Turner II impressed with a blazing 4.26 40-yard dash — the fastest of any prospect at this year’s combine. Maryland’s Deonte Banks also ran a 4.35, though it’s doubtful he lasts by the time Washington picks at No. 47 in the second round. 

“It’s a good group,” Mayhew said.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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