Redskins improve depth at cornerback, but questions remain

John Keim is taking a position-by-position look at the Redskins’ roster entering training camp. So far, he’s reviewed linebackers, the defensive line, the offensive line, and running back. Today, it’s the cornerbacks:

Returning starters: DeAngelo Hall, Josh Wilson

Key backups: Richard Crawford, Chase Minnifield

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson (26) and DeAngelo Hall need to make more big plays this season. (Associated Press)

Key additions: E.J. Biggers, David Amerson

The rest: Jerome Murphy, DB Devon Holland

Decisions: The Redskins will have a decision regarding how many corners they’ll keep, especially if Minnifield is healthy. They’ve typically kept five corners, and as of now four are locks: Hall, Wilson, Biggers and Amerson. The first two will start, barring injury. Crawford’s ability to return punts provides a big edge. If Minnifield shows he’s healthy and can play, then his talent suggests he could push to be more than a No. 5 corner. Could they keep six corners? Murphy and Holland have long roads, though the latter can play corner or safety.

Burning questions: (1) Are they better than last season? Yes, but the real question is how much. For now the back end of the corner position is more about promise than anything. Biggers could be a fine No. 3 corner, but numerous league observers considered him at best a third or fourth.  Amerson is better than Crawford, who was the No. 4 corner last season. If Minnifield is fine, then the depth at this spot is excellent. But the Redskins are hoping that Amerson develops and Minnifield’s knees hold up. Neither is a big stretch, but both will require time. If an improved Crawford is a sixth corner (who mostly returns punts), then the Redskins have bettered their depth. As for the starters, well, they’re the same as last year, so that’s no different. They can be helped by an improved pass rush, lessening the need to blitz and play a lot of man coverage. This group will need to make plays or they’ll be less than ordinary.

(2) Is there a better option than Hall in the slot?  It takes time to learn to play in the slot, especially after years covering the outside. So Hall could improve in his second season at this spot. The Redskins worked out Biggers and Crawford in the slot this spring. Biggers’ length enables him to get good jams on receivers; he’s a good athlete, too. Crawford has the ability to mirror his man, a crucial aspect in the slot. He also now has a better understanding of how to play to his help. But his short arms make it tough for him to get quality jams. But Hall’s toughness inside is another crucial aspect. For some reason, there’s a notion he does not like to tackle; it couldn’t be further from the truth. The Redskins released him because of his high cap number, but the defensive coaches were ecstatic when he returned. His reputation around the NFL is different outside of Ashburn than it is inside. But as for playing the slot, he must improve on disguising blitzes. He had a tendency to tip them off early last year (looking at the quarterback too soon and/or too long), making them ineffective. The point is, no Redskin is perfect for this position. The Redskins could opt to rotate players depending on the situation. Hall did not make as many plays as they hoped last season from this position; he’s well suited for the outside.

(3) Can Minnifield contribute? The Redskins must cross their fingers, and probably a few toes, when it comes to Minnifield. Having microfracture surgery followed six months later by reconstructive ACL surgery does not bode well for his long-term prospects, doctors have said. If healthy, he can help. He was limited at times this spring and did not look quite the same as a year ago – a function of rust – when he clearly stood out. But if he can return to the level he was at last spring, before tearing his ACL, then the Redskins have a legitimate player. The question will then become: How long can they rely on him?

What to watch for:  Amerson’s development.  He had a lot of holes in his game at North Carolina State last season, and some were on display this spring, when he got beat more with his eyes than anything else – a double move leaving him several yards from the receiver downfield. That said, he did look like he was trying hard to stay disciplined with his eyes, knowing where to have them in man and zone. During the spring, Amerson showed excellent instincts breaking on the ball and coming with good burst out of his backpedal. That will enable him to make some plays; it also will allow others to make plays against him. Amerson must prove he can handle run duties, something he did not show much of last season (though his coaches insist it won’t be an issue), whether it was in taking on blockers or making the tackle himself. Other corners have entered the league with similar questions only to improve greatly in that area. In this defense, it’s a must. He’s an excellent athlete with many qualities you look for in a corner. It’s safe to say he should be a starter someday; it’s hard to imagine the Redskins bringing back both Wilson and Hall next season given Amerson’s presence. Now it’s up to the coaches to coax all of that out of him.

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag.

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