The dichotomy is a glimpse inside of the mind of the former undrafted wide receiver who turned into a borderline-elite cornerback. Dunbar can be quiet and unassuming one moment, a deep thinker whose eyes widen when talking about Denim. The next minute he’s dripping in bravado, noting how far he has come from an Overtown neighborhood of Miami that has struggled with crime.
“I’m the chosen one, man,” Dunbar said. “I defeated the odds. Coming from where I come from. … There ain’t too many who make it out. I’ve still got homeboys back in that struggle that I’m trying to help with their situations and get them out their struggle. That’s who I do it for. I came here as an undrafted wide receiver. Look where I’m at now. I defeated those odds. They can’t take that away from me.”
Dunbar swears he doesn’t care about widespread recognition. The Redskins’ defense as a whole hasn’t gotten much positive attention this season — the unit that was supposed to carry the team has faltered during a 1-5 start — and fans and media members are far more likely to discuss Washington’s other starting cornerback, Josh Norman, who is one of the highest-paid players on the team.
Out of the spotlight, however, Dunbar has quietly emerged as the Redskins’ top cornerback and one of the best in the NFL.
“Coming from where I come from, I’m just blessed to be in this situation,” Dunbar said. “I don’t play the game for who’s the best or who’s in the top of this and that. … That’s not me. That’s not what I’m about.”
Dunbar is tied for second in the NFL with three interceptions despite playing just four games. He has recovered from a scary nerve issue in his leg that limited him to seven games last season. Analytics website Pro Football Focus ranks Dunbar first among cornerbacks with a 92.4 grade (on a 0 to 100 scale), and he is looking like a potential building-block before his contract comes up following the 2020 season.
All of this from someone who wasn’t drafted and switched from wide receiver to cornerback during his rookie offseason.
Former Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel knew Dunbar should have been a cornerback in high school. Both are from Miami, and as an NFL player Manuel used to select five seniors from Booker T. Washington High to train with him during the summer. Dunbar was one of his picks, and the two later ran into each other on the campus of the University of Florida, where “Dunny” was a receiver and Manuel was an alum.
“Even then, I was like, ‘You need to come on defense,’ ” Manuel said. “[Dunbar would say]: ’Nah, I’m a five-star recruit at receiver.’ I said: ‘You need to come on defense. Take those skills and take the football. Trust me on this.’ ”
Manuel compares Dunbar to three-time first-team all-pro and Super Bowl champion Richard Sherman, now a cornerback for the undefeated San Francisco 49ers, who visit the Redskins on Sunday. Manuel explains that both are big, long corners who are active tacklers and used to play wide receiver, although Sherman switched positions in college. Both can play over-the-top coverage or play the ball with that aggressive, nearly arrogant attitude that’s needed at the position. But Dunbar is even faster than Sherman, Manuel says.
Dunbar was disappointed with his injury-plagued 2018 season, so he called Manuel for help. Manuel was available after the Falcons fired all three of their coordinators, and as soon as Washington’s organized team activities finished, the pair met four days a week at Bamford Sports Complex in Davie, Fla., for workouts. Manuel set up cones and had music playing to mimic individual periods of NFL practices. The goal was to have Dunbar in Week 2 shape at the start of training camp.
As much success as Dunbar has had in his two years as a starting cornerback, changing positions wasn’t simple. Beyond learning the defensive scheme, there were many details and intricacies to learn: eye discipline, hand placement, recognition of route combinations. Much of Dunbar’s work with Manuel centered on the 27-year-old’s mental development.
“He has exceeded all my expectations for him,” Manuel said. “He plays with a different swagger. He was always a tough guy, but now you see him. He‘s bobbing his head. He’s talking. . . . Most people will look at it as arrogance, but it’s a quiet confidence that he always has. Most of the time you’ve been around guys where you hear them before you see them. He is the combination of: ‘I’m both. You’re going to see me and hear me as I’m doing it. The more that you talk, you get me more amped up.’ ”
The cerebral side of Dunbar is what defensive backs coach Ray Horton has come to appreciate in his first year with the Redskins. Dunbar understands play concepts, the depths of routes and the quarterback’s mind-set from his receiver days. Add that to his growing cornerback skills, and Horton says Dunbar comes at the position from two perspectives that give him a “tremendous jump on a lot of DBs who only see one-dimensional.”
Horton said Dunbar has Pro Bowl potential.
“I call some guys like that self-made men,” Horton said. “Meaning they honed their skill to get better. Some guys are naturally gifted, come in as a first-round pick, a Patrick Peterson and just go, ‘Yup, he’s our Day 1 starter.’ Q had to work for it. . . . It’s like asking a guy to switch-hit or switch-pitch. They don’t do that very often. . . . He’s got all the skill set that you want. What is he missing? He’s not missing anything. Sustained, continued excellence [is all that’s left.]”