Now, two games into the season, a true picture of what Washington’s revamped secondary can be remains unclear.
“We’re still trying to find it,” Rivera said Wednesday.
After an offseason overhaul, Washington’s secondary is an odd mix of young but unrefined athletes and veterans looking to rediscover the high points of their career. Fuller is arguably among the latter, despite being 25 and in the first year of his new contract.
Washington signed him to a four-year, $40 million contract in March with the hope he would be more like the player he was in 2017, when he was widely regarded as one of the game’s finest slot corners who had the versatility to play multiple spots on defense. In Fuller’s past two years, following his trade to the Chiefs, his play was up and down as he dealt with injuries and moved around from corner to the slot to, at times, safety.
Fuller left Kansas City with a Super Bowl ring to begin anew in Washington this year, but his role has been disguised. Is he a cornerback who will play opposite of Ronald Darby outside? Or is he the nickel corner, an unofficial starting job because Washington, like most defenses, plays the majority of its snaps in subpackages? Will he roam to safety at times, too? Might he be used in the box, as he was for nearly 17 percent of his snaps last season with the Chiefs, per Pro Football Focus?
“Obviously, based on some of the things we want to do with our coverages, when you have a guy like him out there and you have him shadowing players, he’s a special guy,” Rivera said last week. “He’s got that kind of ability where he can help make a difference in the game plan.”
Fuller’s absence has afforded Rivera’s staff a longer look at the younger players on the secondary, including Jimmy Moreland, a seventh-round pick in 2019, and Fabian Moreau, a third-round pick in 2017.
Moreland started in place of Fuller in Week 1 against Philadelphia, and both he and Moreau came up with game-changing interceptions to spark a comeback victory. But in Week 2 at Arizona, the secondary often appeared more of a liability than the last line of defense.
Miscommunication led to an Arizona touchdown in the first quarter, and breakdowns later in the game led to big plays for Kyler Murray and his bevy of receivers. The dual-threat quarterback had five plays that gained 20 yards or more, including a touchdown run and two deep passes for 54 and 49 yards, respectively, that led to scores.
Mistakes were shared, but free safety Troy Apke, in his first year as a starter, seemed to take the brunt of the criticism from outside. Rivera, however, cautioned that some of the blame was misdirected.
“Troy didn’t play as well as he was capable, and a lot of guys didn’t play as well as they were capable last week,” Rivera said. “But Troy is a smart football player who is a savvy guy that understands. Now, there are some things that go sometimes in a game that may shade a guy’s approach, but I will tell you this much: He didn’t play as bad as people think he did. There were a couple of plays that happened that, thank goodness Troy was there to make the tackle. Because for the most part, a lot of people don’t know what happened on that play. Everybody wants to point at the wrong person without knowing.”
Fuller was not listed on Washington’s injury report Wednesday, but Rivera warned that the true gauge of a player’s availability after an injury is the day after. How Fuller feels Thursday may dictate his practice time for the rest of the week and ultimately his game status Sunday at Cleveland.
When he does return, the list of questions about Washington’s secondary may only grow. But Rivera is hopeful Fuller will improve a young team that is still finding its way.
“Kendall hasn’t played yet, and he was an important part of what we were putting together during training camp,” Rivera said. “Hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to have him play for us Sunday.”