But Washington quickly addressed the position by signing 2016 first-round pick William Jackson III, and the move could prove to be one of its most impactful of the offseason.
“Not enough people know about him because he played in Cincinnati,” former Washington safety and current ESPN analyst Ryan Clark said. “Cincinnati stinks. When you look at a team and they’re not good, you’re not necessarily looking at the individual pieces for what they’re doing.”
With speed (4.37-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine), size (6-foot, 196 pounds) and ball skills, Jackson has the physical tools coveted at the position. His career numbers (only three interceptions in 59 games) fail to depict an elite cornerback, but they also fail to tell the whole story. He was targeted in coverage on only 14.1 percent of pass plays over the past three years, the fourth-lowest rate among starting cornerbacks who played at least 2,000 snaps in that span.
“I just tell them to watch the tape,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t getting thrown at a whole lot. … When you’re covering guys up, you don’t get many picks.”
Clark said he believes Jackson is on the cusp of becoming more of a household name, and Washington’s defense, led by its talented line, could help him get there. Washington jumped from the bottom five to the top five in most major categories in coordinator Jack Del Rio’s first season with the team.
“Every cornerback that has played under [Del Rio] has had successful years,” Jackson said. “He’s a coach that knows exactly what he’s doing. Every corner succeeds in his defense. I’m just here to succeed and make it better.”
Just how will Jackson fit in Del Rio’s 4-3 scheme?
With the Bengals, Jackson played primarily press-man coverage, sticking to opponents’ No. 1 receivers much as he did against Terry McLaurin in Washington’s win over Cincinnati last year. The Bengals, according to Pro Football Focus, played man coverage, or cover-one with a single-high safety, at the eighth-highest rate in the league. Washington, by comparison, was in man coverage only 21 percent of the time, 21st most in the NFL.
That Del Rio used more zone than man has led some to ask whether Jackson will face a challenge in transitioning to the scheme or whether Del Rio might make alterations to it based on Jackson’s arrival.
But the notion of “fit,” especially for defensive backs, requires context. NFL defenses, no matter the scheme, run a mix of man and zone, often in the same play. When Wade Phillips was defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, he described his team’s coverage as a “matchup zone” because it used both man and zone coverage simultaneously.
“We say, ‘Hey, you’re playing this zone, but when a guy comes over there, you match with him,’ ” Phillips said in 2016. “ ‘You pass it off, just like in basketball. When another guy comes there, you go there.’ We play a lot of match zone, but people think we’re playing man-to-man. Hopefully that confuses them.”
Washington employed similar tactics last year, not just with its scheme but also the technique of its cornerbacks.
Take Washington’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5, when Kendall Fuller intercepted Jared Goff in the second quarter. Before the snap, Washington appeared to be in man coverage but was actually in a cover-two scheme. Fuller lined up wide, across from wide receiver Cooper Kupp. When Kupp began his route inside, Fuller turned his head as if he planned to follow, then quickly turned to the quarterback and sunk back in coverage between Kupp and the slot receiver, where he made the interception.
It’s plausible Del Rio could tweak his playbook to capitalize on Jackson’s strengths as a press-man cornerback, though neither he nor anyone else with Washington has indicated that. If anything, Jackson’s abilities give the team more options and versatility in the defensive backfield.
Although Fuller was used primarily outside last season, he has played all over the secondary in his career. So, too, has cornerback Darryl Roberts, a recent signee who last played in Detroit. The addition of Jackson could free up both to move around to the slot, outside or even free safety in certain coverages.
“Where you sometimes lose the value of a player is when you say, 'Okay, we’re paying him this, so we’re going to make him do all of these things,’ ” Clark said. “Nah, the thing that made you pay him, you should probably let him do that as much as you possibly can. … Let [Jackson] play corner. Let him follow the number one [receiver] if you want. Maybe Kendall can slide inside at times. [Jackson] gives you an opportunity to move people around and do some different things schematically because of his man skills.”
Del Rio has worked with several cornerbacks who had previously played more man coverage elsewhere and found success in his scheme. Included in that group is Aqib Talib, who while playing for Del Rio in Denver in 2014 had four interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns, plus career highs in passes defensed (16) and tackles for loss (three).
Darby was another who played mostly man coverage before he signed with Washington. Last year in Del Rio’s scheme — and in the first season he was fully healthy — Darby recorded a career-high 16 passes defensed and was lauded by Coach Ron Rivera as the team’s “most consistent” cornerback.
Clark said transitioning to a new scheme can come with challenges, but the more difficult switch is for a zone cornerback who is asked to play more man coverage.
“You already know [Jackson] has the requisite skill set to play the position, period,” Clark said. “When you can do those things, fitting a guy into cover-two or fitting a guy into cover-three or fire zones, which are things run heavily by Jack Del Rio, those things can be done rather than trying to turn a guy who’s a primary zone corner into a press-man guy. … You allow good players to fit into your scheme, and then you use their special traits when needed.
“Darrelle Revis fit into the New England Patriots’ scheme. When they played really good number one receivers, they moved him on the number two [receiver] and doubled the number one. So they give you more schematic flexibility, but you still are going to be who you are at the core.”
At its core, Washington is led by its defensive line, a group that boasts four first-round draft picks, including reigning defensive rookie of the year Chase Young. According to ESPN, Washington had the third-highest pass-rush win rate (50 percent) last season, creating trouble for opposing quarterbacks but an incentive for cornerbacks such as Jackson.
“It’s just a blessing to have that front,” Jackson said. “We’ve got a lot of great guys up front. The quarterback’s not going to be able to hold the ball. When we were making the decision, it was very easy because of the front that we have. The defense is already very good. I’m just a piece to make it better.”