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Secondary is a priority as Commanders consider options for the 11th pick

If Washington drafts a defensive back at No. 11, LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. could be an option. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
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In the first round of the NFL draft, the Washington Commanders could make the secondary a priority.

The Commanders are somewhat thin at cornerback and lack an obvious candidate to play big nickelback, the position former safety Landon Collins filled during the defense’s best stretches last season.

In its first two seasons under defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, Washington relied heavily on what it calls the Buffalo nickel, a slot defender in the nickel subpackage, which the team often plays with three safeties and two cornerbacks.

“The intent is to continue to develop the Buffalo defense that we had,” Coach Ron Rivera said during the Commanders’ pre-draft news conference Monday.

But the coach also pointed out that, even though Buffalo mostly has been played by safeties (Collins or Kam Curl) in Washington, the role was mostly filled by linebacker Shaq Thompson when Rivera coached the Carolina Panthers. Linebacker Khaleke Hudson played the role for part of one game last season for Washington before suffering an ankle injury.

“There’s several players [in the draft] that fit that bill,” Rivera said. “We’re obviously looking at different possibilities, and wherever that player comes from and whatever position he comes [from], we’ll believe that that’s the guy best-suited to do it for us.”

If Washington stays at No. 11 in Thursday night’s first round and picks a defensive back, the likeliest candidates appear to be LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton.

The top defensive back prospect, Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, is expected to be selected in the first five picks, and though Michigan cornerback/safety Daxton Hill has desirable versatility, 11th is a bit high for a player most analysts project to be taken at the end of the first round.

Another option is the University of Washington’s Trent McDuffie. Many see the smart, athletic 21-year-old as the draft’s third-best cornerback, behind Gardner and Stingley, and expect he’ll be taken somewhere in the teens.

Commanders expect movement (and opportunity) in NFL draft’s middle rounds

If Washington drafts Hamilton or Stingley, it will be an early test of new trainer Al Bellamy. Hamilton missed the Fighting Irish’s final six games last season with a right knee injury, and Stingley missed all but three of the Tigers’ games with a torn ligament in his left foot.

Both returned to perform on the pre-draft circuit. Some analysts dinged Hamilton’s stock because he ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. At Stingley’s pro day, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said, he improved his stock by showing he’s almost back to full health.

If Washington targets Stingley — who is 6-foot and 190 pounds — it would be a first for Rivera, who in his 11 years as a head coach has never used a first-round pick on a cornerback. Rivera, who didn’t begin making personnel decisions until he arrived in Washington, called that “a coincidence.”

Stingley would help fill out a cornerbacks room with two veterans (William Jackson III and Kendall Fuller), two depth players (Danny Johnson and Corn Elder) and a 2021 third-round pick who was limited to nine games by concussions (Benjamin St-Juste).

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Early in the draft process, Jeremiah said, he dinged Stingley for what appeared to be a lack of heart on game tape. But in the past few weeks, he learned Stingley was battling the foot injury before the season began and hadn’t gone through any contact in practice. Jeremiah said he changed his mind — what looked like nonchalance actually was grit — and moved Stingley up his board.

“While he wasn’t great in [2020], he was good, and he was phenomenal in ’19,” Jeremiah said. “In a draft like this, where there’s a lot of kind of unknowns and not a lot of sure-thing players, he allows you to dream on the upside. I think he’d be a home run pick. … But I’m to the point now in the process where I don’t think he gets out of the top 10.”

If Washington grabs Hamilton — a 6-4, 220-pound star for the Irish — it could form a new safety trio with Curl and Bobby McCain. Hamilton is the consensus top safety; he has size, range and the ability to make plays. He had 34 tackles and three interceptions in seven games last season.

ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety, has praised Hamilton’s versatility. Bowen said in a March interview that Washington needs to replace Collins with a young safety because of his cost and 13 missed games over the previous two seasons.

“That overhang safety, what Landon Collins was, is an important part, but it’s not a game-changing part,” Bowen said. “That’s what you have to remember: You pay difference-makers. You pay guys who hit the quarterback and take the ball away. That’s who you pay. That’s just how life works in that league.”

If Washington drafts Hamilton and he solidifies the secondary, that would make a difference for this defense.