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The NFL draft is heavy on cornerback talent. Will the Commanders capitalize?

Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez, shown at the Ducks' pro day in March, is one of the top prospects at his position in the NFL draft. (Amanda Loman/AP)
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During the first wave of free agency, the Washington Commanders addressed several glaring needs — offensive line, cornerback and linebacker — and lessened the pressure to use the 16th pick in April’s NFL draft on one of those positions.

The additions should allow the Commanders to develop multiple plans for the draft and to act more from conviction than desperation. And even though they don’t have to pick a guard, tackle or cornerback in the first round, they still seem likely to, given the team’s roster and the draft’s strengths.

Of the three positions, cornerback may make the most sense. Washington’s additions in free agency (Cameron Dantzler and Danny Johnson) aren’t as solid as the players they added on the line (Andrew Wylie and Nick Gates). The team’s new cornerbacks are talented, but over the years, they’ve struggled and been benched (Dantzler with the Minnesota Vikings) or repeatedly been passed over for starting jobs (Johnson with Washington).

And there’s a lot of talent in the draft.

Commanders focus on O-line, secondary, linebackers as free agency opens

“It’s a really good group of corners,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. He doesn’t think there’s an elite prospect in the class, such as the Denver Broncos’ Patrick Surtain II in 2021 or the New York Jets’ Sauce Gardner in 2022, but he graded 20 cornerbacks as being worthy of a pick in the first three rounds.

“Which is a big number,” Jeremiah added. “Those [20] guys are all starters.”

Many draft experts see a clear first tier of prospects: In some order, Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon (5-foot-11, 181 pounds), Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez (6-1, 197) and Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. (6-2, 193). It’s possible none of them will be there at No. 16. But if the quarterback market continues heating up — if, as several analysts project, three or four passers go in the top 15 — then one of those top cornerbacks (or a top tackle) could slide to Washington.

Though it’s unclear what type of cornerback the Commanders would prefer, outside or slot, it’s clear they’re interested in the position. At the combine they held formal interviews with the top prospects, and before the draft they’ll probably host at least a few more for what are known as “top 30” visits. Minnesota’s Terell Smith (6-0, 204), who could be a mid-round selection, recently told the Draft Network that he’s scheduled to make a trip to Washington’s headquarters.

In addition to the pro day circuit, Commanders executives probably will watch Witherspoon at his personal workout April 5. The senior, one of the most physical cornerbacks in the draft, hasn’t done any on-field drills during the pre-draft process because of a hamstring injury.

In a recent mock draft, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. suggested another candidate at No. 16: Mississippi State’s Emmanuel Forbes. At 6-1 and 166 pounds, the junior is exceptionally thin; he’ll be the second-lightest defensive back drafted since at least 2000 (after Lamont Brightful, who weighed 160 pounds in 2002), according to TruMedia. But Forbes never missed a game in college, and Kiper pointed out he has elite speed (4.35-second 40-yard dash).

“Some teams will be scared off by his size. The Commanders should capitalize,” Kiper wrote. “Forbes is a [ballhawk] who picked off 14 passes over the past three seasons — one of those was a pick-six off [top quarterback prospect] Will Levis — and could be an all-pro player. He has gone up against some of college football’s best wideouts and consistently held his own.”

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If the Commanders trade down in the first round, as they did last year, they would probably still be in range for the second tier of cornerbacks. Analysts project Forbes, Maryland’s Deonte Banks (6-0, 197) and Georgia’s Kelee Ringo (6-2, 207) to go in the late first or early second round. Washington also could target Alabama slot cornerback Brian Branch (6-0, 190).

If Washington uses its first pick on another position, it will have to sort through the bunched-up third and fourth tiers to find a cornerback later. There are several smaller slot candidates — Utah’s Clark Phillips III (5-9, 184), TCU’s Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson (5-8, 178), Michigan’s DJ Turner (5-11, 178) — and plenty of bigger prospects outside. Of those bigger cornerbacks, analysts seem to favor South Carolina’s Cam Smith (6-0, 180), Miami’s Tyrique Stevenson (6-0, 198), Syracuse’s Garrett Williams (5-10, 192) and Alabama’s Eli Ricks (6-2, 188).

One player who could attract the Commanders’ attention is Kansas State’s Julius Brents (6-2, 198). In Indianapolis, his wingspan measured 82⅝ inches, the longest of any defensive back since at least 1999, according to the Mockdraftable database. Washington’s front office likes length — it’s the primary reason Benjamin St-Juste forced a game-winning pass breakup in Chicago last season — and Brents could pair well with him outside.

No matter how the Commanders address the position, it’s clear it should be addressed. On a conference call in February, Jeremiah described the Philadelphia Eagles’ outlook on defense, and it didn’t sound too different from the mind-set in Washington.

“I think finding somebody on the back end that could take the ball away, that could help their cause,” he said. “… Everything is about winning a Super Bowl and trying to beat these elite quarterbacks, and you do that with pass rushers and corners.”