Which CB should the Commanders partner with rookie Emmanuel Forbes?
Would Kendall Fuller or Benjamin St-Juste make for a better CB partner for Forbes?
When the Washington Commanders selected cornerback Emmanual Forbes at 16 overall in last month's NFL Draft, the most common question I was asked was who misses out in the secondary? The Commanders had two solid starting cornerbacks in veteran Kendall Fuller and third-year project Benjamin St-Juste. You’d expect a first round pick to come in and start right away, so one of those other two corners will have to miss out.
My first thought was perhaps they’ll try and move one of them back inside. Fuller played in the slot when he was first drafted by Washington, but since he returned to the team in 2020 he’s struggled in the slot and played much better on the outside. Last year the Commanders tried St-Juste in the slot, but he also looked far more comfortable when he shifted back outside to replace William Jackson. Forbes reportedly spent some time in the slot during rookie mini camp, but with his frame I think he’s also more suited to playing outside.
Then the Commanders drafted Jartavius Martin in the second round and he looks almost certain to handle the slot responsibilities. That leaves Washington with a good problem to have, three good corners and only two open spots. Again, I’m going to assume that while the coaching staff will of course say things like “nobody is guaranteed to start” and “Forbes will have to earn a starting job” during the rest of the offseason and into training camp, he will almost certainly take one of those starting spots. So then, who is best suited to partner Forbes on the outside: St-Juste or Fuller? Let’s take a closer look.
The sentiment I got from fans is that Fuller should miss out given he’s older and costs a lot more. Many people suggested he could be a cap casualty after the Forbes pick, but I disagree. For starters, he’s the only real veteran in the defensive backfield; just about all of Washington’s other defensive backs are on rookie contracts. Fuller offers experience and veteran leadership that a young group needs to help guide them. On top of that, I think Fuller is a much better fit than St-Juste for the zone and match concepts that the team uses. When he plays off and with vision, he’s incredibly instinctive and can drive down on routes quickly.
Here were two of Fuller’s interceptions from last year, both coming on extremely similar plays. On both plays, he’s the outside corner over a tight bunch set to the right of the offensive formation. He aligns about six or seven yards off the ball and takes outside leverage against the furthest outside receiver on both plays. Both the Texans and Cowboys look to run a spacing concept consisting of two hook routes and a flat route that are designed to spread out the defense and create holes in the zone coverage. On both plays, the quarterback sets up quickly and looks to get the ball out to the speed out route to the flat.
Fuller widens at the snap to maintain his outside leverage, but keeps his eyes in the backfield while watching the receiver in his peripheral vision. Because he’s playing off and with vision, as soon as he spots the quarterback hit the top of his drop and begin his throwing motion, Fuller can drive down to the flat and jump the route to intercept the pass and take it all the way back for a touchdown.
But it’s not just the interceptions that make Fuller a strong cornerback. He made a number of plays while playing off and with vision, which this system prefers, that show his ability to thrive in this type of defense.
On this play, the Eagles are trying to put Fuller in a bind with a curl-flat combination to his side. The outside receiver runs a curl route while the running back works out to the flat underneath it. This is designed to put Fuller in a no-win situation where if he sinks back deep, the back is wide open underneath and if he steps up, the curl route is open further down the field. However, Fuller plays this perfectly. Instead of committing to one route or the other, he gains depth and width to play in between both routes while watching the quarterback. He muddies the read for the quarterback and forces him to make the decision, backing himself to make up the ground to either receiver.
The quarterback opts to try and hit the curl route further down the field, but because Fuller was reading him the entire time, Fuller was able to break on the throw as soon as the quarterback began to deliver it. This allowed Fuller to make up the ground to the receiver running the curl and arrive just as the ball did, diving to get his hands in at the catch point and break up the pass.
These plays are exactly the type of plays the Commanders are hoping to get from Forbes. Forbes is excellent from very similar positions, playing off and with vision and able to jump those underneath throws and try to create turnovers. Having Forbes on one side and Fuller on the other would give Washington an excellent pair to help them attack quick game passes and force the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer, allowing the defensive line an extra beat to generate pressure.
Having two similar corners like that would allow the Commanders to play more of their zone and match coverages and trust that the defense can hold up on both sides of the field. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t situations that could suit St-Juste more than Fuller. When teams work out of an even formation with two receivers on one side and two receivers on the other, those zone and match coverages balance out nicely. However, when a team lines up in a three by one formation with three receivers on one side of the field and just one receiver isolated on the back side, that changes things.