One of the biggest surprises of the Redskins’ 2015 season was, without a doubt, the emergence of rookie wide-receiver-turned-cornerback Quinton Dunbar.
But now that he’s established himself as an NFL-caliber player, the stakes will be even higher in 2016.
Coach Jay Gruden said recently that Dunbar got by last season thanks to raw athleticism, instincts and fearlessness. This coming fall, Gruden added, he must polish his technique and add another layer of sophistication to his understanding of the position in order to take the next step.
“When I saw him one-on-one against [Odell] Beckham [Jr.] and Dez [Bryant], the first couple times I kind of closed my eyes and just listened for the cheers,” Gruden joked about putting Dunbar on some of the league's top receivers. “But the more you watched him, the more confident he got and I think he was just raw enough to where he didn’t really realize who he was covering. He just went out there and covered them.”
By the second half of last season, Dunbar wasn’t just getting spot duty at cornerback. He was playing a lot. In fact, his 267 regular season snaps ranked third among rookies on defense (behind only Kyshoen Jarrett and Preston Smith).
Dunbar played a pivotal role in one of the Redskins’ biggest wins of the season—their 20-14 triumph over the Giants in late November. He picked off Eli Manning in the end zone to preserve a 17-0 second half lead, and finished with a career-high two defended passes.
This offseason will be an important one for Dunbar, who transitioned from wide receiver to cornerback a week into training camp last summer. This year, he’ll be in the defensive backs’ meeting room from Day 1.
The Redskins’ roster at corner currently includes Bashaud Breeland, Chris Culliver, Will Blackmon, Dunbar and inexperienced players Jeremy Harris, Deshazor Everett, Dashaun Phillips and Al Louis-Jean. Culliver is recovering from major knee surgery and will miss the offseason, while Blackmon and Everett could get some time at safety. So, indeed, there’s a good chance Dunbar will get a ton of valuable reps over the next few months.
“He’s obviously a very talented guy. He’s long and he’s disruptive and he can run,” Gruden said. “So I think he’s going to get better and better the more he learns the system. There’s certain things he still has to develop. He's got to know how to play the bunches and the clusters and all that stuff. And handle motions and communication, but for the most part I think he’s got the chance to be a really good one.”
As much confidence as Gruden has in Dunbar’s ability to keep improving, he still can’t quite wrap his mind around what the undrafted Florida product managed to do a year ago.
“For him to be thrust into action and play a significant amount of plays that he did, I think is unheard of,” Gruden said. “To never play corner in your life, now all of a sudden you’re playing on Monday Night Football covering Dez Bryant, I don’t think that’ll happen again. But we’re glad it worked out for him and he’s going to be a good one.”