* With the Super Bowl in the past and the 2021 season in the books, NBC Sports Washington's Ethan Cadeaux and Matt Weyrich take a look at potential free agents that the Washington Commanders could benefit from signing this offseason. Next up: CB Donte Jackson.
During each of the past two offseasons, the Washington Commanders have shelled out significant money to upgrade its cornerback room.
In March 2020, Washington brought back Kendall Fuller from Kansas City on a four-year, $40 million deal just over two years after the team traded him to the Chiefs. Then last spring, the Commanders' once again spent at the position, signing former Bengals standout William Jackson III to a three-year, $40.5 million deal.
Despite Washington's major investments at the cornerback position, the unit didn't exactly shine in 2021. Jack Del Rio's entire defense took a step backward last season, and the secondary was no exception. Broken coverages, poor communication and perpetual finger-pointing were constant themes for the backend of Washington's defense in 2021, especially towards the beginning of the season.
It wasn't all bad, though. While it didn't always show up on the eye test, Fuller had a stellar year individually. Pro Football Focus graded him as the third-highest cornerback in 2021, just behind All-Pro Jalen Ramsey and Pro Bowler A.J. Terrell. While Jackson initially struggled to mesh in Del Rio's defensive scheme, his play did improve as the season went on once he started to get more comfortable.
Yet, as a whole, Washington's cornerback room could use another solid piece. Rookie Benjamin St-Juste showed promise when he was on the field, but it's too early to definitely say he can be the team's No. 3 cornerback. No one else on the roster has proven enough to earn that role just yet, either.
Enter, Donte Jackson, who would give Washington another starting-caliber cornerback and allow Del Rio to get even more creative on the backend of his defense.
Jackson, who turned 26 this past November, is touted for his exceptional 4.3 speed and ball skills. Over the first four seasons of his career, Jackson has totaled 12 interceptions and 38 passes defended. Only five other players in the NFL -- Xavien Howard, Tre'Davious White, Justin Simmons, J.C. Jackson and Kenny Moore -- have totaled more in both categories. That's elite company.
Donte Jackson is best in a zone-coverage scheme, which is what Del Rio prefers to run. Part of the reason William Jackson III struggled to begin the 2021 season with Washington is that he was primarily a man-coverage cornerback with the Bengals. Donte Jackson's fit in the Commanders' defensive scheme is much more natural.
In Carolina, Donte Jackson thrived in zone schemes when he was able to sit down in his specific coverage and follow the quarterback's eyes before using his elite speed to make a play on the football. When the Panthers played shifted to more man-coverage, Jackson struggled, as his true cover skills are not as sharp as many other starting cornerbacks in the NFL.
If Washington were to sign Jackson, they'd have three true starting cornerbacks on its roster. That would allow Del Rio to get creative with the trio, especially with Fuller, who can play both inside and outside cornerback and even some free safety, too.
All this goes without mentioning safety Kamren Curl, who has practically lined up at every position in the secondary for Washington over the past two seasons and played exceptionally well. Plus, if the team were to re-sign Bobby McCain, another versatile defensive back, the number of secondary combinations Del Rio would have at his disposal would be out of the norm -- in a good way.
While Washington's secondary employed many versatile pieces in 2021, adding a more traditional cornerback like Donte Jackson could certainly help, too. As mentioned earlier, his skill set fits Del Rio's defensive vision well. Washington's cornerback room needs more talent alongside William Jackson III and Fuller, and Donte Jackson could be that perfect piece to add without breaking the bank.
With Jackson's ceiling more as a true No. 2 cornerback, his price tag is not expected to be outrageously high. Washington has over $30 million in cap space, so if the Commanders feel there's a need at cornerback, don't be surprised if the team spends money at the position once again.
It's worth mentioning that Donte Jackson was drafted by Washington head coach Ron Rivera in 2018. Rivera praised Jackson multiple times during their two seasons together with the Panthers, with the coach going as far once as saying the former LSU cornerback reminded him of Josh Norman, who made first-team All-Pro for Carolina in 2015.
Rivera has brought many of his former coaches and players to Washington with him, most notably signing wide receiver Curtis Samuel in free agency last spring. Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner and quarterback Taylor Heinicke first worked under Rivera in Carolina, too.
Don't be surprised if the Carolina to Washington pipeline continues once again this offseason, especially considering what seems to be a natural fit for Jackson in the Commanders' defensive scheme.
Other Free Agent Targets:
WRs Chris Godwin, Michael Gallup
2 guards to replace Brandon Scherff