During the roughly month-long stretch of Washington Commanders OTAs and minicamp, perhaps no player generated more buzz than rookie wideout Jahan Dotson. The first-round pick constantly made plays throughout the offseason program, showing exactly why the Burgundy and Gold used the 16th overall selection on him.
However, as good as Dotson has looked, there's been one defensive back that's held his ground against the rookie, and then some. That would be second-year veteran Benjamin St-Juste. The 2021 third-round pick didn't only shine against Dotson, though -- his improvement since his rookie year caught the attention of several Commanders' coaches throughout OTAs and minicamp.
"There are guys that are developing, I would single out Benjamin St-Juste," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said on June 8. "He is really having a terrific offseason and I’m excited about what he's doing [out] there."
St-Juste showed flashes last offseason, too, and impressed at times during his rookie year. But a pair of concussions limited the former Minnesota cornerback to just nine games in 2021, with just three starts. St-Juste simply wasn't on the field enough to showcase his talent as a rookie.
With William Jackson III and Kendall Fuller locked in as the team's starting cornerbacks, Washington's coaches made an interesting decision regarding St-Juste prior to the offseason program beginning. With both outside spots taken, Del Rio and head coach Ron Rivera opted to try St-Juste at the inside, nickel corner spot, despite St-Juste's size (6-foot-3, 200 lbs) being atypical for that position.
So far, the returns have been excellent.
"He's got incredible quickness. You worry about longer guys that typically don't have short-area quickness," Del Rio said. "He's got an amazing short area of quickness and body control. So, with a bigger, longer guy inside it definitely allows us, allows him to be disruptive, allows us to play at a high level. He's been really impressive inside.”
On the last day of Washington's minicamp, defensive backs coach Chris Harris echoed similar praise as Del Rio regarding St-Juste.
"He has a very unique skill set. You don't see many 6-foot-3 corners, with his size, with the quick twitch and lateral movement that he does have. Being able to have both of those, at that position, I think is a plus, a bonus," Harris said. "He's grasped the defense really well -- faster than I actually anticipated. ... He's been phenomenal and it's been fun to see his maturation process over these four, five weeks."
Part of the reason why speed and later quickness are so important at the nickel position is that when receivers are lined up in the slot, there is more space for them to get creative when running routes. Outside receivers only have a certain number of routes they can run simply due to spacing, while slot receivers have most of the field to work with.
Spacing is a major reason why both Del Rio and Harris have stressed the importance of having lateral quickness when playing on the inside. It's why the nickel position is typically occupied by someone who's a smaller, speedy player rather than a bigger cornerback like St-Juste.
Responsibilities that come by playing the nickel position don't stop in just the pass game, either.
"Mentally, a lot more goes on inside than it does on the outside. On the outside, you see the game differently," Harris said. "At nickel, it's almost like safety. You have to be familiar with the run fits. You have to be familiar with how the front seven works, not just how the back seven works. It's like you're a mini linebacker, but you're a corner."
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Yet, when evaluating the team's personnel, both Del Rio and Harris felt that St-Juste has the skill set to play inside despite being bigger than the typical nickel cornerback.
Sure, it might be uncommon to have a player of St-Juste's stature line up at the nickel. But Washington's coaches believe it truly has the chance to work.
"In the slot, you have to defend two-way breaks, so you have to have a quick-twitch movement to be able to do that, to get in and out of breaks. Juste has that ability and it's a bonus that he's 6-3 doing it," Harris said. "He has the length -- you have to be able to shed blockers and come up and make tackles. Juste will tackle. It's exciting to see. When we get to training camp and the pads come on, to see him put it all together."
"He's been able to move inside and we're just looking to get our best people on the field, give 'em all a chance to compete," Del Rio added. "I think when you look at the work, the body of work that he's had this offseason has been very productive for us and very productive for him.”
As St-Juste has become more comfortable playing on the inside, Rivera has seen an increase in his confidence level, too. That's been a pleasant sight for Washington's head coach, as the entire staff is counting on St-Juste becoming a big factor on defense in Year 2.
"It's one of those things that when you watch a guy practice and practice with confidence, he feels that he knows what he's doing and he's using the techniques the right way," Rivera said. "So, that's been something that's been very pleasing to watch.”
Although St-Juste played mainly inside throughout the offseason, Harris believes the second-year veteran has the skill set to play both cornerback positions moving forward. Positional versatility has been something Rivera and his staff have coveted since arriving in Washington. The Commanders hope St-Juste can become the latest successful example of such.
"I tell him all the time: the more you can do, the better off you are. I think when you learn more positions, it forces you to see the game differently. It forces you to know what everyone is doing -- at the nickel spot, you have to know what's happening not just on the outside, but on the inside. You learn the defense better, you learn the ins and outs of it better," Harris said.
"Quite honestly, I told him 'you get paid more money when you can do more.' That's the truth," he concluded. "The more you can, the more versatile you are, the more valuable you become."