Commanders

Washington Pre-Free Agency Roster Grades: CB exceeded expectations

Commanders
Jimmy Moreland and Ronald Darby

With the 2020 season in the books and free agency less than one month away, NBC Sports Washington's Ethan Cadeaux and Ryan Homler grade the Washington Football Team's position groups before the 2021 signing period begins. Next up: cornerback.

Cornerbacks signed: Kendall Fuller, Jimmy Moreland, Danny Johnson, Greg Stroman. Cole Luke, DeMarkus Acy, Torry McTyer, Jordan Brown

Cornerbacks hitting free agency: Ronald Darby, Fabian Moreau

2020 recap

Entering the 2020 season, the cornerback position was a big question mark for Washington simply because of the amount of sheer turnover within the unit. The team's two primary starters in 2019, Josh Norman and Quinton Dunbar, were no longer with the club, as the former signed with the Bills while the latter was traded to the Seahawks.

So, entering free agency one year ago, Washington knew it needed to address the cornerback position. Ron Rivera and his staff signed two cornerbacks last March, Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby, and both ended up being instrumental to Washington's defense in 2020.

After missing the first two games of the season due to injury, Fuller -- who was Washington's most expensive free-agent signing overall after inking a $40 million deal -- began the 2020 season as one of the league's best cornerbacks. Fuller hauled in four interceptions in his first four games with the club, which was tied for the league-most at the time.

While Fuller earned the lucrative deal he signed, it was Darby who was the team's better cornerback down the stretch. Although Darby did not haul in an interception on the season, his 16 passes defended were by far the most on the team. The former Florida State star was Washington's PFF highest-graded cornerback, too, while playing the most snaps of anyone on the team at the position.

 

As a whole, Washington's pass defense was one of the league's best. Washington allowed just 191.8 passing yards per game in 2020, the second-fewest in the NFL behind the league's top overall defense, the Rams. Washington allowed 304.6 total yards per game, also the second-best mark in the NFL behind Los Angeles.

Of course, it would be unfair to give Washington's cornerback unit all the credit without mentioning the stellar play of the defensive line. Washington's defensive front was among the league's best (the team's 47 sacks were the sixth-most in the NFL), often leading to errant throws by opposing quarterbacks.

However, while Washington's cornerback group received a lot of praise in 2020, they also had a knack for giving up big plays. And, the unit turned in one of its worst games of the season in the Wild Card loss to Tampa Bay, as Tom Brady carved up the group throughout much of the first half before letting the running game take over late.

Although they had their down moments, Washington received really solid play from its cornerbacks in 2020. As a whole, the cornerback unit outperformed almost all expectations placed on it entering 2020.

Trade/Free Agency Options

When considering free agency options at cornerback, Washington first faces a crucial decision in free agency with Ronald Darby.

Yes, Darby outperformed the one-year, $5 million deal he signed with Washington in 2020, but it was also the first time in his career he played all 16 games in a season. Prior to this past campaign, Darby had not played in 12-plus games in one year since 2016, his second season in the NFL.

Bringing back Darby would be ideal for Washington, but he's hardly the only corner on the market. Should the former FSU star sign elsewhere, Washington has a handful of options it could bring in at a similar -- or perhaps even lower -- rate.

Pittsburgh's Mike Hilton and Cincinnati's William Jackson III could be two options in free agency for Washington, should Darby sign elsewhere. Neither cornerback is expected to command a ton of money in free agency, either.

Fabian Moreau is the lone other cornerback on Washington's roster that is set to hit the open market. Moreau received limited playing time last season, starting one game and playing just 15% of defensive snaps. The former third-round pick will likely sign elsewhere in free agency as Washington looks to improve its depth elsewhere.

Washington could also address the position in the draft, too, as the franchise has selected at least one defensive back every year since 2010.

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Pre-Free Agency CB Grade

Without Ronald Darby or any other true No. 2 cornerback signed, this group as of now earns a C grade. Yes, the roster still needs to be filled out, but the defense can't go into the 2021 season without Darby and not finding a viable replacement.

If Washington does bring Darby back, Rivera and his staff should feel confident in this group moving forward. Sure, neither Fuller nor Darby are considered "lockdown cornerbacks," but the duo was one of the NFL's better tandems last season. So, if Darby returns next year, this group receives a B grade.