Benjamin St-Juste? Quan Martin? Commanders sorting through slot options on defense

ASHBURN — At his exit meeting last season, Benjamin St-Juste wasn’t directly told to be prepared to move back to the slot for 2023. But in the back of his mind, the cornerback said he knew the switch was always a possibility — one that became evident when he saw the Commanders draft Emmanuel Forbes in the first round. 

The selection didn’t faze him. St-Juste takes pride in his versatility. 

“The fact that I can do that is a blessing,” St-Juste said.

St-Juste, though, is just one of several options Washington has used in the slot during practices this offseason. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said earlier this month that the Commanders were looking at “a lot of different combinations right now” to fill a vacancy left by the departure of safety Bobby McCain, who the team cut in February. Those combinations, besides St-Juste, include looks at second-round safety Quan Martin, veteran Rachad Wildgoose and, to a lesser extent, Danny Johnson and Forbes. 

Determining who plays the most snaps at the position will also depend on what kind of defense Washington wants to run. In coach Ron Rivera’s three seasons, the Commanders have been reliant on using three safeties at the same time — swapping out a traditional slot cornerback for a hybrid safety-linebacker (often referred to as the “Buffalo nickel.”) Last year, the Commanders deployed McCain in the slot, while safety Landon Collins played on the inside in 2021. 

If the Commanders go to a similar look this fall, that would likely benefit Martin — who played as a safety and slot cornerback at the University of Illinois. But so far, nothing is settled. The Commanders have consistently rotated players in and out of the lineup.  

Across approximately 61 plays in team drills Wednesday, for instance, the Commanders used five players in the slot: Martin, Wildgoose, St-Juste, Johnson and DaMarcus Fields. Of those, Martin received the most reps inside — but that includes work with the backups. St-Juste, Wildgoose and Johnson also spent a portion of their plays on the outside.

The variety, though, speaks to the experimentation at hand. 

“It’s that time of year,” Del Rio said. 

At first glance, it may seem bizarre that St-Juste is being reconsidered for a slot role. After all, the cornerback appeared to perform much better when moved to the outside last year. 

St-Juste spent four of Washington’s first five games primarily on the inside  — a position he hadn’t played before — before the team demoted William Jackson III, allowing the 25-year-old to kick back outside. That move proved crucial to stabilizing Washington’s defense, which went from allowing 345.6 yards per game through the first five weeks to 287.5 afterward. 

The Commanders, however, like what St-Juste can bring to the inside. The cornerback’s 6-foot-3 frame and long arms help Washington match up against teams that like to stick their bigger receivers in the slot. Commanders defensive backs coach Brent Vieselmeyer noted St-Juste’s speed helps erase opposing routes, as well as the corner’s ability to blitz. 

Vieselmeyer didn’t agree with the opinion that St-Juste was automatically better on the outside.

“That’s a toss-up,” Vieselmeyer said. “I mean honestly, he has some great traits each side.” 

Interestingly enough, the Commanders have also flirted with trying Forbes on the inside — despite the Mississippi State product playing primarily outside in college. Vieselmeyer said the Commanders wanted to see how Forbes handled the different route concepts in the slot. The assistant wasn’t concerned that Forbes having to learn a new position would limit the cornerback’s ability to generate turnovers. Forbes had a productive college career in which the 22-year-old finished with six pick-6s. 

Still, most of Forbes’ work has come on the outside. If Martin ends up as Washington’s primary slot defender, the coaching staff will have to juggle playing time between Forbes, St-Juste and veteran Kendall Fuller since there are only two outside spots available at one time. 

One player that Washington likely won’t try again on the inside is Fuller. The veteran has extensive experience playing in the slot, but Rivera said that Fuller plays with “great vision” and indicated the team doesn’t want to disrupt that by changing his role. The team used Fuller in the slot for a stretch in 2021, but the cornerback struggled. 

“Our job is to find the right combination,” Vieselmeyer said. 

Source: WT