That performance from rookie cornerback Kendall Fuller in Sunday's win at Baltimore was more than just impressive. It drew ample praise from Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden along with outside observers. It also led to a louder discussion about the future look of the secondary. Specifically, if cornerback Bashaud Breeland has a position switch in his future.
Let's start with the immediate reaction from the third round pick's second career game. Fuller received 31 snaps, 44 percent of the defense's total, and played almost exclusively in the slot. Pro Football Focus rated Fuller (88.8) as Washington's top defender.
“Very good. I think he’s going to be a nickel here for a long time," Gruden said. "Yes, we loved the way he plays. I love his work ethic. ...He just has great natural instincts for the position and the more he sees, the more reps he gets, the better he is going to get and the more of an impact he is going to have.”
Speaking on Comcast SportsNet, former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly's praise wee even more effusive.
"I thought there was a big jump from the Cleveland game to the Baltimore game, "Casserly said of Fuller, who was inactive the first three weeks a Dashaun Phillips handled the slot. "Might be confidence. He's playing the nickel corner. He's playing inside. I liked his quickness, his athletic ability, his movement. This guy to me will be the starter opposite [Josh] Norman at some point going forward."
That spot opposite Norman is typically handled by Breeland. With Breeland (ankle) out, Quinton Dunbar handled those duties against Baltimore. Breeland and Phillips (hamstring) returned to practice Wednesday and are tracking to play Sunday against Philadelphia.
Breeland received major hype of his own after an impressive 2015 campaign and 2016 training camp. Critique came his way after some struggles in the opening two losses while matched up against Pro Bowl receivers Antonio Brown and Dez Bryant. He suffered an ankle injury in Week 3 at New York.
Fuller slipped in the draft after a knee injury during his final season at Virginia Tech, which led to microfracture surgery.
In the modern, pass-happy NFL, using three corners is almost base defense so there is a major role for Fuller even as more secondary options become available. As for how to handle, Casserly offered a suggestion.
"I would make sure you keep Fuller on the field. Whether you keep him at nickel and Breeland outside, that's fine," he said. "Or, you put him outside and maybe you move somebody else into the nickel inside."
The tricky part with Fuller on the outside is that, according to Casserly and other analysts, is what to do with the 6-foot-0 Breeland.
"I think you put Breeland at the inside (corner), that's a negative," Casserly said. The former GM added, "Breeland is eventually going to be a safety to me."
While Breeland's size can allow him to survive by playing physical brand of press coverage, that's not always easy against the typical shifty slot receiver types like Giants rookie Sterling Shepard or, for example, Washington's Jamison Crowder.
"If [Breeland] has to react suddenly and go side-to-side quickly, he's not a good enough athlete to do that," Casserly explained. "He's kind of a straight-line, kind of a stiff guy. Better if he can press, and turn and run. I'd want to play Fuller. I think Fuller is going to pass him. Let's get Fuller in there. I like what I saw last week."
We just watched the Redskins move three corners -- DeAngelo Hall, Will Blackmon, DeShazor Everett -- to free safety, though only Hall made his switch in-season starting in 2015. Shifting Breeland on the fly seems potentially problematic, especially if the report that he balked at taking on a lesser role during the first two weeks is accurate. Safety is important and very much a need area especially long-term. Would Breeland view such a move as a demotion is the question.
If you're inclined to dismiss such talk, here's a Gruden quote after Fuller's Week 4 debut on how much he liked what he saw.
“I do, I do. We will see when [Bashaud] Breeland comes back what we’re going to do with Breeland and we have some things we could work out as far as who’s playing where, but I like the way Kendall played and competed in his first game. It wasn’t too big for him. He made some plays and I think he’s going to get better and better.”
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