There is a mix of new and old faces in the Washington Football Team's secondary, and now we know what positions a few of them are going to be playing.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio told senior vice president of media and content Julie Donaldson that versatile third-round pick Benjamin St-Juste will play cornerback while Landon Collins will remain at strong safety, the position he has played his entire career.
"I'm looking for Landon to take a step forward this year to play even better," Del Rio said.
Collins is coming into his third season with Washington after signing with the team prior to the 2019 season. Collins started his tenure with the burgundy and gold, the same franchise that his childhood idol, Sean Taylor, played for, by leading the team with 117 tackles to go with a sack and two forced fumbles. It was the fourth time in five seasons Collins had eclipsed the 100-tackle mark.
The following season saw Collins playing for a new defensive staff, led by Del Rio and head coach Ron Rivera, that brought a new scheme to Washington. Collins showed flashes in the first seven games, racking up 41 tackles, two sacks and his first interception since 2017, before suffering a torn Achilles that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Collins has shown his progress towards making a full recovery on social media through videos of him running sprints and working out. Rivera said during the team's pre-draft press conference that Washington's plan is to "have him be a part of what we're doing going forward," although there was some outside speculation that Collins might switch positions, due in part to the standout performance from Kamren Curl, who filled in for Collins while he was on Injured Reserve.
But apparently that thought had not crossed Del Rio's mind. When asked by Donaldson where he saw Collins playing in 2021, he definitively answered, "He's a strong safety, working his butt off and getting in shape."
"I asked him to be just a little bit lighter this year," Del Rio said. "I think another year in the system, understanding what we do, how we do it, making sure he's in the right place at the right time and that he can be the impactful player that we think he's capable of being."
So with Collins at strong safety, what does that mean for Curl?
"It means Kam will be playing like he did last year, whether he plays in the Buffalo nickel, whether he plays free safety, whether he spells Landon, however he creates his time," Del Rio said. "The thing about Kam, he came in here and all he did is work from Day 1. This is a young man drafted in the seventh round, nobody really expected much of him, and he just went about his business every day, and when he was asked to play, he played and played well."
While Collins is working towards being a Pro Bowl-caliber player once again and Curl is focused on continuing his strong play, St-Juste is looking to make his first impression among the professional ranks. St-Juste has played all over the secondary, including free and strong safety at the Senior Bowl, but Del Rio wants to first place the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Minnesota product at cornerback.
"He's got exceptional quickness. He had a 6.6 3-cone [drill], which is unheard of," Del Rio said. "And so for a guy [who is] 6-3 to do that shows you the short-area quickness."
St-Juste started 14 of 18 games for the Golden Gophers the past two seasons after appearing mostly as a reserve in a previous stint with Michigan, but Washington likes how he uses his hands and length, and that showed in the form of 10 pass breakups and a 21% forced incompletion rate in 2019, according to according to Pro Football Focus. But what stood out the most to general manager Martin Mayhew was his aggressiveness, saying "this guy utilizes his length at the line of scrimmage."
"He brings a lot to the table as far as his skillset and overall size," Mayhew said, "so our defensive coaches were very convinced about him and very excited about him to join us."
St-Juste's athleticism does provide Washington with some position flexibility, which Rivera always appreciates in his players. His size, however, means it is more likely for him to match up against bigger receivers as opposed to playing in the slot. And then there is his physical style to consider, which is another aspect that excites the head coach.
It's also why Del Rio almost cracked a smile when explaining what St-Juste can do on the edge of Washington's defense.
"So much of today's offenses, the [Kyle] Shanahans and all the run systems...they drag [your corner] into the fit," Del Rio said. "And they're cracking with their wideout and forcing the corner to play. Well, this guy will show up and strike you."