Prior to free agency, cornerback Ronald Darby said repeatedly that he hoped to re-sign with the Washington Football Team, and the team said that it hoped to have him back. Ron Rivera repeated that message in his latest media session on Thursday.
It seemed like a bit of a disappointment, therefore, when it was announced early in the free agency process that Darby was leaving Washington to play with the Denver Broncos. The defensive back is the only WFT defensive starter who won’t be returning to the team in 2021.
His departure seemed especially surprising given the 3-year, $30m contract that Darby signed to play for Denver, since it wasn’t a top-of-the-market contract. It seemed as if Washington could have pushed harder to keep him.
With the eventual signing of William Jackson III to a 3-year, $40.6m contract, however, it became clear that Darby’s departure wasn’t about money; instead, the Washington front office made a business decision in an effort to upgrade the roster. In their eyes, Darby was good, but Jackson is better. There would be no reason to pay him the extra $3.5m per year otherwise.
The change from Darby to Jackson allows defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to design and call a wider array of defensive schemes that should create additional challenges for opposing offenses. Washington had a lot of success defensively in 2020, finishing the season ranked #3 in passing yards allowed per game behind only the Rams and Steelers, and that success was built on a combination of a strong pass rush combined with mostly zone coverage from the defensive backs.
The signing of Jackson, who is known primarily for his skills as a press-man corner, at first seemed out-of-place for a primarily zone defense. Some analysts saw it as a poor fit. Head coach Ron Rivera had a similar initial reaction before considering what a Jackson signing could mean for the way the Football Team plays defense.
“It’s funny because my first impression was that [Jackson] is a pure man [coverage] guy,” coach Rivera said recently, “but as I watched more tape and then could see when [the Bengals defense] did play zone, and the way he played it -- especially when he played with vision – he’s got his eyes back at the quarterback but he’s looking through the receiver at the same time, he knows how to put himself in position. So, this is pretty exciting because it is gonna allow us to do some things that we’ve always talked about or we’ve always thought about doing.”
The coach talked about defensive success being a combination of front-end pressure and back-end coverage. It’s well known that Washington lines up lots of young talent to create pressure on the quarterback with the pass rush; the signing of William Jackson is expected to improve the secondary’s ability to take options away from the quarterback.
“A lot of it has to do with his ability to take over a side -- to shut a side down,” according go Ron Rivera. “It’s gonna add to the things that we are currently doing and bring up some of the things we want to do. He…has the skillset to say, ‘hey, we wanna put him on their best guy’ or ‘hey, we wanna put him over here and roll away from him’. It gives us that kind of flexibility.”
This sounds like a clear signal that the Washington defense will be more diverse than it was last season – using Jackson’s skills to add more man-to-man coverage, to press receivers more aggressively, and to rely on him as a “lockdown” cornerback who can take care of one side of the field, freeing up the safety to concentrate on the other half.
William Jackson certainly sees himself as capable of the kind of coverage that his new head coach expects from him. At his introductory press conference in Washington, Jackson was asked about the fact that he has only three interceptions in four NFL seasons. Jackson didn’t back down from the question; he sees his lack of interceptions as a point of pride.
“I wasn’t getting thrown at a whole lot; I wasn’t the guy that got picked on,” Jackson said. “I’m assuming that’s a good thing that I only got three [interceptions] ‘cause I wasn’t the guy that got picked on; I was the guy to go get the job done and when you are covering guys up, I don’t think you can get many picks.”
Jackson sees himself as scheme diverse, able to play both man and zone coverage as needed.
“I can pay zone or man; I can do both,” Jackson said, smiling. “My strength is just locking dudes up.”
Ron Rivera clearly agrees. “It gives us a little more opportunity to be diverse. We can change things. We don’t have to be stuck on certain situations.”
“This is pretty exciting,” said the head coach, “because it is gonna allow us to do some things that we’ve always talked about or we’ve always thought about doing.”
Ronald Darby played well for the Washington Football Team in 2020, and – as mentioned above -- he is the only starter from last year’s defense that won’t be returning. Washington fans could be forgiven if they feel optimistic that the WFT defense that was ranked #3 against the pass and #5 overall could be even better in 2021.