Healthy Fuller has secondary on track to be team’s strength
Early star in training camp stealing passes, turning heads
On the Redskins’ very first play of 7-on-7 drills Tuesday, Kendall Fuller swooped in front of Kirk Cousins’ pass and batted the ball to the turf. Incomplete. It’s a sight that has become familiar here over the past week, as the second-year cornerback has been an early star of training camp.
Fuller has two things working for him this August. First is his health, second his a familiar coach to guide him in secondary coach Torrian Gray. Not only is Fuller making plays, he’s relaxed. This time around, camp is fun.
“I don’t have to worry about my injury no more, I can just go out there and play so I’m just looking to have fun and enjoy it,” Fuller said after the Redskins walkthrough Tuesday.
Fuller hasn’t felt this way since 2015, when he went under the knife to repair a torn meniscus. Doctors realized he also needed microfracture surgery, and Fuller missed his junior and final college season and fell to the third round of the 2016 draft, where the Redskins picked him.
Washington wanted, and planned, to take it slow with Fuller, but injuries thrust the rookie into a significant role. Fuller played in 13 games and started six last season, mostly playing in the slot. He showed promise, but also what looked like rookie growing pains. Fuller didn’t let on that he was hurting during the season, but earlier this offseason coach Jay Gruden estimated that Fuller had been playing at around “85 or 90” percent in 2016.
Tuesday, Fuller admitted that he felt a noticeable difference in how his knee feels.
“It definitely feels better just having that whole offseason to recover and things like that, really able to slow the process down,” Fuller said. “It definitely feels better.”
It’ll be great news for the Redskins if full health helps Fuller become a plus player at cornerback. You can never have too many good ones, after all, and behind Josh Norman the Redskins group is a bit suspect. If Bashaud Breeland recovers from a shaky 2016 and Fuller plays better, Washington will have a strong group. If not, they won’t.
Knee injuries often hinder a player’s ability to turn on a dime and make quick cuts, but Fuller said he felt fine in those areas. His tape wasn’t perfect by any means but, by putting him in the slot, the Redskins indicated that they felt he was serviceable in those areas, too. It was his speed, Fuller said, that he wasn’t as confident in last season.
“I just couldn’t do certain things at the pace that I wanted to do it,” Fuller said. “Movements and stuff I was fine, but when I was able to slow it down, get better, get more explosive this year and get that extra step back,” Fuller said.
Fuller’s game doesn’t rely on speed and he’s not exceptionally fast. Losing a step at the NFL level, though, is costly for any player no matter their skillset. Fuller feeling faster should give the Redskins more confidence that they could move him outside if Breeland stumbles, too.
Fuller has looked strong and physical, able to jam receivers including Terrelle Pryor and knock them off their timing on a few occasions.
“He just looks healthier,” coach Jay Gruden said Tuesday. “I wouldn’t say he looks healthier – he was healthy last year, He was able to play – but I think he’s more confident in the injury that he’s coming off of. He looks stronger, he looks faster, so it’s good to see. He’s moving around also, he’s playing some nickel, playing some corner, and he’s doing a fine job.”
Fuller has also shown his excellent ball skills during camp, including on Monday when he broke up a pass in the red zone intended for receiver Brian Quick, who is conservatively listed at four inches taller than Fuller. Overall, Fuller broke up three passes in the red zone during that session and his success revved up the defense.
Last Thursday, Fuller picked off Kirk Cousins and Nate Sudfeld in another impressive practice. Every time Fuller makes a play, he has a vocal cheerleader in new Redskins secondary coach Torrian Gray, his old position coach at Virginia Tech who coached Fuller during his All-American season in 2014.
“I love it, man, just his energy that he brings to the table, the way that he’s pushing us every day so he’s just going to keep on pushing us,” Fuller said. “He’s having fun with it and we’re all enjoying it.”
Fuller knew Gray would spend a lot of time “harping on the little things” from working with the former Virginia Tech coach in college, but Fuller said he’s seen the rest of the secondary develop trust in Gray as they’ve noticed positive difference resulting from his detail-oriented methods.
“He’s going to let you play ball, let you do you but at the same time you know, he has some things that’ll make you a better player,” Fuller said.
Health and coaching are two things that typically do make players better. As of now, Fuller has both.