ASHBURN — The ball was thrown to the end zone, but as Terry McLaurin tried to make the catch, rookie cornerback Benjamin St-Juste hit the veteran wideout, batting the pass away. McLaurin ended up on the grass, with St-Juste standing over him and a trove of players standing on the sideline erupting in excitement.
St-Juste had done it again, breaking up at least his third pass attempt of the day. This time, he did so against Washington’s No. 1 receiver.
“He’s got tremendous vision,” coach Ron Rivera said.
Offseason practices are a chance for unheralded players to make an impression and so far at Washington’s mandatory minicamp, arguably no one has made a bigger impression than St-Juste — a third-round, 6-foot-3 corner out of Minnesota who’s originally from Canada. The 23-year-old has repeatedly used his size to outmuscle smaller wideouts and his speed allows him to keep pace as the play develops.
It’s still early — players aren’t in full pads yet and contact is not allowed — but St-Juste’s play could be an encouraging sign that Washington has found yet another steal in the third round. In recent years, Washington hit on both McLaurin (2019) and running back Antonio Gibson (2020). With two picks in this year’s draft, experts assumed that North Carolina’s Dyami Brown would be the one with sleeper potential.
St-Juste, however, looks like he’s worth keeping an eye on.
“He’s done a really good job showing us that he plays the whole play,” Rivera said. “There is no relaxing in his game. When the ball snaps, he‘s in position, he‘s got to get in phase. When he‘s got to burst, he knows when to burst.”
Rivera rattled off the physical attributes that make St-Juste an imposing threat on the outside: He’s got long legs, long arms and good strength. When a cornerback knows how to use his size, Rivera said that the player will often leverage his body properly, understanding where the help from the safety or other cornerback is coming from. Rivera sees St-Juste doing that naturally, adding St-Juste has “really good feel” for the play.
Washington’s quarterbacks have discovered that, too. On Wednesday, second-string quarterback Taylor Heinicke needled a pass down the sideline — only for St-Juste to jump the route. St-Juste dropped the ball, but he almost had a pick-six. Later on, St-Juste crowded Brown and forced another incompletion.
If St-Juste can actually get on the field his rookie year, he gives Washington some intriguing options. For example, with St-Juste primarily an outside corner, he could line up across from William Jackson III — which would allow Washington to move Kendall Fuller to the slot, arguably his more natural position. Washington, too, was primarily a zone-based team in 2020, but the additions of St-Juste and Jackson could pave the way for the team to play more man-to-man coverage.
At Minnesota, St-Juste played in a scheme that deployed a lot of the same press technique that’s required to play man coverage in the NFL. In two years with the Golden Gophers, St-Juste recorded 13 pass breakups in 18 games. Before that, he spent two years at Michigan, though ultimately transferred upon graduating.
“I’m pretty much comfortable in many coverages,” St-Juste said at rookie minicamp. “It could be zone, off and all that stuff. I think where I get most disruptive and where I can really be productive is when I’m in man-press with a receiver because with my length and my arms, it’s really hard for a receiver to get off my press.
“So I think this is where I can really help my team disrupt the route and all that stuff and really press the receiver.”
St-Juste, of course, will have to prove he can still make those high-level impact plays when the intensity turns up. Pads will come on, and preseason games are set to return a year after the pandemic scrapped them.
“That’s one of the benefits of getting a guy that’s willing to do the little things, that’s willing to work hard and play hard,” Rivera said. “He’s going to put himself in a position to make plays.”
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