Washington Redskins: Can Kendall Fuller break out in 2017?

The Washington Redskins selected Kendall Fuller of Virginia Tech in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. After a tough rookie season, could 2017 be his breakout year?

Early in the 2016 season, the Washington Redskins were using Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland as the starting cornerbacks. Surprisingly, rookie Kendall Fuller, a third-round pick out of Virginia Tech, was Washington’s starting slot corner. It wasn’t a surprise Fuller was playing. After all, most considered him a future first-rounder after his first two seasons at Virginia Tech, then Fuller injured his knee early in his junior season.

Rather than return to Blacksburg for another season, Fuller decided to turn pro and become the fourth brother in his family to play in the NFL. Kyle, a first-round pick just two seasons prior, is a starting corner for the Chicago Bears, while Corey is currently a receiver for the New Orleans Saints. The oldest brother, Vincent, retired after six seasons in the NFL in 2011.

Kendall Fuller was solid throughout the season’s first quarter in 2016. He adjusted well to playing inside and was arguably Washington’s best tackler in the secondary. Fuller didn’t mind sticking his nose in the running game. Then, in a Week 10 win versus Minnesota, Fuller was exposed.

Playing against former high school teammate, Stefon Diggs, Fuller struggled from start to finish. Diggs finished the game with 13 receptions for 164 yards. Whether it was inside, outside, short or long, Diggs took Fuller to school. And the rookie had no answer.

Unfortunately, it was the beginning of a rough stretch for Fuller. He would struggle against Cole Beasley, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, among others, in future weeks. When a team wanted to get a receiver open, they would seemingly line him up opposite of Fuller.

Much of Fuller’s struggles can be attributed to his knee injury. During his final year at Virginia Tech, Fuller underwent microfracture surgery on his knee. Microfracture surgery is one of the trickiest and most complicated injuries for players to recover from. In past years, it was essentially a career-ender. Fortunately, medical technology has advanced enough for players to bounce back.

Fuller’s recovery was fast. However, it was clear as the season wore on he wasn’t completely healthy.

Head coach Jay Gruden felt Fuller was playing at less than 100 percent, per Rich Tandler of CSN Mid-Atlantic.

I think last year he was probably about 85-90 percent. You know, he fought through his rehab to get himself ready to play. He played some significant playing time for us, did some good things for us. But I think now, I think his body is a lot better, in a lot better shape. He is quicker, he is faster, he is more confident in what we are doing out here.

That’s encouraging news for Washington. Throughout the offseason, the Redskins were intent on rebuilding a struggling defense. The additions of Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson, Stacy McGee, Terrell McClain and D.J. Swearinger should help them improve. However, it’s the growth of younger players like Fuller, Preston Smith and Su’a Cravens that Washington is counting on the most.

Fuller has worked both inside and outside this offseason. Breeland is actually probably better in the slot, leaving Fuller to play outside. Wherever Fuller plays, he’s sure to be better this season. And no one knows Fuller’s abilities better than defensive backs coach Torrian Gray, who also happened to be his position coach at Virginia Tech, and had this to say via CSN Mid-Atlantic:

“Unfortunately, he had the injury at Virginia Tech,” Gray said. “Last year, from what I saw on film, it’s going to be a much different Kendall Fuller this year. It’s fun to see him healthy and getting back to see the guy he can be.”

Fuller has looked great all offseason in practices open to the media. For the Redskins, that is great news. A big year from Fuller would go a long way in improving an inferior defense in 2017.

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