Haslett sings praises of three rookie defensive backs

Jim Haslett, Brian Orakpo

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, here in 2012 with Brian Orakpo, spoke with reporters on Wednesday and shared his excitement about his rookie ballhawks in the secondary. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

As they assessed the play of their defense in the 2012 season, Redskins officials liked the fact that the unit forced 31 turnovers – third in the NFL, and second in the NFC.

But desiring further improvement in that department – and hoping to correct a pass defense that ranked 30th in the league – the team selected three defensive backs in April’s draft.

Now, after working with cornerback David Amerson (second round) and safeties Phillip Thomas (fourth) and Bacarri Rambo (sixth) for a little more than a month, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett believes all three will help his unit accomplish those goals.

Haslett sees Amerson, who as a sophomore at N.C. State in 2011 led the nation with 13 interceptions, as a versatile, play-making corner. He likes the ball-hawking skills of Thomas, who recorded an NCAA-best eight interceptions in 2012, and the athleticism and play-making ability that Rambo (11 interceptions in the past two seasons combined) also boasts.

Although all three remain in the learning stages, the coach believes that they will make contributions as early as this season, and that it’s possible that all three could earn significant playing time.

“I like what I see,” Haslett said Wednesday morning before the final practice prior to July’s training camp. “Obviously, there’s a lot of teaching that’s involved, and a lot of learning, but I think things are starting to click in for all three of them. I think all three are going to be good football players.”

Amerson in the three previous weeks of offseason practices had rotated in and out with the starters while Thomas and Rambo played with the second unit. But this week, when the Redskins kicked off their minicamp, all three worked with the first team. That doesn’t mean all three will start for the Redskins when they open the season. But it is a sign that they are grasping enough for coaches to integrate them with the first unit so they can further evaluate them.

“We’ve kind of worked them in,” Haslett said. “We’ve worked David in with the [starters], Bacarri, more than Phillip, because Phillip missed a week [because of Fresno’s graduation]. But I think all three of them are coming along really well.”

But he later added, “First of all, can you play with three rookies at one time? I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but we’ll see. But we’ll play the best players, but over time, all three of those guys are going to be on the field at some point. I don’t know when that’s going to be.”

Although uncertain over their roles, Haslett loves the potential the rookies boast, which was evident as he broke down each players’ strengths.

“[Amerson is] a guy that has great ball skills, great length, has the ability to play to play man or zone. I think that’s the biggest thing about him, is he’s a playmaker. He had 13 interceptions as a sophomore, [five] as a junior. … I just think his ball and playmaking skills are off the chart,” Haslett said. “Phillip, is the second one. Same thing, great ball skills, key plays, big interceptions. Both of them led the NCAA in interceptions. Phillip’s got good size, good speed, likes football, understands football, studies football. And then Bacarri is a guy that’s a really good athlete, was a high school quarterback, has good ball skills, has a chance to make a lot of plays for us. And that’s what wins in the league. We figured, last year, we had 31 turnovers, which is really good for a defense, but we had a chance to pick up three guys that can add to those totals through interceptions.”

Veterans DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson (who is recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder) presumably would start at cornerback for the Redskins. But the team has yet to settle on its nickelback, who will line up opposite slot receivers. Hall and Wilson have the capability of playing that spot. And second-year pro Richard Crawford and offseason addition E.J. Biggers also are seeing time there this offseason. Those last two are expected to compete with Amerson for duties of third corner.

Meanwhile, safety carries greater uncertainty with would-be starter Brandon Meriweather coming off of a torn anterior cruciate ligament and not practicing this offseason. He is expected to return for the start of training camp, but it remains to be seen how well he has recovered. The free safety job is up for grabs after last year’s starter, Madieu Williams’ contract wasn’t renewed. Veteran Reed Doughty and DeJon Gomes have worked as the starting strong and free safeties prior to this week when the rookies got their chance to play with the first unit. Jordan Pugh also had worked at free safety before being sidelined for two weeks with an ear infection.

“Brandon’s going to be back for training camp and I’m sure he’ll be in the mix,” Haslett said. “So far, Reed does a good job in situations, and Jordan did a good job for us in situations. We’ll put the best guys on the field, or combinations of safeties until they’re ready to play.”

Currently, Thomas has spent more time playing strong safety, and Rambo free safety. But Haslett said both must learn each position, because in Washington’s defense, the safeties are interchangeable depending on the motions and alignments of the offense. Because of those demands, and others of the safety position, the rookies still have much to learn, Haslett says.

Each must “learn the complexity of the defense – the number of defenses we have including zones and blitzes,” he said. “It’s not the easiest defense to learn from that standpoint. And they have two positions to learn, they can’t play just one position, they’ve got to learn both strong and free. It’s just going to take reps. They’re going to need time on the grass. As they get more time in training camp and get more reps out there, they’re going to shine.”

But despite the extensive checklist, Haslett believes it’s possibly one rookie starts and another – along with Amerson – sees significant minutes.

“I really do think one of them will be on the grass,” the coach says. “I’m not sure which one, but one of them. I think all three of them are going to help us, I’m just don’t know to what extent yet.”

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag.

Follow: @MikeJonesWaPo | @MarkMaske | @john_keim (starting July 1) | @D3Keith | @Insider | @PostSports

More coverage:

At the podium: Quick excerpts from Haslett’s news conference

D.C. Sports Bog: Redskins, RGIII grant an 8-year-old fan’s wish

Goodell defends Redskins nickname in a letter to congress

D.C. Sports Bog: Alfred Morris on offensive rap music: ‘It’s a lot of nonsense’

Observations from Tuesday’s practice

Also on The Insider

At the podium: Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett