John Keim is taking a position-by-position look at the Redskins’ roster entering training camp. So far, he’s reviewed linebackers, the defensive line, the offensive line, running back and cornerbacks. Today, it’s the safeties:
The starters: Brandon Meriweather, Reed Doughty
Key backups: Jordan Pugh, DeJon Gomes
Key additions: Phillip Thomas, Bacarri Rambo
The rest: Jordan Bernstine, Devin Holland
Decisions: Though Doughty is listed as a starter, that’s just a guess. In reality, that spot remains open and there are a few challengers. As long as Meriweather is healthy, he’ll man one of the safety positions. But the Redskins need to settle on the other starter. It’s the only starting position open on the team. They’ll also have to decide how many safeties they’ll keep. Teams typically keep 10 defensive backs, which usually means five cornerbacks and five safeties. But if Washington needs to keep six cornerbacks, a possibility, then it might be limited to four safeties (with one on the practice squad). It’s hard to imagine them only keeping four safeties. If Tanard Jackson is reinstated (and in good shape), then one of the other veterans will be in trouble. Bernstine’s recovery from multiple ligament tears could take a little longer. There’s no doubt this position will be under scrutiny this summer, though an improved rush would help (a line that can, and has been, used for other positions, too).
Burning questions: 1) Can either rookie start? It’s hard to imagine that being the case, at least initially. Both showed skills during the spring at times, but that’s a long way from doing it at a high enough level in August. Rambo did not fall to the sixth round simply because of some positive marijuana tests. There were questions about his game, too – is he fast enough to cover deep middle, for example? (Instincts can help overcome some foot speed and that helps him.) He’s a better free safety than Thomas, but Rambo has to prove he can also play in the box, as required on occasion. And Thomas needs to prove he could be a reliable tackler while playing deep middle. At Fresno State, Thomas often took wrong angles (approaching the ballcarrier from the wrong shoulder, for example, leading to open-field misses). But Thomas is a smart player, one who could anticipate well in college because of his preparation. That will matter here, too. Both have to get used to anticipating routes based on formations, prove they can tackle in the open field, learn the defense well enough to call out signals in the secondary and learn to take angles vs. NFL players. It’s a lot to adjust to; both showed promise and could turn out to be excellent picks. Both have a lot to prove.
2) Why is Doughty still here? Fans seem to ask that question every year. Coaches and teammates know the answer quite well. Trust me on this: There are teams already scanning this roster and hoping Doughty somehow gets cut. That won’t happen. He does all the little things coaches want in a backup: He’s a quality tackler; he can fill in at both spots; he’s a special teams standout and he prepares as well as anyone. In other words, he’s the perfect backup. Doughty will never be a playmaker but he does what is asked of him well. He’s a member of what coaches call the “able” family: reliable, available, dependable. It’s not his fault others in front of him keep getting hurt.
3) Will Tanard Jackson be a factor? This is an impossible question to answer, not only for me but for the Redskins. At this point it’s uncertain if he’ll even be reinstated after his third drug suspension. He can’t apply for reinstatement until Aug. 31, the one-year date of his latest suspension, which was termed indefinite. Even if Jackson is reinstated, he’s been out of football for a year – and wasn’t allowed to have contact with the organization. Technically, the team should not know what sort of shape he’s in nor will he have been kept abreast of changes to the scheme, etc. But what the Redskins do know is that before his suspension last year Jackson was playing well – moving fast, making tackles and plays. Even if he comes back it will take time to return to that level. Until he gets there, the Redskins could rotate safeties based on the situation, much as they did in the second half of last season. Jordan Pugh helped in the rotation last season and Gomes did as well. At some point it will be difficult to keep all these safeties.
What to watch for: Meriweather’s impact. When the Redskins signed him, several league sources – two from the AFC East, another from Chicago – all said the same thing about Meriweather: He takes too many chances and they weren’t sold on him anymore as a starter. But Meriweather played well in his brief time last season, including in the preseason. There was a different energy on the field when he played. The Redskins missed linebacker Brian Orakpo’s on-field passion, but Meriweather brings that same attribute and it rubs off on others. It’s tough to underestimate the value of this quality. But more than that, Meriweather made plays and helped make others better. The Redskins ran blitzes with the corners vs. the Eagles in his one start that they would not have otherwise, simply because Meriweather had the speed to rotate into position and cover for them. Corners could play a little tighter vs. Philadelphia’s speedy wideouts, knowing Meriweather was behind them. He did not take the costly chances others said he would, though one game is not a strong sample size. It’s tough to know what impact he’ll have considering he’s coming off a torn ACL. He still must prove he can still play at a certain level, something his last two teams, Chicago and New England, doubted. But his active style and energy works well in Washington. It’s a starting point.