Redskins training camp: Five areas to monitor on defense


Ryan Clark is expected to help solidify the back end of Washington’s defense. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

We’re now just one day away from the Redskins’ training camp report date, and today – a day after examining key areas to monitor on offense – we take a look at the defense, and the most pressing aspects to keep an eye on over the course of the next 20 days in Richmond.

1. Hatcher’s recovery – The biggest offseason acquisition on defense, Jason Hatcher, has a chance to make an impact as the Redskins look to address their glaring weakness in the pass-rushing department. But Hatcher could get off to a slow start as he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery in late June. There’s no official word yet on whether Hatcher will be able to practice right away, or open camp on the physically unable to perform list. But given that doctors told him to expect a four- to six-week recovery time, and July 23 represents five weeks since the procedure, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Redskins give Hatcher a little extra time to work with the trainers and strengthen his knee for safety’s sake. Once Hatcher does return, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is expected to use him in a variety of ways in a defensive attack that coaches and players claim will feature a more aggressive approach this season. If Hatcher can reclaim his 11-sack form from last season with Dallas, Washington should accomplish its goal of improving its defensive front. If his knee proves a reoccurring issue, the Redskins have a problem on their hands.

2. Murphy’s role – In another move to improve their pass rush, the Redskins drafted outside linebacker Trent Murphy with their top pick of this year’s draft, the 15th of the second round. Haslett envisions pairing Murphy with Pro Bowl bookends Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan and frequently rotating the rookie in and out at several positions this season. Murphy during offseason practices lined up as a lineman at times, and as an edge rusher from both the right and the left side at other times. Murphy led the NCAA in sacks last season, but he still has much to learn about the pro game. Outside linebackers coach Brian Baker has the task of coaching him up and ensuring that the Redskins get the most out of him. The offseason represented a crash course in NFL pass rushing and Washington’s defense. The education process continues during camp.

3. Robinson’s takeover – Gone is inside linebacker London Fletcher, the longtime heart and soul of Washington’s defense and team as a whole. Poised to take over as the defensive signal-caller is 2012 fourth-round pick Keenan Robinson. The Texas product has limited experience, however, as he missed half of his rookie season with injury, and all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle. Redskins coaches believe that Robinson is up to the task, though. They name him as one of the bright spots of the offseason practices. Because he remained at Redskins Park during his rehabilitation and continued to attend defensive meetings, he understands the schemes and knows the calls. Now it’s a matter of reigniting muscle memory and knocking off rust. Robinson says he feels comfortable, but that he’s not too proud to lean on veteran teammates as well. The Redskins hope he can stay healthy, and play at a high level. If he struggles, however, Washington has veterans Akeem Jordan and Adam Hayward, whom they signed in the offseason to bolster the depth of the inside linebacker position and improve special teams.

4. Safety improvements – Another area of great weakness last season, Washington officials and coaches hope that the addition of 13th-year veteran free safety Ryan Clark and the healthy return of second-year pro Phillip Thomas helps spark improvement. Clark and returning strong safety Brandon Meriweather will start, and coaches are banking on their experience and Meriweather being a second season removed from anterior cruciate ligament surgery to make a difference. Meanwhile, they aim to groom Thomas – a fourth-round pick in 2013, who missed all of last season with a Lisfranc foot injury and surgery – to eventually take over as a long-term answer. Clark will try to prove that despite his age (he’ll turn 35 this fall), the Steelers were wrong when they released him, and that he still has plenty left in the tank. One thing is sure, his leadership skills will serve a relatively young locker room well. Meanwhile, 2013 sixth-rounder Bacarri Rambo will try to learn from Clark and further develop after a trying rookie season.

5. Position battles – As with the offense, there are few starting openings. But there are a couple. With Hatcher expected to start at right end, left end remains up for grabs. Chris Baker and Jarvis Jenkins are expected to go head-to-head for this position, while Stephen Bowen, Kedric Golston and Clifton Geathers compete for key spots in the rotation. Meanwhile, Chris Neild will try to remain in the mix as the backup to starting nose tackle Barry Cofield, although Baker also has the capability to play that position. DeAngelo Hall and David Amerson are the starting cornerbacks, but the nickel back role remains up for grabs. E.J. Biggers, Tracy Porter, rookie Bashaud Breeland and possibly third-year corner Richard Crawford ( who is recovering from knee reconstruction) will battle here, with Biggers and Porter seemingly having the edge. Meanwhile, Hayward, Jordan, Darryl Sharpton and second-year pro Will Compton are expected to compete for spots at inside linebacker behind Robinson and Perry Riley Jr. And Rob Jackson and second-year pro Brandon Jenkins will battle for spots in the outside linebacker rotation behind Orakpo, Kerrigan and Murphy.

Have a Redskins question? Send an e-mail to mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question,” and it might be answered on Tuesday in The Mailbag.

More from The Post:

D.C. Sports Bog: The advice Griffin would give himself

Training camp: Five story lines on offense

Moss’s fight | His rank among all-time greats? 

Peter King says Redskins will change name by 2016

More NFL coverage: Home page | D.C. Sports Bog | The Early Lead | Fancy Stats

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Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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