Redskins training camp: Choice of safeties a critical issue

The Washington Redskins’ decision-makers entered the 2011 offseason knowing that they had to upgrade their defensive front and secondary.

So last year, the team drafted outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and signed free agent linemen Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen to address things up front. The Redskins added cornerback Josh Wilson and free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe via free agency, convinced that along with a healthy LaRon Landry, they would bolster the secondary.

The moves up front paid off, and Wilson played well, particularly down the season’s home stretch. But injury-plagued campaigns by Landry and Atogwe prompted the Redskins to hit the reset button at safety this offseason.

The team let Landry leave via free agency and released Atogwe. Now the question of who will take over at their positions is perhaps the biggest defensive issue of the preseason. Finding a way to get more production out of a secondary that ranked among the worst in the league last season, with only nine interceptions, also ranks high on the Redskins’ to-do list.

As training camp kicks off Thursday, free agent additions Brandon Meriweather, Madieu Williams and Tanard Jackson, rookie Jordan Bernstine and holdovers DeJon Gomes and Reed Doughty — both of whom played extensively last season while filling in for Landry and Atogwe — will compete for starting jobs and spots on the 53-man roster.

Wilson and DeAngelo Hall appear set at two of the cornerback positions, while fellow holdover Kevin Barnes will attempt to fend off Cedric Griffin, an offseason addition; second-year pro Brandyn Thompson; journeyman David Jones, who was signed Tuesday when rookie Chase Minnifield was waived; and rookie Richard Crawford for the third spot.

“I like the competition that you have for playing time from all the corners and the safeties,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said in June, at the conclusion of the team’s organized team activities. “This is the first time you’re gonna have some hard decisions to make on who you’re going to keep and who is not going to make it.”

Meriweather said: “Everything’s totally wide open. Don’t nobody have a job yet,” but it appears that the former New England Patriot and Chicago Bear has the edge at strong safety.

Meriweather made back-to-back Pro Bowls in 2009 and 2010 before he was released by New England the following preseason. He opened last season as the starter for Chicago, but struggled in the Bears’ scheme and lost his job after four games. In Washington, Meriweather believes that he has found the ideal fit for himself. Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan envisions Meriweather playing a role that more closely resembles the one he played in New England and believes the University of Miami product can bring much-needed stability to the strong safety position.

The Redskins have plenty of options at free safety, however. Jackson played for new secondary coach Raheem Morris with Tampa Bay, but was limited by recovery from injury during OTAs. Williams has looked promising while seeing significant time at free safety, but Gomes and Doughty also aim to earn starting consideration this preseason.

“We’ve got a lot of people to plug in,” Doughty said. “We’ve got Madieu, and [Gomes] played well last year and is a young guy that is going to improve a lot. I know I’m versatile and they can plug me in and call on me in short notice. . . . Tanard Jackson is another talented guy, real rangy. You can tell he’s a real talented guy. . . . There’s a lot of guys. We’ll let the play speak for itself.”

The Redskins hope stiff competition in camp translates into better results this season.

While learning and evaluating his new personnel, Morris has stressed the importance of versatility. The Redskins’ strong and free safeties have been largely interchangeable the last two years, but Morris is having Hall and Wilson work not only on the outside corner positions, but on the inside — where they cover the slot receiver — and at safety as well.

“With the ability to learn those assignments, you can rotate those guys in at safety,” Morris said. “You can take those guys all over the field. Really, we all have got to be interchangeable parts. I think that creates the complexity as well as the detail that you want in the defense in order to get what you want to get accomplished on defense.”

Wilson and Hall have accepted the challenge and see it as the opportunity to become more effective playmakers.

“It allows us to be very flexible, and makes it tough on the offense. Any time we can make them have to react to us, it makes it easier to play football,” Wilson said. “I’m at peak excitement and ready to go. . . I’m ready to start making these interceptions count.”

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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