It’s way too early to determine winners and losers in the NFL draft. And assigning grades is as ridiculous as ranking college recruiting classes on signing day. Often, it takes years to evaluate newcomers accurately.
But this much is clear about the Washington Redskins’ draft: Coach Mike Shanahan displayed a sound approach. He used two of the team’s first three picks on defensive backs — cornerback David Amerson and safety Phillip Thomas — in an effort to improve Washington’s awful secondary. And Shanahan, with the Redskins seeking a long-term solution at tight end, selected pass-catcher Jordan Reed as part of what could prove to be a successful plan. The next phase of the process is the most important.
The Redskins have so many holes in their secondary, a group that was stunningly ineffective against deep passes last season, Amerson and Thomas should compete for significant roles as rookies — if the coaching staff can get them ready in time. Reed may need to learn a lot quickly as well.
Talented tight end Fred Davis returns as the starter, but he’s still recovering from an Achilles’ tendon injury and is on a one-year contract. Shanahan expects Reed to be a playmaker. And Shanahan is counting on Washington’s top three picks to keep the team’s momentum going.
The Redskins, coming off their first NFC East title in 13 seasons, didn’t have a pick in the first round. In the last year of the NFL-imposed $36 million cap reduction, the Redskins made no major additions in free agency.
Still, before the draft Shanahan expressed confidence the Redskins would improve with their seven draft picks. His outlook was based, in large part, on last season’s turnaround. After watching the draft unfold, I understood his thinking.
“If this were a few years ago, when we started, well, yeah, then that would be tough,” Shanahan said. “But you go into it [the draft] with a plan. You go into it knowing what you want to do.”
Focusing on the secondary was a smart move. Last season, the Redskins had the NFL’s third-worst passing defense. Redskins opponents had 27 pass plays of 25 yards or more. That’s a lot.
The inability of the safeties to provide deep support for cornerbacks undermined defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s game plans. The fact that the Redskins reached the playoffs despite such poor secondary play indicates how well quarterback Robert Griffin III performed in leading the team’s outstanding offense.
Perhaps the newly configured secondary will help out Griffin, who is rehabbing from major knee surgery, and the rest of the offense next season. Amerson possesses enough talent to ignite change.
As a sophomore, Amerson, the Redskins’ first pick, led the nation with 13 interceptions. Most successful cornerbacks fall far short of that total in a four-year college career.
Amerson, who entered the draft as a junior, struggled last season. Chasing expectations, he gambled too much, was undisciplined and frequently out of position. But Amerson has the type of speed — he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds — and athleticism Shanahan wants at cornerback. Haslett and his staff will work on smoothing Amerson’s rough edges.
There’s a lot at stake for Amerson. Cornerbacks Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall only are signed for one more season. If Amerson delivers, he may have a clear path to the starting lineup.
The road at safety already appears wide open for Thomas. Tanard Jackson has failed so many drug tests, the Redskins can’t count on him. Who knows how Brandon Meriweather will recover from knee surgery?
During the Redskins’ late-season playoff push, Haslett did wonders overcoming the deficiencies of the secondary. At the very least, Thomas and safety Bacarri Rambo, a sixth-rounder who also racked up interceptions in college, provide an infusion of potential and energy on defense. That’s a lot more than Haslett had to work with last season.
“You take a look at Amerson . . . and here’s a corner that’s got some pretty good speed, good length, and he’s come up with some big interceptions throughout his career,” Shanahan said. “And you add a couple safeties with [Thomas] and [Rambo] — two guys that play the free safety position but also play the strong safety position as well.”
Reed should give the receiving corps a boost. For a tight end, Davis is a dynamic, down-the-field receiver. Kyle Shanahan, Washington’s offensive coordinator, did a great job of designing plays that put Davis in favorable matchups against linebackers. Davis, though, could be headed out of town.
Because of Davis’s injury, rising salary and off-field issues – he sat out the final four games in 2011 after failing multiple drug tests – it made sense for the Redskins to search for his eventual replacement.
Reed is raw: He only started 25 games at tight end in college. No problem, Shanahan said.
“What you look for are talented, high-character guys who can help your football team,” he said. “I don’t worry about the experience, or if they didn’t do some things well [in college]. We’ll coach ’em. We just want to find people who fit with what we’re doing in the areas we need them.”
That’s exactly what the Redskins have tried to do. Now, they’ll work to turn unproven prospects into consistent players. Sounds like a plan.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.