By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 22, 2006
They do not have a first-round pick and have only two of the first 153 selections in next weekend's NFL draft, but because of an aggressive approach to free agency the Washington Redskins can emerge from the draft satisfied that their obvious need for an outside linebacker will be met.
According to draft experts and league observers, the Redskins find themselves in a curiously fortunate position: They may have only one relatively high pick -- they have the 21st pick in the second round, the 53rd pick overall -- but linebacker is the one position in the draft deep enough to keep the Redskins from needing to employ any drastic maneuvers on draft day.
In any normal year, the Redskins' lack of draft volume -- by contrast, the New England Patriots have six picks in the first four rounds -- would force them to be creative next weekend, perhaps in the form of trading up to secure the player they wanted. But this year, experts say, favors the Redskins and to a lesser extent validates a free agent approach that saw the Redskins make a trade for a big-play wide receiver in Brandon Lloyd, acquire a versatile game-breaking player in Antwaan Randle El, as well as sign two front-line defensive players in defensive end Andre Carter and safety Adam Archuleta.
"They were so good during free agency that they really don't need a whole lot from this draft," said Gil Brandt, an NFL draft analyst who was the Dallas Cowboys' top personnel man for nearly 30 years. "They've had a very good year, because for what they're looking for this is a full draft. They are going to find a player."
While the Redskins will look at former George Mason basketball player Jai Lewis in a workout next week and brought in Notre Dame tight end Anthony Fasano for a visit, linebacker is the key. Two players some draft experts believe the Redskins like are Thomas Howard from the University of Texas-El Paso and San Diego State inside linebacker Freddie Keiaho.
"The thing is that linebackers are now becoming the most skilled athletes on the defense," Brandt said. "Players who were running backs in high school are now being looked at in the draft as linebackers. There's an athleticism and versatility that's never been there before."
During the free agent period, the Redskins flirted with veterans Nate Wayne and Keith Adams in the wake of LaVar Arrington buying himself out of his contract to become a free agent. The biggest name on the free agent market -- San Francisco's Julian Peterson -- fetched a seven-year, $54 million contract from Seattle, a price the Redskins were not interested in for that position.
Then Wayne re-signed with Detroit, and last week Adams signed a two-year deal with Carolina. According to sources, the Redskins' reticence to pay out a sizable bonus to established if unspectacular players telegraphed two things: They have begun to adopt an organizational philosophy in which linebacker is a position where valuable players can be acquired at better cost and plan to look to the draft to replace Arrington. The re-signing of Chris Clemons and Warrick Holdman over the past two weeks seemed to confirm the strategy.
"It's a good year to be shopping in the draft," said agent David Dunn, who represents Lloyd. "Especially if you're looking for linebackers. If you look at what they like to do, there will be speed rushers there, and that will help them."
Another reason Brandt believes the Redskins are well positioned with their highest pick is assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams, who has proven through his tutelage of middle linebacker Lemar Marshall that his ability to teach technique and discipline within a scheme can to some degree mitigate the need to trade up for a more dynamic player.
Brandt thinks a case in point is Howard, who visited the Redskins last week. Howard is considered one of the top five linebackers in the draft, a player some experts believe may be available when the Redskins draft. Brandt does not think so, but thinks he is emblematic of the type of player Williams can mold.
"He walked on to UTEP as a safety. He can run well, and he has a lot of athleticism," Brandt said. "What he doesn't have is great recognition, but Coach Williams can teach him that."
Where the Redskins are thin is on the offensive line. The retirement of Ray Brown and the broken leg suffered by right guard Randy Thomas on Dec. 18 against Dallas throws into question their long-term ability to run the football, a staple of a Joe Gibbs offense.
Because of their lack of high draft picks, the Redskins attempted to address the offensive line weeks ago with New York Jets free agent reserve Jonathan Goodwin. Goodwin visited Redskins Park and appeared to be close to a deal before signing with New Orleans.
"It was serious, and we thought there might be something happening in Washington, but there was a better fit with the Saints," said Fletcher Smith, Goodwin's agent. "He had some personal ties there, with the offensive coordinator, and it was just more comfortable."
For depth, the Redskins also signed free agent tight end Christian Fauria from New England and free agent defensive back Kenny Wright from Jacksonville.