By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Defensive linemen participated in drills during organized team activities yesterday at Redskins Park, but recently acquired end Erasmus James was not with his position group. James stood at the opposite end of the field and worked individually with the training staff, continuing his rehab after having reconstructive knee surgery twice in the previous two seasons.
James moved slowly in his first day with Washington, taking small steps in an attempt to regain the form that helped him become a first-round draft pick three years ago. The Redskins acquired James from the Minnesota Vikings last week for a conditional seventh-round pick, and they plan to exercise patience with him, coaches said, hoping he can help fill their need for a productive, young pass-rushing end.
The team did not address the position in free agency or early in the draft, so there is room for James, who is eager for a fresh start after his disappointing experience in Minnesota. The process has started, and the Redskins will monitor it closely.
"If we're smart about it, whatever he's got in his tank, we can get it out of him," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "Where coaches go awry is when they try to take a guy and push him and make him play before he's ready. We're going to let him play when he's ready. If it takes us a little while, we'll have the patience to wait for him to get well. . . . The secret is that if you can get him healthy and keep him healthy, you're going to have a good football player."
James is expected to be at full strength for training camp, which is expected to begin July 20. He is under contract for two more seasons (James has salaries of $695,000 in 2008 and $1 million in 2009), and the Redskins gave up little to get him, so the move could work out well if James recovers and makes an impact.
"The thing that I'm told is that he's at about 90 percent," Coach Jim Zorn said. "I don't even know what that means yet because maybe at 100 percent he's wild. That's what I'm hoping.
"What we're going to do is bring him along . . . and work through the final stages of his rehab. I expect him to be a part of training camp. I don't expect to see a lot out here right now."
Andre Carter and Phillip Daniels are projected as the starting defensive ends. Demetric Evans and Chris Wilson are the primary backups. A contribution from James this fall would be "icing on the cake," Blache said.
The Redskins were among many teams that had James, an all-American at Wisconsin as a senior, among the highest-rated defensive ends in the 2005 draft. The Vikings selected James with the 18th overall pick, and he had four sacks and 28 tackles as a rookie.
During Week 2 of the 2006 season, James tore ligaments in his left knee and had season-ending surgery. And after playing sparingly early in the 2007 season, James injured his knee again and had another reconstructive procedure in December.
"He's a guy I like a lot as a person, he has a ton of ability, and you pull for guys like that," Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "But in our league . . . it's just unfortunate that he's been so banged up. He's had some serious injuries. It's not like a twisted ankle or a hurt thumb or something like that. You're talking about major knee surgeries.
"I really believe that without the injuries, he'd be well on his way to becoming a premier pass rusher. But it's tough in our league. So much is put on being healthy and being on the football field. The way it is today for coaches, as well as players, if you're not successful early on, it puts jobs in jeopardy. I feel bad for him, but that's just the way it is in our league."
In addition to James's career-threatening knee injuries, the Vikings also lost young defensive end Kenechi Udeze, who learned in February that he has leukemia, prompting the team to acquire Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen from the Kansas City Chiefs in April. After James, 25, recently failed to pass a physical, the Vikings planned to place him on waivers, but the Redskins contacted Minnesota before the waiver process was completed and made a deal.
Washington, which selected only one defensive lineman in the draft -- Kansas State defensive end Rob Jackson in the seventh round -- will send Minnesota its final-round pick in the 2009 draft if James makes the 53-man roster. Had Washington failed to complete a deal before James was put on waivers, teams that had worse records than the Redskins in 2007 would have had a chance to claim him.
James has been reunited with new Washington defensive line coach John Palermo, who coached him at Wisconsin. "I know what's expected from him," James said. "I know what to get done."
Said Palermo: "His senior year, he was as good a football player as I've been around in all my years of coaching." In Minnesota, there were often times when James longed for more support and guidance. Because of his status as a top pick, James's presence was threatening to some veterans, James said, but the Redskins quickly made him feel welcome.
"Coming in as a first-rounder there's a lot of pressure on you," he said. "A lot of guys think because you're a first-rounder, you're going to come in and start. . . . And that's the worst thing to come in as, especially as a rookie with people like that, because you can't get any help. It's kind of like you fend for yourself. It's nice to be around older guys who are not out there to say, 'Hey, there's this new guy coming in.' It's not like that at all. You can learn from these guys. I'm real excited about that."
The 6-foot-4 James, at the request of the Vikings' coaching staff, played at about 275 pounds, he said. The Redskins would prefer that James keep his weight between 255 and 260 pounds. "I played [at] about 255, 260 in college," James said. "I'm excited to get back down to that weight because I think that's where I'm best at."
Comfortable at left or right end, James is "a very instinctive guy who is a natural pass rusher," Frazier said. "He just has a knack for getting to the quarterback, does some things that you really can't teach. He does a great job of using his hands and reacting to what you do as an offensive tackle."
James still has those instincts, he said, and he plans to show the Redskins what he can do to help them. "That's my personality," he said. "Just go out there, feel things and do it fast. That's been my best ability."