CARLISLE, PA., AUG. 4 -- There are six serious contenders for the Washington Redskins cornerback spots this season. They can be put into two categories: Darrell Green and Everyone Else.
On the left side, there is Green, a Pro Bowl starter who is one of the fastest players in the game. If Green ever gets his technique down completely, he never again may get beaten on a pass.
On the right side, there is a crowd. They lined up this afternoon by seniority. First came Vernon Dean, then Barry Wilburn and rookie Johnny Thomas. Tim Morrison and rookie Brian Davis were playing behind Green at left corner, but that's only because someone has to work behind him on the left side.
Dean, a five-year veteran, has been inconsistent the last few years. He looks great one week, not-so-good the next.
Wilburn, in his third season, is tall and fast, but has trouble turning his head and following the ball. He admits he has been beaten "too many times" that way.
Morrison, in his second season, is young and inexperienced, despite starting six games last season.
Davis, a second-round draft pick, and Thomas, a seventh-round choice, show promise, but still are quite new.
Some might view all this as a problem. Not the Redskins.
"I think we'll have our best secondary since the Super Bowl years," said assistant head coach/defense Richie Petitbon. "We've got a lot of kids with talent. It's a situation you always hope you can come up with. You've got legitimate competition for a spot."
In the offseason, the Redskins made a coaching move that is having a strong impact on the cornerbacks. Emmitt Thomas, their wide receivers coach, was switched to the defensive backs. This was only natural, considering that Dan Henning rejoined the team as an offensive coach and Thomas played in four Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls as a cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs.
When Thomas got his new assignment, he tried to figure out what he and Petitbon were working with at corner. Dean, for example. Thomas liked his "mental toughness," but saw too much aggressiveness.
"He's just so aggressive that he's not patient enough right now," Thomas said today after practice at Dickinson College. "He gets himself into a lot of trouble trying to be so aggressive. So we're going to try to settle him down a little bit."
Every summer at this time, someone wonders aloud if Dean isn't going to be moved to safety. The answer this summer is the same as it's always been -- no -- but with a small footnote: "He's our nickel safety," Thomas said. "We can work him anywhere, really. He understands our whole secondary. He's a utility guy."
As for Wilburn, Thomas was perplexed. He is 6 feet 3, tall for a corner. He can run and he can jump. But he hasn't been able to keep his eye on the ball.
"At one time, I thought it was his eyes," Thomas said. "But in the offseason, I shot basketball with him, and he can really shoot, so I knew it wasn't his eyes. What is seems he had was a string of bad luck, and then he started pressing and started going for the ball and got beat."
Wilburn worked on the problem in practice this offseason. "That's the thing that hurt him last year," Petitbon said. "It's just like hitting a baseball. You can either hit it or you can miss it."
The only difference is that a touchdown usually means more than a strike.
Said Wilburn: "It happened to me too many times. On all the plays I was beat last year, I was right there. I had great coverage, and I'd let the guy catch the ball. I didn't get my head around . . . It's just a matter of being conscious of turning my head around. I have to tell myself I better look for the ball, even if it's not coming. A lot of times, I didn't do that on time. I did it too late."
The Redskins know much more about Dean and Wilburn than they know about Morrison, Davis and Johnny Thomas. Morrison started only when things went sour for Dean and Wilburn. He did well, "showed flashes," Emmitt Thomas said, but the Redskins need to find out more about him.
As for Davis, Petitbon said he has "liked what I've seen so far." But is he convinced Davis can make it in the National Football League? "Convinced? That will be in December."
Last season, the Redskins kept four cornerbacks on their 45-man roster. That most likely will be the case this season. The coaches have about a month to decide whom to keep and whom to cut. It's safe to say that other than Green, any one of them has a chance to win a starting spot or lose a roster spot. It's that open.
"There are a lot of plusses for everybody, and everybody's got a few minuses, too," Petitbon said.
Every day after practice, Thomas can be seen on the far side of the practice field, gesturing to the cornerbacks, suggesting moves, walking or running through coverages himself.
He isn't working with Dean, Wilburn and the younger players exclusively. He also has been spending time after practice with Green. Some Redskins believe that with the expertise of Thomas, Green will be able to rely more on strategy and less on pure speed, turning that on only when he absolutely has to have it. For wide receivers around the league, that must be a frightening thought.