The first time middle linebacker Mike Barrow saw outside linebacker Marcus Washington at practice in Redskins Park, Barrow thought the muscular 6-foot-3, 247-pounder was an obscure defensive end.
"I didn't know much about him, so the first time I saw him I was like, 'Golly, who's this defensive lineman we've got?' " Barrow said with a chuckle. "They said. 'That's Marcus Washington.' 'That's the [strong-side] linebacker? Wow.' "
Washington, 27, played defensive end at Auburn University before switching to linebacker because he wasn't quite big enough to be a defensive lineman in the NFL. But Washington's background wasn't the main reason Barrow couldn't place his new teammate. Washington has been overlooked since being selected in the second round of the 2000 draft by the Indianapolis Colts, known for their high-powered offense behind star quarterback Peyton Manning.
In an offseason of headlines generated by the acquisitions of Pro Bowl tailback Clinton Portis and quarterback Mark Brunell, Washington's six-year, $24 million signing was lost amid the Redskins' NFL record payroll of more than $110 million.
"I don't mind it about people not knowing you or recognizing you," said Washington, who last season had 97 tackles and six sacks as the Colts reached the AFC championship game. "I think your work will speak for you. If you're out there making plays, you're definitely going to get noticed."
Through his -- and the Redskins' -- first three preseason games, Washington has given notice he won't be under the radar for long. After the Redskins rolled over the Miami Dolphins, 17-0, Saturday night, the first-team defense hasn't allowed a touchdown this preseason. And Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense, has publicly praised Washington perhaps more than any other player. Washington, who had a sack Saturday, has performed markedly better than advertised, not merely because his publicity was minimal.
"He's better than I thought he was," said Williams, whose unit allowed Miami only 98 yards.
Williams calls linebackers the heart and soul of his defense and considers his system linebacker-friendly. The defensive assistant prefers do-it-all, athletic linebackers who can play every down if necessary. In a system that stresses aggressiveness and versatility, Williams wants opponents to have difficulty discerning if a linebacker will be a defensive lineman or a cornerback. That makes Washington a perfect match for the Redskins in more than name only because of pass rushing and run stopping abilities plus coverage skills.
Washington will play strong-side linebacker, allowing LaVar Arrington to switch to weak-side linebacker, where the path to the quarterback is less cluttered. (Washington and Arrington have pass rushing ability -- Washington has 18 sacks in his short NFL career -- which will help a defensive line without a sack specialist.)
"Marcus Washington is quickly setting an example of what it is to be the kind of Redskin that we want," Williams said, "and he played with a very up-tempo, physical attitude and nature [Saturday] night. There were many snaps when he played . . . when he was sending some messages on film that he wanted people to see about him, and it was the right kind of message when he was bringing some of the contact that he brought."
In Indianapolis, Washington seldom stayed on the field in passing situations, particularly on third downs. Instead, the Colts used the weak-side linebacker and middle linebacker, replacing Washington for a nickel back. But Williams intends to use Washington on virtually all downs.
Washington showed his value after being selected with the 59th overall pick -- he had 309 tackles (186 solo) during his Colts career. Although Indianapolis wanted to re-sign Washington, the club couldn't afford him after giving Manning the richest contract in NFL history: $98 million with a $34.5 million signing bonus. (Washington joked that Indianapolis had $5.50 under the salary cap after giving Manning an extension.)
Washington's relative obscurity certainly doesn't stem from having a reserved personality. He has earned a reputation for being a motor mouth on the field, trash-talking to opponents and cracking jokes to teammates. Washington's exuberance makes him seem like the Energizer Bunny. During warmups at practice, Washington has a habit of reciting well-known lines from comedies. Barrow describes Washington as a "special breed" because of his size and superior athletic ability at linebacker. But Washington also has stood out because of a workaholic approach he says he inherited from his mother, Earnestine. A single parent, she raised her only child in Auburn, Ala., while working in a bottle-producing plant.
"I was blessed with some [athletic] ability, but I like to think of myself as a guy who works hard," said Washington. "And I had to really, really put a lot into it to get to this level and stay at this level."
Washington played left defensive end at Auburn, where he started his final two seasons. During his senior year, Washington produced a team-high seven sacks, yet drew little interest. Because of his speed, Washington was projected as a linebacker and didn't move up the draft until strong predraft workouts in 2000. At the time, Williams was the Tennessee Titans' defensive coordinator and didn't think Washington could make the transition.
"I missed on him coming out," Williams admitted. "I thought he was a project."
Washington, who didn't realize Williams's admission until it was relayed by reporters, said: "I was just happy to get drafted. Good players get overlooked every day. It's no big deal. You've got to keep chopping wood."