Saturday’s announcement by Redskins’ coach Mike Shanahan that free safety Kareem Moore will likely open the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list means the fourth-year veteran won’t be available until Week 7 of the regular season. And that leaves an opportunity for one, and possibly two more safeties to make the 53-man roster.
So the question is, who makes the cut at safety along with the three locks, Atogwe, starting strong safety LaRon Landry and backup strong safety Reed Doughty? Landry, initially on the PUP list while he rehabbed last season’s Achilles’ tendon injury, and now slowed by a hamstring injury, has yet to play this preseason, but the Redskins seem optimistic that he will be ready by the Sept. 11 season opener against the Giants. With him out, Doughty -- who in July re-signed with the team, getting a multi-year deal -- has started at strong safety.
From there, the picture gets a little cloudy.
Four players -- fourth-year veteran Chris Horton, second-year pro Anderson Russell and rookies DeJon Gomes and Davonte Shannon -- are battling for that backup free safety spot.
With Atogwe sidelined by a hamstring injury for the first two preseason games, Horton started at free safety. But he struggles in coverage at times, and seems better suited for strong safety, where he could play closer to the line of scrimmage. Problem is, he’s not better than Landry or Doughty. Horton certainly has more experience than the other three bubble safeties, but that doesn’t make him a sure thing.
In the last week, Gomes -- whom the team drafted in the fifth round out of Nebraska -- appears to have leap-frogged Horton. When Atogwe left the game with a little tightness in the hamstring, it was Gomes who joined Doughty when the first-team defense returned to the field. The 6-foot, 208-pound Gomes ended up recording a team-high seven tackles.
It was another positive showing for Gomes, who began his college career as a cornerback, still has strong coverage skills and has the ability to play both safety positions. Early in the preseason, Mike Shanahan said that Gomes was still a ways off and had much to learn about the Redskins system and reading NFL offenses.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett agreed, but said part of the reason why Gomes appeared a beat slow on the field was because at the time, Haslett and his assistants were putting a lot on him as they tried to teach him both the free and strong safety positions. But once the games began, Haslett said he eased up on Gomes and just let him play ball. Since then, he has made steady improvement.
Russell spent much of his rookie season in 2010 on the practice squad, then tore his ACL in his second game. He played free safety in college, and appears more natural in coverage than Horton does. But he hasn’t played nearly as much this preseason as Gomes has. Russell appears to be a solid contributor on special teams as well, however. Shannon appears to be a long shot. He recorded six tackles and a pass deflection Thursday night, but he saw little action in the first two preseason games, and isn’t likely to overtake the other three for a roster spot.
So the question is, do the Redskins take four, or five safeties into the regular season. If both Landry and Moore were completely healthy, four would seem to be the answer. But Landry, although hopeful, isn’t a sure thing for the opener. And Moore won’t be counted among the 53 if he’s on the PUP list.
Without that certainty, though, four still might be the number. If you take Landry and Doughty as your strong safeties, and Atogwe as a free safety, Gomes could be the answer at the other free safety spot because of his versatility and apparent bigger upside than Horton. Coaches could elect to go with five, but it depends on needs in other areas.
And in a pinch, Kevin Barnes could play free safety in addition to his natural position of cornerback.