After ranking 31st in the NFL in total defense during the 2010 season, the Washington Redskins placed an emphasis on upgrading that unit and used six of their 12 draft picks – including three of their first five selections – to take defensive players.

This preseason, all six of those players received a passing grade from defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and his staff. Linebackers Ryan Kerrigan (first round) and Markus White (seventh), safety DeJon Gomes (fifth), cornerback Brandyn Thompson (seventh) and nose tackle Chris Neild (seventh) all made the 53-man roster. (Second-round pick Jarvis Jenkins was in contention to start at defensive end before suffering a season-ending knee injury).

Those rookies won’t just keep the benches warm, Haslett says. The coach believes all of them will make contributions to the team this year, and for years to come.

“That’s where you build the nucleus of your football team,” Haslett said. “We had a lot of draft picks and every one on defense, we kept. . . . I like what I saw in the guys we drafted. The coaching staff, the scouting staff, everybody in the building did a great job of evaluating. You get [three] guys in the seventh round, and they’re going to be active and playing for us this week. You get guys like that, seventh round, sixth round, fifth round, and they’re able to come in an help you in some aspect, that’s really good.”

Kerrigan – taken 16th overall out of Purdue – will start at outside linebacker, and although he recorded two sacks in the preseason, Haslett says the converted defensive end still has room for significant improvement.

“It’s going to be an ongoing process with him,” Haslett says. “He’s a bright kid, he’s going to make some mistakes, but he’s going to make them 100 miles per hour. That’s the thing we like about him. He’s very intelligent and he’ll keep those things to a minimum. Nothing rattles him. Whatever he sees, he never gets rattled.”

White, like Kerrigan, played defensive end in college and also remains a work in progress. White is behind Kerrigan and veteran Lorenzo Alexander at that left outside linebacker spot, but Haslett says the Florida State product proved this preseason that he has all the tools to be a contributor for the Redskins.

“He hasn’t made the full transition, and it’s going to take a while. But he’s one of those guys that lets it go,” Haslett said of White, who recorded eight tackles, including a sack, in the preseason. “He’s a big guy – 6-5, 270 pounds – he’s got a good pass rush. Once he gets the coverage aspect – you can never have enough good rushers in this league, and in this defense, obviously, you can never have enough outside linebackers.”

Meanwhile, Gomes has a good chance to see significant playing time early on as he is the only healthy reserve safety on the roster. The Nebraska product this preseason tallied a team-high 14 tackles along with a sack.

“He better be” ready, said Haslett, who will start Oshiomogo Atogwe and Reed Doughty while still waiting for LaRon Landry to return to action. “ I think DeJon, once he gets used to the speed, once he’s out there, some things don’t come fast right at the bat, but once he sees things once, he’s right in tune. I love the way he played the last game. He’s the kind of guys that makes plays. He’s around the football. He got a sack in preseason, got a couple knockdowns, he’s just a good football player and the more he plays, the better he’s going to get.”

The biggest upset of cutdown day came when Neild beat out veteran Anthony Bryant for the backup nose tackle job. Given that he was the next-to-last pick of the draft, it was believed that the West Virginia product likely would wind up on the practice squad. But Haslett rested Barry Cofield in the preseason finale and gave Neild the start over Bryant. Neild responded by recording a sack. Two days later, Neild officially made the team.

“We thought he had a lot of upside,” said Haslett, who likes to rotate his nose tackles to keep them fresh and expects Neild to see action Sunday. “He plays with a lot of power. He looks and plays the part of a nose. He got used to the speed of the game early in camp and I thought once he got comfortable, he did a really nice job and played well the last game. … I think for the future, the investment you put in him, he’s got a lot of upside.”