Curious about the challenges ahead for Redskins rookie safeties Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo as they learn the NFL, I caught up with former Redskins safety Matt Bowen, who does a great job of breaking down the NFL and its players.
Bowen saw Thomas and Rambo play during their college careers and then got a close look at each in January at the Senior Bowl.
Bowen believes that the Redskins got good value in Thomas, the Fresno State product, whom they selected in the fourth round. “I thought he could’ve gone higher. I’m obviously not a scout, but I thought he had a third-round grade.”
Breaking down Thomas’s skillset, Bowen says, “The kid’s a playmaker. He doesn’t have exceptional speed, but when it comes to safety, you’re fine in that 4.6 range. The positions where you want to see the 4.4, 4.5 40-yard dash times are cornerback and receiver. But safety is more about range and angles and understanding what you’re seeing. The safety position is more about what you bring in that Cover-2 alignment, your footwork, technique.
“Thomas has good instincts,” Bowen added. “He understands where the ball is going, he can read and react.”
It’s clear the Redskins see Thomas as a free safety. But coaches don’t yet know how they will use Rambo. Coach Mike Shanahan said he thinks Rambo has the ability to play strong safety. Rambo said he feels more comfortable at free safety, but is willing to play wherever he is told. The Redskins could get a better idea of how to use him after this weekend.
Bowen believes that Rambo may be better suited for strong safety.
“I think Rambo’s an in-the-box guy,” he says. “Right now, that’s where his skillset is. Where he was drafted seems about right. … He’s a physical player. He’s got decent ball skills. The thing about both of these guys is, they can get their hands on the ball. The Redskins obviously wanted to upgrade this position.”
Shanahan said that it’s possible that Thomas could start alongside Brandon Meriweather, if the veteran is healthy. But Bowen said if that’s the case, he has a lot of work cut out for him. He said both Thomas and Rambo must do a lot of learning and studying if they want to play more than special teams this year.
“These two young safeties, coming in, if they want to play this year, as soon as they’re allowed to be at Redskins Park, they should be there until it’s dark,” Bowen says. “They should be hanging with the vets, asking them questions, bugging the coaches, begging them to show them film. That’s what they need to do to play this year, and the Redskins need at least one of them to.”
Bowen said “Thomas needs to improve his angles. He has times where he overruns plays.” He said Rambo could improve his range.
Both rookies racked up interceptions in college (Rambo had 16 in four seasons, and Thomas had 13 in three seasons). But although the Redskins would like for them to remain ball-hawking safeties in the NFL, it’s more important that they become sound in downfield coverage, Bowen says.
“Every report I’ve read on these two is, they’re playmakers. Well, what you want is safeties that don’t get beat. Yeah, they’re playmakers, but how many plays does he give up? Preventing the big play is how you win games. In the pros, that’s your job.”
Bowen continues: “A Jim Haslett defense, just like a Gregg Williams defense, is very demanding of safeties. You have to do a lot on the back end, and you have to be the angel of the defense. You’ve got to protect everybody. Haslett’s safeties, they don’t just sit in Cover-2. They do a lot of creative things, and because of that, they’re really going to have to study.”
Bowen’s gives a dizzying grocery list of details that a safety must recognize and react to if he doesn’t want to get beat again and again.
“There’s so much to learn and read: What splits mean for a wide receiver, what formations mean,” he says. “You have to understand a quarterback’s footwork, how his shoulders are when he’s in the pocket, understand what’s a double-move. Game situations. … Understand where routes break off. You have your three-step slants and hitches, and everything else breaks between 12 and 15 yards. You have to know this. If a wide receiver starts chopping his feet at eight yards, then it’s going to be a double move, because routes don’t break off at eight yards in the NFL. … It’s little things that if you don’t study film, and you just go play ball, I don’t think you’re going to last.”
Thomas and Rambo will get their education in all of these aspects, and the classroom sessions will be demanding. And even if they think they understand, the challenges will continue to present themselves once they step on the field for their first practices with veterans.
“These guys aren’t used to the pace of an NFL practice: the tempo, the speed, getting in and out of the huddle,” Bowen says. “These guys are going to be gassed. They’re going against receivers that all run 4.3, 4.4 40’s. They’re not used to seeing that all the time. Rambo is from the SEC, so he sees good speed, but SEC speed doesn’t even measure up to NFL speed.
“I remember my first minicamp,” says Bowen, a sixth-round pick by St. Louis out of Iowa in 2000. “St. Louis Rams, coming off the Super Bowl, greatest show on turf. Kurt Warner’s the QB, you’ve got Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim, Ricky Proehl. That’s speed. And Kurt Warner doesn’t miss. And the tempo of practice is so fast. You’re moving from team, to special teams, now we’re back to 7-on-7s. It’s very demanding on rookies.
“So for these guys, to see this speed will be a change. You’re not the best on the field anymore. And if Robert Griffin III is able to run any practices in [training] camp, look out for that. They’ve never seen any speed like that. Kirk Cousins, if they’re practicing against him, he doesn’t miss very often. None of these quarterbacks miss a lot. They don’t give you what I call, “basket interceptions.” Think of the QBs in their conference, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Michael Vick. These are all good quarterbacks.”
Because of the steep learning curve, Bowen says don’t assume Thomas or Rambo will quickly overtake a veteran like Reed Doughty, who despite not possessing overwhelming speed and athleticism, has a great understanding of the defense.
“Reed’s not going to hand over his job to these rookies. He’s played a lot of games. He understands this defense,” Bowen says of the eight-year veteran, who has 92 games under his belt. “They put him on the field because they trust him to be in the right position. He understands the little things you have to know because he’s experienced it.”
And speaking of experience, Bowen predicts that Thomas and Rambo will get torched a number of times during their NFL baptism. And that’s a good thing, he says.
“Sometimes, the best thing for a young player is getting beat,” Bowen says. “Getting through ups and downs is how you learn. It’s when you get beat that you can go back and learn and understand what happened, what you did wrong and how to get better. The Redskins fans going to training camp need to be patient. They’ll see them get beat a lot. But that’s where they’ll learn.
“It’s not an easy position. You make a mistake and get booed by 90,000 people at FedEx Field? I’ve been there. It’s a demanding, tough position,” Bowen concludes. “But I hope they play well. They have the ability. They just have to work. They were good draft picks, players they needed to add to be successful.”
Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in the Monday Mailbag.
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