MOBILE, Ala. – With the dust of the Washington Redskins’ disastrous 2013 season now settled, new head coach Jay Gruden in place and his own future no longer in doubt, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett expressed optimism about the direction of the franchise and its ability to quickly rebound.
A week after Gruden made the official announcement that he would retain the services of Haslett (his longtime friend and former boss), the defensive coordinator attended three straight days of Senior Bowl practices and began mining this year’s draft class for prospects that can help rebuild his unit.
Haslett described himself as in the early stages of pre-draft evaluations, but called this year’s class, which features a record 98 underclassmen, deeper than past drafts, and because of that, he believes more impact players will enter the NFL.
The Redskins this spring could look to the draft to fill holes and upgrade depth in their secondary, linebacking corps, and defensive line.
But first comes free agency, and Haslett called the re-signing of top pass rusher Brian Orakpo, inside linebacker Perry Riley Jr., defensive end Chris Baker and cornerback DeAngelo Hall priority moves for the Redskins.
Orakpo, who on Sunday will play in the third Pro Bowl of his five-year career, led the Redskins with 10 sacks while Riley, a fourth-year veteran, recorded a team-high 115 tackles. Hall tallied three defensive touchdowns and four interceptions. And Baker took over as a late-season starter at right defensive end.
“Re-sign ‘Rak, re-sign Perry. And we have some other guys on defense,” Haslett said when asked about the priorities of the offseason. “Chris Baker did a good job, and D-Hall. There’s a bunch of them, so we’d like to have those guys back.”
Haslett lobbied late in the season for the Redskins to re-sign Orakpo, and the linebacker has expressed a desire to return as well. But a person with knowledge of the situation said this week that negotiations hadn’t yet begun. But Haslett spoke with confidence regarding Orakpo’s future in Washington.
The Redskins have a total of eight defensive starters with expiring contracts. With the lifting of the salary cap penalties that limited the team’s efforts over the past two seasons, Washington is expected to be active in free agency this season as officials work to upgrade Haslett’s unit.
“I think one, we just have to get back, and you always want to upgrade talent,” Haslett said. “But we need to look at our scheme and what we’re doing. We’ve got a couple new coaches that we’re excited about, and we’ll go through all that and see what can make us better. But obviously, it all starts with talent.”
Haslett, who confirmed that the team will stick with the 3-4 defense, is expected to have more authority in running his unit with Gruden at the helm. Despite bringing Haslett with him to Washington in 2010, Mike Shanahan often dictated to Haslett how he would like the defense to be executed. Shanahan also decided which assistants would be hired rather than giving Haslett freedom to fill out his defensive staff.
But Gruden let Haslett hire his own assistants. The team retained defensive line coach Jacob Burney and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris. And Haslett added Brian Baker and Kirk Olivadotti, two coaches he had worked with in the past. He expressed confidence that they will help Washington’s linebackers further develop.
Baker, who has worked with Pro Bowl players Jay Ratliff, Julius Peppers, Kevin Williams, Robert Porcher, Luther Elliss, DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, will work primarily with Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, and other outside linebackers, including second-year pro Brandon Jenkins, a former Florida State standout.
“[Baker] is going to work with the outside guys, and I think he does a great job,” Haslett said. “I’ve worked with him before. He does a great job with rush guys and he’ll help Ryan, and he’ll make ‘Rak be better than what he is, and obviously, we have a young guy from Florida State and we want to bring him along. So he’ll help with that.”
Redskins general manager Bruce Allen chose to retain Haslett despite firing Shanahan on Dec. 30. He said at the time that the next head coach would determine the defensive coordinator’s fate. But it turned out that the team hired Gruden, who had served as Haslett’s offensive coordinator for the UFL’s Florida Tuskers in 2009, and Gruden welcomed the reunion.
“I think as a head coach – especially a first-time head coach – you like to have somebody you’ve been with, you can trust,” Haslett said. “Guys that you know what you’re going to get from them from a work ethic standpoint. … We went against each other for a couple months and he has an understanding of what we run and we’ve played against each other, and I think all that played into it, especially this being Jay’s first time doing it.”
He added, “Just being with Jay, he’s an offensive guy and he’s going to spend his time with the offense, and I think he’ll trust the guys we have on defense to do what we have to do. Obviously, we’ll play as a team, from defense to special teams. I think we’ve got to get back to playing. I think we’re closer to the 10-win season than the three-win season that we had. We’re much closer to the 10-win season as a football team than the three-win season.”
Washington’s defense started out the year on pace to surrender historically high yardage and point totals through four weeks. But the unit improved in the second half of the season and finished 18th in yards and did well in third-down efficiency.
The unit continued to rank low in points allowed, but Haslett said those numbers don’t truly reflect state of the defense.
“People take these points and they say it’s defense’s points. But special teams, offense plays into giving up points. You can give up 10 points a game and you had nothing to do with it,” Haslett said. “To me, that’s a team thing, it’s not just defense. It’s just like if you score a touchdown on defense, they give it to the offense. But we played much better, I thought, that last 13 games. We played extremely well from the standpoint that we didn’t give up a ton of points, we didn’t give up a ton of yards. We played Peyton Manning about as good as you can get. And, I think that’s something to build off of. We played good after those first four games. Can we get better? Yeah. We were middle of the pack. But we were fourth in the league on third down efficiency. So, all that stuff is something you can build on.”
More than anything, Haslett seemed relieved to be able to put last season – with its 13 losses and off-field drama – far in the past. The fresh start will afford the team’s players and coaches to recharge and return their focus to the on-field product.
“There was a lot of stuff going on the last couple months that I’d never experienced. I hope I never have to experience it again because it takes away from the players,” Haslett said. “They had to deal with everything. You didn’t give yourself a chance to win games down the stretch. You’re consumed with everything else but football. As a coach when you walk into a meeting room with the players, I love being with the players on the field, but then once you’re off the field, you’ve got to go back and deal with all the distractions. Now, we’ll obviously start fresh and we won’t have those issues, and players will come in and be able to worry about football.”
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