There’s a common theme to the Washington Redskins’ safety position: Redemption.
Signed as free agents in the offseason, strong safety Brandon Meriweather and free safeties Madieu Williams and Tanard Jackson are all seeking it. All three once had promising pro football careers before a change in their fortunes.
Meriweather reached the Pro Bowl in his third and fourth NFL seasons. But the New England Patriots released him before the start of the 2011 regular season. The former University of Miami standout signed with the Chicago Bears, but proved a bad fit for their defensive scheme and was benched after four games.
Williams was among the highest-paid safeties in the NFL after signing a six-year, $33 million contract with Minnesota in 2008. But he didn’t live up to the Vikings’ expectations and was released after three seasons. He signed with San Francisco and started three of the 49ers’ first four games last season, but played sparingly the rest of the way.
Jackson, formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, played two games in 2010 before he was suspended indefinitely for violating the substance abuse policy. He wasn’t re-instated to the NFL until Week 6 of the 2011 season, had shoulder surgery in January and was released in April when he failed a physical.
Now, all three find themselves on the same team, trying to revive their careers.
“We always joke with each other, saying we have a secondary full of misfits. We have guys that I feel like nobody else wanted in this league,” chuckled cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who four years ago found himself in a similar situation – signed by Washington after Oakland cut him midseason.
“We feel like this group of guys, we might look bad on paper, and guys might rank us bad, but . . . we’re ready to go, and we’re poised and ready to make plays,” Hall said.
Williams had a hardy laugh at Hall’s “misfits” take.
“I won’t call everybody a misfit, but everybody has their own story, as they should,” Williams said. “But hopefully we can all come together and form a story of our own this coming season, playing together.”
Meriweather is the favorite at strong safety. Williams has started at free safety during spring practices and training camp. His top competitor would be Jackson, but Jackson’s recovery from shoulder surgery caused him to miss all but one offseason practice and a calf injury forced him to open training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. He intends to return to the practice field as early as Thursday.
Playing in Washington’s system and next to Williams, Meriweather believes he has once again found a scheme that suits his style and will bring out his best.
“It was hard, trying to find, is it me, or was the team just going in a different direction?” he recalled. “I’m trying to find out how to get back to that level. I think for me, personally, it was going back to the people I knew before; before I got to the league, before, when I was in college and playing at my best. I had to get back to the basics.
Six weeks after Meriweather signed, he was pulled over and arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. The charge was later reduced to reckless driving and was resolved just before the start of training camp.
As he tries to put his troubles in the past, Meriweather has continued to surround himself with mentors such as his uncle, other family members and fellow Miami product Ed Reed. On the field, he has been flying around making tackles and maintaining a steady flow of good-natured trash-talk during 11-on-11 play.
“There are a lot of different things you have to learn and grow up as a professional. Everybody, their stuff comes at different times,” said Meriweather. He remembered something the late Sean Taylor, a former Redskin and Hurricane, told him years ago: “Basically Sean always said, ‘Just be yourself. Use what God gave you to make you good.’ And now I’m starting to bring it back out.”
For Williams, signing with the Redskins marked a homecoming and a reunion with a college teammate.
Born in Sierra Leone, Williams moved with his family to Lanham when he was 9. He played for DuVal High and the University of Maryland. During his final two seasons at Maryland, Williams played in the same secondary as Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson.
Williams and Wilson say even all these years later, their chemistry remains strong. For Williams, that familiarity has helped ease his transition to the Redskins.
“Absolutely, it helps,” Williams says. “I’ve known Josh, played with him. I know how [he] likes to communicate, and certain things he likes to do. That only helps.”
Although they have never played together, Williams and Meriweather have quickly developed chemistry. While Meriweather flies around, barking away, Williams directs traffic, ensuring that his teammates line up in the proper spots.
“We’ve been starters in this league for quite a while now,” Williams says. “That non-verbal communication sometimes is what you need, having the familiarity and playing off one another.”
Meriweather and Williams both say that Jackson should not be overlooked. He followed new secondary coach Raheem Morris from Tampa Bay, so he is familiar with the coach’s philosophies. But with the Redskins playing a different scheme, the sixth-year pro still has much to learn. Being unable to play has proved frustrating.
“It’s hard, man. We’ve got a competitive battle at the safety position,” Jackson said. “I’m anxious to get out there and compete. I definitely have some ground to make up. But I have been getting mental reps, so, hopefully I can hit the ground running.”
The Redskins’ safeties embrace the challenge, well aware that if they perform well, the redemption they seek awaits on the field.
“Any time you come into a new situation, you have to prove yourself, not just to your coaches, but your teammates,” Williams said. “The guys that are out there are looking to see what you’ve got, and hopefully when the live bullets start, those guys can see how we react in the heat of battle.”