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Training Camp Primer: Safety Dance

Can Dejon Gomes challenge for a starting spot this preseason?
Can Dejon Gomes challenge for a starting spot this preseason?

Last year we had a "Rosters Battles" series throughout training camp discussing who is above and below the cut line. Dan and myself will be partaking in the same series this year, but first we have to handicap the race(s). We had to talk about it sooner or later. It’s one of those things that Redskins fans prefer not to address for a number of reasons, especially amidst that "what could have been" feeling left looming over Landover by the Sean Taylor tragedy and the departure of Laron Landry. But the fact is, until that level of potential in the defensive backfield can be reproduced, it will be difficult for anyone in the DC area to talk about. Adding onto that disappointment, the Redskins addressed that need at safety with three free agents who have dogged-it over the last few seasons, although potential to emerge from that under-performance is definitely there. With training camp less than a month away, it should make for a tightly contested battle over who will get the nod. Here’s how we think it stacks up so far:

Free Safety

1) Tanard Jackson: Goodness, did he put up some horrendous numbers in 2011. As quickly as stat-heads like myself point out that Jackson attempted 57 tackles and missed a whopping 24 of them, fans will point-out that he dealt with a torn rotator cuff for the majority of the season. This is a valid point, but unfortunately, Jackson’s tackling issues predate his injury history. Jackson missed 11 tackles in 2008, and 17 in 2009 despite missing the first five games due to suspension. Because health reasons played a part in him being cut by Tampa Bay, it’s tough to imagine that he’ll deviate far from his average of missing a tackle for every two he attempts. We’ll have to see how he feels within the next coming months.

The silver lining in all of that is that free safeties don’t typically earn their paychecks from wrapping up ball-carriers, but from being omnipresent in coverage. Jackson has been known to have a high ceiling when it comes to this, and has shown flashes of being a dominant force in that department during the earlygoings of his career. The unfortunate aspect in all of this, of course, is having to keep a watchful eye on Jackson’s health going forward. At a healthy state, he’s the best cover safety the Redskins have right now.

And that scares the crap out of me.

Parks: I certainly think this a two man battle for the starting spot with loser being cut, those two guys are Jackson and Madieu Williams. Jackson is in the lead right now just because of his experience with Raheem "The Dream" Morris.

2) DeJon Gomes: Luckily, Gomes provides good depth and insurance at either safety position in case guys like Jackson or Brandon Meriweather/Reed Doughty aren’t able to go. Gomes should see his share of sub packages throughout the season and could be a solid replacement if the Redskins are in need of a spot starter. Gomes got valuable experience a season ago starting five games, though his consistency in pass-coverage was a bit off. That said, Gomes demonstrated some important versatility and did nothing to really discourage anyone about his future prospects in the NFL. Personally, I’d love to see him with the team for a very long time.

Parks: While I don't think Gomes is competing for a starting spot per say, he's a lock to make the team. He's a very capable back up that needs to continue to develop. I do think we'll see plenty of him in particular packages, like you said. Don't forget that Gomes also put in some time at the nickle at Nebraska. His versatility could be a huge plus for the Skins.

3) Madieu Williams: It’s nice to have veteran depth on the roster, but I’d be disappointed if Williams’ role this season becomes anything more than that. If it does, that means the Redskins are in serious trouble. It appears Williams’ best years are behind him, as he’s been a continual liability in coverage since leaving Cincinnati.

But then again, Williams is coming from Minnesota’s Tampa 2 defense, which is a difficult scheme for safeties to succeed in as a whole. It essentially left Williams and his counterparts very susceptible to allowing high-low route combinations and speedy sideline receivers to dismantle the Vikings secondary. There certainly could be something to be said for Williams’ struggles within those confines, and that his responsibilities in the Redskins’ scheme may better-suit his skill set. Still, that’s not a responsibility I’d feel comfortable divvying-out to Williams during a regular season game at this point.

Parks: I love that this is another local project for Bruce Allen. Williams is past his prime, but hopefully his experience and work ethic rubs off on some of the youngsters in this impressionable secondary. He's a great guy to have in camp.

Strong Safety:

1) 1) Reed Doughty: I’m new to Hogs Haven, so Parks, you’ll have to remind me of the ol’ saying here. "Death, taxes, and Reed Doughty getting burned in coverage" are the three inevitabilities here? I can’t say I disagree with any of those three, but let’s give Reed some credit here.

In a league that is pretty thin at the safety position, Doughty has provided a great in-the-box presence versus the run. In 2009, Pro Football Focus gave him the highest cumulative run grade among all safeties despite playing in only 655 snaps, and it wasn’t even close (on average, a starting safety who plays a full season hovers around 1000 or so snaps). Since then, however, Doughty’s hovered around the league average. What’s more alarming is that Doughty had a pretty miserable 2011 campaign across the board, even in categories that he usually thrives in. He missed 11% of his tackles from a season ago after never missing more than 6.8% in seasons prior to that. Those season totals are pretty dreadful, but from a game-by-game basis, the story is a little different. At the end of the day, when Doughty’s at his best, he’s a decent starting caliber NFL safety, but at his worst he is flat-out dismal. That awfulness was on full-display four times last season versus Miami, New York Giants twice, and during the finale at Philadelphia. Doughty must get back to his 2009 form if the Redskins want to be competitive, because they just can’t afford awful safety play in a quarter of their games.

2) Parks: Yep, that's definitely a sign posted over the mantle of the Meringolo household. Reed gets a lot of flack and is the Rodney Dangerfield of Ashburn, but he is a solid backup and I'm happy to have him. I think right now he's ranked #1 just as a call out to Meriweather and as a result of the DUI. He'll slip back into the backup role, but who the heck is going to start?

1) 2) Brandon Meriweather: Again, like Williams, Meriweather is likely better in a role as far away from the Tampa 2 coverage scheme as possible. Being disciplined in the deeper parts of the field of play has never been Meriwether’s strong suit, but he did show marked improvement in the run game despite a forgettable season in Chicago a year ago. Per Pro Football Focus, Meriweather registered a stop on 10% of his run snaps, which placed him in the top 10 among all safeties in the NFL. Because of Meriwether’s high ceiling, I’m sure the Redskins would love for him to be the answer at strong safety, but both on and off the field issues of recent years likely means that we won’t see Meriwether as a starter sooner than later.

Parks: Man… I hope this guy can rekindle something from his Pro Bowl years with the Pats, but it just doesn’t seem like he gets it. His improvements in the run game may be a good sign he’s ready to turn it round, but this safety situation is looking like the wild west. One thing is for sure… "soon to be showcased live"

2) 3) Jordan Bernstein: Bernstein was another in-the-box thumper coming out of college, but if he wants to make the team, he’s likely going to need to do so through special teams. His chances of even making the team appear to be low, as the Redskins aren’t likely to hold a ton of safeties if they insist on bringing four running backs and another log jam at receiver onto their opening day roster.

Parks: I like the pick and his ability to play up in the box (hopefully better than Kevin Barnes). I do think Bernstein starts on the practice squad then we could see him later in the year.

3) 4) Travon Bellamy: Like Bernstein, he’s going to have to prove his versatility on special teams if he’s going to earn a roster spot. But unlike Bernstein, the Redskins didn’t use a draft pick on him, which makes him all the more expendable.

Parks: Who?

Parks (again): No really…who? On behalf of Hogs Haven I’d like to welcome Dan to the team. He will certainly be a valuable contributor to the community and our HH staff. Give Dan a follow on twitter @PFF_Dan