Heading into the offseason, one of the clearest issues in the minds of most Redskins fans was that their team needed a serious upgrade at safety. After designating outside linebacker Brian Orakpo with the franchise tag, Washington went into the free agency signing period in March with around $18 million in salary cap space. There were some decent free agent safeties available in Jairus Byrd, T.J. Ward and Mike Mitchell, among others. Redskins fans hovered around their Twitter feeds and radios, thinking surely their team would snag one of the "premier" guys. Except they didn’t. Hours went by, then days, and soon most of the attractive options were gone.
Brandon Meriweather, last season’s part-time wrecking ball and part-time concussion sufferer, was brought back into the fold, and fans groaned. Talk flew around the internet that Bruce Allen was a clown and had already screwed up the entire 2014 season by sitting around on his thumbs while other teams took action. Ryan Clark came to Ashburn for a much publicized visit. After some flirting and some back-and-forth courting over several weeks, Clark was signed to a contract and there was much rejoicing. Finally, the man who left the Redskins as he was entering the prime of his career to win a Super Bowl in Pittsburgh had returned, as his career was now waning to a close. All the same, his name brought some respect and experience to the defensive secondary. Shortly after, they announced that he had been brought on board to be a starter.
In April, the Redskins made another move to bring in inexperienced journeyman Akeem Davis, but that move was an afterthought as fans geared up for the May draft. Ah yes, the May draft, where surely the team would use one of its picks to do what it failed to do in free agency: bring in a long term solution who could come in and contribute right away at a high level. Then, the day before the draft began, the Redskins brought back Tanard Jackson after cutting him one day prior, following his reinstatement in to the league. This signing also met with snickering and mockery by many fans, and perhaps with good reason, as Jackson had not played football in two seasons thanks to drug suspensions.
Unfortunately during the draft, bigger names like Calvin Pryor, HaSean Clinton-Dix, Jimmie Ward and Deone Bucannon were all gone by the time Washington was supposed to pick at 34. The team went in a different direction in the second round. Then in the third and fourth rounds, as well. Eventually, the entire draft had passed without them selecting a single designated safety. So where do they stand now?
Looking at the Redskins.com website, you will see the following names in addition to the ones we have already listed: Phillip Thomas, Bacarri Rambo, Trenton Robinson and Ross Madison. None of them are particularly encouraging on the surface. Minus fan punching bag and Mr. Everything Reed Doughty, who has still yet to re-sign with the team, and Jose Gumbs, who was a surprise cut following the rookie minicamp this past weekend, the Redskins appear to be in the same spot they were last season.
Except they aren’t in the same spot. If the season began today, Meriweather and Clark, a tandem that sounds like they would have made a good exploration team in the 1800’s (or a terrible 1990’s take on the Superman franchise), would be lining up next to each other as your starting strong and free safeties. I do not have a problem with this. In fact, I find it somewhat comforting. There is no doubt that Meriweather had a bumpy 2013. He couldn’t stay healthy, and when he did, he put himself, and others, in harm’s way by constantly leading with his helmet when tackling. In addition, he put his team in precarious situations and committed costly penalties by leading with said helmet. However, he also created havoc in the defensive backfield and was always around the ball. His impact was felt whenever he played, whether it led to fumbles, interceptions or alligator arms by the receiver. If he can control the dumb mistakes and stay on the field, he can still be very effective. Speaking of playing controlled football, that is what Clark should bring to the table. He is not as fast as he used to be, but he has the intelligence and experience to position himself in good spots on the field and control the action. With him in the defensive backfield directing traffic, I believe it will also help Meriweather to better contain his actions and use them for good instead of evil (penalties).
Here is where we get to the unknowns, and perhaps the players who can benefit most from the Clark acquisition. Phillip Thomas was taken in the fourth round in the 2013 draft out of Fresno State. At the time he was taken, Mike Mayock, draft expert extraordinaire with the NFL Network, said the following: "That is a great pick for the Redskins at this point in the draft. One of the best free safety ball hawks. Heavy production. The kid has a great opportunity to come in and start, and I think he will." Well, he didn’t. In fact, Bacarri Rambo, a sixth round pick out of Georgia, who also had a reputation for being a ball hawk in college, was getting starting reps over him in training camp. Then Thomas suffered a dreaded Lisfranc injury in the first preseason game and never saw the field again. The team used a fourth round pick on him and never really got to see what he could do.
On the opposite spectrum of that was Rambo. Due to the extreme coolness factor of his name, mostly, he was a fan favorite from the start, at least until everyone saw him actually play in a game. While he initially received a lot of reps as a starter, he was exposed early as someone the offense could pick on. He struggled tackling, took terrible angles at the point of attack in run defense, and was soundly beaten too often while trying to cover in the passing game. Other than that, he was fine. However, he did seem to calm down as the season progressed, and is still on this roster. I, for one, am not ready to give up on either one of these two 2013 prospects, and feel at least one more season should be given to them before they are ruled out as busts.
Finally, at least from the standpoint of predicted potential impact (or PPI, which I just made up now), they have Tanard Jackson. In the National Football League, as former coach Mike Shanahan was fond of saying too much, injuries will happen. This is where Jackson can come in and possibly make a positive contribution. His last really good season was in Tampa Bay in 2009, in which he played in 12 games (he missed the first four games due to a drug suspension) and had 71 tackles, 5 interceptions (two for touchdowns), two forced fumbles and eight passes defended. His troubles continued with the drug issues, causing him to miss large parts of the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and he was released by the Buccaneers soon after. He signed on with the Redskins before the 2012 season and played well in the preseason, before he was suspended again. This time, indefinitely, as he was a repeat offender. "Indefinitely" turned into two seasons, and now he will be 29 years old before this upcoming season starts. All that is left are foggy memories of how well he played four years ago. It is unknown if he will use what has happened to him as motivation, but right now, he has a one year league minimum contract to try and prove to everyone that he can still play.
The Redskins go into this season with two veterans, Meriweather and Clark, who hopefully can bring stability and leadership, two second-year men, Thomas and Rambo, who came in with high hopes last season but struggled, Tanard Jackson, a one year reclamation project who has battled demons and is now trying to stay in the league, and then Davis, Robinson and Madison, of whom little is known and little is expected. This could blow up in the faces of Bruce Allen and new head coach Jay Gruden, but as it stands now, these are the players with whom they must go to battle. Washington will have many questions coming into the new year, and many doubters when it comes to safety. I feel however, they have made the right choices based on the hand they were dealt. With this group, a weakness in 2013 could still become a strength in 2014. As is always the case, only time will tell. Call it crazy, but I feel the PPI is strong with them.