If the Redskins' defense wants to improve, they must do so in the back end -- not just with coverage skills, but with consistent tackling. That's why safety -- free and strong -- will be at or near the top of their to-do list.
Why it’s a need: Well there were some issues as you might have heard. But along with that their main starters, Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty, are free agents. Even if one or both are re-signed, the Redskins will still have a need at this position. Doughty is still best used as a backup and key special teamer -- I'd bring him back for that season -- while Meriweather should only be a short-term solution.
In house options: That’s the problem; the Redskins lack a strong alternative. I liked where Phillip Thomas was headed as a rookie, though I don’t know if he would have become a starter. The problem is, he had Lisfranc surgery and that can be difficult to overcome. Will he be able to push off with the same power? It’s an injury that can be tougher for skill position players because of how they must cut. He’s a smart player, but it’ll be tough to expect him to be able to start. Bacarri Rambo showed that he’s not ready to start. Jose Gumbs will return, but he’s a special teamer.
Free agent options: The top safeties available are Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd and Cleveland’s T.J. Ward – who play free and strong, respectively. Byrd is terrific, thanks to his ability to read quarterbacks so well and anticipate plays. He broke up passes from spots that I haven’t seen any safety break up here in a while. Byrd is excellent in the deep middle and rarely played up near the line of scrimmage, as much a function of scheme as ability. He’d allow the Redskins to use a lot more eight-man fronts and man coverage. Buffalo won’t re-sign him and he will be expensive. Ward is more an in-the-box safety, but he can play deep as well. Cleveland ran the same 3-4 style of defense Washington uses, so Ward would be a good fit if the Browns let him walk. Carolina’s Mike Mitchell is on the Redskins’ list. He’s not as accomplished as the other two, but is coming off his best season. The Panthers’ defense played better when he was moved to free safety. But was last year a fluke or the start of something; at times he can get too high on his tackles. He also was fined five times last season for hits and can be a bit talkative. But the Panthers consider him a priority to re-sign.
Draft options: Finding a veteran is a must because of what’s needed to learn about this position in the NFL. It’s a tough transition for safeties, especially those chosen after the first round. But there are good options for a team that could use a good young safety. My favorite (without doing a ton of draft prep) for the second round is Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward. I like how he runs through players when he tackles. He’s aggressive with good coverage skills; that versatility always works well. Other safeties who should be around in the middle rounds: Virginia Tech’s Antone Exum; USC’s Dion Bailey (who played some strongside linebacker in college) and Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon, a physical in-the-box player. I don’t know if he’d be able to play both safety spots, however.
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