The position of safety was anything but a safe haven the last two years, except if you were an attacking opponent. Perhaps it is "safe" to say that the Redskins were asking for it, by signing Brandon Meriweather and Tanard Jackson in 2012.
Both had their issues prior to coming to Washington, and both have failed to make the impact for Jim Haslett and Raheem Morris' secondary so far, for very different reasons.
Meriweather came to DC with quite a lot of baggage but as a two-time Pro Bowler, who was cast as a reckless, talented player with the New England Patriots and a misfit for the Chicago Bears cover two defense under then head coach Lovie Smith. Meriweather didn't make it out of Washington's 2nd preseason game before he was injured that would set off a freakish turn of events over the next year. He re-injured the knee on Labor Day Monday and missed the first few weeks of the season, before getting set to return in Week 4 at Tampa Bay.
He then collided with Aldrick Robinson and almost tore his ACL, but the injury shelved him for another few weeks, before he made a dazzling debut at home against Philadelphia. A game that kick-started the Redskins seven game winning streak that led to the 2012 division championship.
A game that ended with Meriweather out for the season as he did tear an ACL early in the third quarter. Meriweather came back for the 2013 season, only to re-injure himself once again on Labor Day '13 (notice a trend here) and forcing him to miss the disastrous season opener against Philadelphia. Meriweather returned for Week two in Green Bay, knocking out Eddy Lacy and drawing a eventual 42 thousand dollar fine, before knocking himself out (like I said a freakish series of events) for the game with a concussion.
Meriweather was suspended (illegal helmet to helmet hits) for the Redskins loss in Denver, before returning and playing some pretty solid football down the stretch. He was re-signed to a one-year deal and clearly has to prove himself early on this year because of Phillip Thomas' return and potential. I'm told by Redskins sources that Meriweather has had an excellent start to the off-season program and finally "gets it."
What does that mean? Largely nothing, but Meriweather knows that he was a far superior talent than anything the Redskins had over the last two years. That's not the case anymore with the additions the Redskins have made.
Meriweather is expected to start at strong safety, with Ryan Clark still having a little something left in the tank according to Redskins officials. The question is - is how much does he have left?
Clark is 34 and can't possibly be expected to play a thousand plus snaps at an elite level. It just doesn't work that way. Clark's biggest impact? Leadership, character and knowledge of the game, the defense and of life.
You don't have to believe him, but he put it this way last week, "I haven't played with a defensive backfield aside from Troy that is talented as the one we have." He said that straight-faced and it didn't strike me until afterwards if he was talking about the entire secondary or just the safeties. Either way, a bold statement but a leader gets guys to run thru a wall for them.
“I was a captain in Pittsburgh, obviously,” Clark said via CSNWashington.com. “But it’s nothing I try to do. You just be yourself. You come to work. You work hard. You’re professional. You show people that it matters to you, that it means something to you. And that’s all you can do.”
The Redskins defense is rooted in Pittsburgh. That makes the transition back to Washington an easier one for Clark. "One of the things that I was excited about was Coach Haslett and Raheem were excited that they didn't have to teach me that much," Clark told me when I asked him about the similarities.
It's somewhat ironic that Clark will be counted on to lead and help out DeSean Jackson (lockers next to each other) but also fellow safety Tanard Jackson, who is vying for his job.
Clark says he's "setting up a type of safety camp in July, and I've invited him out to come train with me. you don't preach to people. You don't get in front of people and say this is the way you should live your life. All you can do is live yours to the best of your ability and if they can draw pieces from that, that helps them, then that's good for him. It's also good for me to be a blessing for somebody else."
As it stands right now, the Redskins have Meriweather and Phillip Thomas at the strong spot, with Clark ahead of Jackson at the free spot. Sure, positions are interchangeable in this defense, but starting spots are not for the most part.
Jackson was working with the 2nd and 3rd units last Thursday at the Redskins OTA session that the media was allowed to attend, but it is clear that inside the building - the hope is that Jackson is the starter sooner than later.
Still, Jackson hasn't played meaningful football in two years, last playing in a preseason game in late August 2012.
Everybody knows his story and that the odds are stacked against him based on his past, but desperation often provides motivation. Is it his last chance? Of course it is. Everyone knows it and nobody more that more than Tanard. “Most definitely,” Jackson told Kevin Sheehan and myself on ESPN 980 last week. “It’s definitely my last chance. That’s why the opportunity — and to take full advantage of it right now — is very important.”
In that last game that we all saw Jackson play in, everyone could see the athleticism and skill set fully on display that has been held captive for the last 700 or so days.
Jackson has a lot to prove to everyone, and hopes to play with the trademark ruthless aggression he was known for. “I mean, you definitely get that urge, but right now I have to be where I’m at,” Jackson said on ESPN 980 via Dan Steinberg.
Still he's grounded enough to keep the focus on the mission at hand. “And where I’m at right now is in OTAs, and building that camaraderie with guys on this team, and [continuing] to strive for that one goal, which all of us is here for, and that’s to win.”
Jay Gruden heaped some praise on Jackson last week, and another coaching source described his progress quite succinctly telling me via text, "Tanard is awesome." Yet, another coach said from his perspective to pump the breaks a little. Jackson is making good progress, but this story has a long road ahead.
Ideally, the Redskins could have a starting tag-team duo of Jackson and Phillip Thomas at some point this season. Thomas had a dazzling interception in the practice session we were able to see on Thursday, and is fully healthy.
He's raw and has a long way to go in terms of his development because he lost all of last year, but the light was starting to go on in training camp right before his injury in the preseason opener in Tennessee.
One of the knocks against Thomas was his pass coverage ability. He was/is very raw in this area - but made a noticeable jump last August and then seemingly picked up with that theme last week. Coaches are confident that he will continue to make strides and if he can stay healthy, he will be a key cog.
I believe the Redskins will take five safeties to Houston for Week one to have adequate depth at a key flex position. You don't need to have more than five cornerbacks in my eyes, so that would be the mix I expect.
If they take five and assuming the top four are as mentioned above, that leaves one spot for Bacarri Rambo, Trenton Robinson and the young but impressive former Memphis Tigers safety, Akeem Davis.
Robinson was here last year, and stands out on special teams. He did have a busted coverage on a long ball last week that was ultimately blamed on rookie Bashaud Breeland, but on a team that is desperate for ability on specials, Robinson has the lead.
Rambo is Rambo. Unless he makes a dramatic improvement this year in many areas, he has very little chance to make the team.
The guy to keep an eye on is Davis, who is making himself known around Redskins Park with his work ethic, character and strength.
On Saturday, I happened to be at a great charity event hosted by Tyler Polumbus. Davis was working out at Redskins Park where as one source put it - "he never stops. He's a great story."
Davis ran a 4.36 and as the source put it "as soon as he gets it, watch out." Davis has a huge learning curve ahead of him, but I think he will be one of the better prospects in training camp.
He's overcome a blown ACL and the death of his mother, as Gabe Hiatt details here and all that working out is being put to good use.
Davis recently won a Redskins team-wide strong man competition. He beat everyone on the roster including those that out-weigh him significantly. The program was a series of events consisting of "body weight chest press," hammer rows, medicine ball planks, pull up holds and a tread-mill run.
Does that mean anything significant in the grand scheme of things? No, but Davis' emergence is one of the reasons why the Redskins said goodbye so quickly to Jose Gumbs and didn't bring back Reed Doughty.
The bottom-line is this. The Redskins safety group is far from elite, but it is a lot better than they have been the last couple of years. With an improved pass rush, and a better everything in front of them - this is a bunch that will make a noticeable impact.
Chris Russell - SFTheRooster@Yahoo.com - www.twitter.com/russellmania980
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