Washington Redskins: Defensive Position-by-Position and Depth-Chart Breakdown
The Washington Redskins defense is still a work in progress.
General manager Bruce Allen did a nice job of adding depth to the unit this offseason. Allen also made a concerted effort to add more pass-rushers through the draft and free agency.
Washington still needs a few surprises to emerge if it expects to have a playoff-caliber defense in 2014. With training camp around the corner, let's examine each defensive position and what the depth chart may look like come September.
Starter: Barry Cofield
Notable backups: Chris Baker, Chris Neild
After missing OTAs and minicamp this offseason to undergo and recover from hernia surgery, nose tackle Barry Cofield told The Washington Post's Mark Maske that he'll be ready for training camp later this month.
The return of Cofield will be a welcome sight for the Redskins defense, but the fact remains that at 6'4'', 303 pounds, he's still an undersized nose tackle.
Cofield didn't have a problem rushing the passer last season. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave him a pass-rushing grade of 12.3, good for sixth in the league among nose and defensive tackles.
Stopping the run was another story. Cofield's PFF run-defense grade was a minus-12.3—No. 61 of the 69 players graded at his position.
Cofield's backup, Chris Baker (6'2'', 325 lbs), will certainly see snaps at nose, but his versatility will allow for him to potentially start at defensive end, too. Three-year man Chris Neild is also on the roster. He saw action in eight games last season.
Learn more about PFF grades.
Projected starters: Jason Hatcher, Chris Baker
Notable backups: Stephen Bowen, Jarvis Jenkins, Kedric Golston
Defensive end Jason Hatcher may end up being the Redskins' most important free-agent signing this offseason.
Hatcher, who was a defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense with the Dallas Cowboys, is fresh off his best season as a pro. Eight of his 11 sacks in 2013 came against NFC East opponents. Pro Football Focus graded Hatcher as the eighth-best player at his position.
Last month, Hatcher underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, which could put his availability for training camp in limbo, per ESPN.com's John Keim.
Another player hoping to come back strong from injury is Stephen Bowen. Bowen underwent microfracture surgery last December and will likely battle Baker for a starting position in training camp.
Expect defensive coordinator Jim Haslett to rotate his defensive linemen early and often this season. The wear and tear on older vets like Kedric Golston, Bowen, Hatcher and Cofield means that the younger guys (Baker, Jarvis Jenkins) must make meaningful contributions.
Projected starters: Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan
Notable backups: Trent Murphy, Brandon Jenkins, Rob Jackson
The strength of the Redskins defense is no doubt at outside linebacker.
Brian Orakpo returns to the team this season on essentially a one-year "prove it" deal. After missing almost all of 2012 with a torn pectoral muscle, Orakpo logged 10 sacks in 2013. Pro Football Focus graded him as the fourth-best outside linebacker in football last season.
Ryan Kerrigan is just plain consistent. Kerrigan has never missed a start in his three-year career. He had 7.5 sacks as a rookie and followed that up with back-to-back 8.5-sack seasons. He also has 15 career pass deflections.
The depth behind Orakpo and Kerrigan is promising. Rookie Trent Murphy has a high motor similar to Kerrigan's. The Redskins have been playing Murphy at various positions this offseason, according to ESPN.com's Keim:
The Redskins' second-round pick lined up at left outside linebacker in the two practices open to the media. Gruden loves Murphy’s variety of moves. And he likes the ability to use him as a third linebacker and play him in different spots – in college he rushed from a standup position on both sides, through the middle, and also from a four-point stance.
Brandon Jackson is another player to watch in training camp. Per Keim, linebackers coach Brian Baker said that Jackson has shown the most improvement this offseason.
The Redskins also brought back veteran Rob Jackson. Jackson filled in admirably for Orakpo in 2012 and hauled in a huge interception in Week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys that season to win the NFC East.
Projected starters: Perry Riley Jr., Keenan Robinson
Notable backups: Akeem Jordan, Darryl Sharpton, Adam Hayward
With London Fletcher gone, the Redskins are hoping they won't miss a beat with two young, promising players filling the void.
Washington re-signed Perry Riley Jr. this offseason, a priority considering his familiarity with Haslett's defense. Riley wasn't spectacular in 2013, but in his defense, you'd be hard-pressed to find many bright spots on any 3-13 team.
Keenan Robinson could be the shot in the arm that the D desperately needs in '14. At 6'3'', 238 pounds, Robinson has great size and athleticism, but he has been injury-riddled during his first two seasons in the NFL. In late May, The Washington Post's Mike Jones detailed Robinson's impressive offseason:
Robinson has done well in classroom sessions and on-field workouts this offseason. And during this week's three days of practices, he lined up with the first team, playing at Fletcher’s old “mike” linebacker spot next to “jack” linebacker Perry Riley Jr., who returns for his fourth season as a starter and last season led Washington in tackles.
In an effort to provide further depth at inside linebacker, the Redskins also signed Akeem Jordan, Darryl Sharpton and Adam Hayward in free agency.
Jordan started 10 games for the Kansas City Chiefs last season and is stout against the run. Sharpton started eight games for the Houston Texans in '13. Hayward, formally of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is viewed as more of a special teams player.
Projected starters: DeAngelo Hall, David Amerson
Notable backups: Tracy Porter, Bashaud Breeland, Richard Crawford, E.J. Biggers, Chase Minnifield
Another offseason priority for the Redskins was to re-sign veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Hall has been with the team since 2008 and started every game since 2010. Washington is hoping Hall's experience and big-play ability will rub off on its other starting corner, David Amerson.
While Amerson had an up-and-down rookie season, he did show promise. ESPN.com's Keim took notice of Amerson's size and improvement during minicamp.
One player who's yet to have seen the practice field this offseason is Tracy Porter, who underwent shoulder surgery this offseason. Porter was signed as a free agent in March. He is expected to be the Redskins' No. 3 corner when training camp begins.
Rookie Bashaud Breeland could push Porter for snaps, but his main focus will be special teams. E.J. Biggers, Richard Crawford and Chase Minnifield will all be competing for a roster spot.
This is a thin group, probably the most vulnerable of all the defensive positions. They can get by, though, if Amerson makes a sizable leap in his second year and Porter can stay healthy.
Projected starter: Brandon Meriweather
Notable backup: Phillip Thomas
The good news for the Redskins is that added depth will now allow for Brandon Meriweather to play his natural position this season, strong safety. Meriweather had to play both strong and free in 2013.
The bad news is that the NFL has a close eye on Meriweather. Another illegal hit likely means a lengthy suspension.
Should Meriweather miss any time this season, the spotlight will be shining brightly on second-year player Phillip Thomas. Thomas missed all of last season with a foot injury and is a player to watch during training camp and the preseason.
The Redskins had high hopes for Thomas when they drafted him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft. CSNWashington.com's Tarik El-Bashir thinks Thomas will break out in 2014:
Thomas (6-1, 223) is now healthy and he proved that by making a handful of impressive plays during OTAs and minicamp. And although he worked almost exclusively with the second team unit this offseason behind starters Brandon Meriweather and Ryan Clark, it wouldn’t be a completely surprise if he replaces one of them--and sooner rather than later.
Projected starter: Ryan Clark
Notable backups: Tanard Jackson, Bacarri Rambo
The offseason signing of Ryan Clark could give Washington the much-needed punch it was lacking last season at free safety.
Clark, 34, may have left his best days in Pittsburgh, but his leadership cannot be understated. His experience will be key, especially in big games.
The Redskins also signed Tanard Jackson, who hasn't played in the NFL since 2011 due to multiple suspensions. Jackson appears to be taking this opportunity seriously, and head coach Jay Gruden has been impressed:
Gruden on S Tanard Jackson: "He doesn't look like he's been away for two years." Said he's in great shape and "has done a great job."— Washington Redskins (@Redskins) May 29, 2014
Then there's Bacarri Rambo, who struggled equally against the pass and run during his rookie season. Of the 86 safeties that Pro Football Focus graded in 2013, Rambo was No. 79.
Clark is the clear-cut starter in this group, but the wild card is Jackson. ESPN's Louis Riddick thinks Jackson could do big things in '14 if everything breaks right:
Darkest of dark-horses that could have a major impact IF..IF he can do the right thing/stay clean & out of trouble:'Skins SAF Tanard Jackson— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) June 10, 2014
The Redskins secondary as a whole isn't going to strike fear into anyone, but it's hard to argue that the unit is worse off than it was last season.