The Washington Redskins have long been looking for answers in the defensive backfield. Last year, they made some splashes in free agency by bringing in Madieu Williams, Brandon Meriweather, Cedric Griffin and Tanard Jackson. That didn't solve their problems, and so this year—with salary cap constraints playing a role—they turned to the NFL draft to address their issues in the secondary.
Three of their first six draft picks were spent on defensive backs, and all three of those rookies—North Carolina State cornerback David Amerson, Fresno State safety Phillip Thomas and Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo—started Washington's first preseason game Thursday against the Tennessee Titans.
Of course, that doesn't mean they'll all be in the starting lineup when the 'Skins host the Philadelphia Eagles in the season opener on Sept. 9. In fact, that's impossible now that Thomas has gone down for the year with a torn Lisfranc ligament in his left foot. Rambo entered the preseason with a good chance to earn a starting role, but Amerson still takes a back seat to DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson, both of whom didn't play due to injury last Thursday.
Still, it looks as though they'll both be in the mix from the get-go, fighting for reps with guys like Hall, Wilson, Brandon Meriweather, free-agent pickup E.J. Biggers, second-year cover men Richard Crawford and Chase Minnifield, second-year safety Jordan Pugh and veteran safeties Reed Doughty and DeJon Gomes.
Crawford, Gomes and Pugh received a team-high 32 snaps each in the opener, while Rambo, Amerson and Biggers were right there with 28 each. Thomas was limited to seven snaps before getting hurt.
Meriweather had his most extensive practice of the year on Monday, according to ESPN.com's John Keim. The problem is that he has a long history with injuries and there's no telling how long he'll remain healthy for. With Thomas out and Rambo unproven, that's scary.
Thomas couldn't stay on the field in the opener, but neither he nor Amerson made any crucial mistakes. Rambo, who was the lowest pick of the three but has been getting the most attention, had a welcome-to-the-NFL moment against Titans running back Chris Johnson in the open field.
Let's not overreact to the good or the bad and instead focus on what we know. Or at least what we think we know. We think we know that rookie defensive backs usually take more lumps than rookies at other positions.
The reasoning? Getting acclimated to the speed of NFL offenses is extremely tough, and defensive backs spend more time on proverbial islands than anyone else on the field. Pass-rushers can pin their ears back and front-seven run defenders can blend in easier, but corners and safeties are more isolated, and it's a big jump going from the Pac-12 or the SEC to the NFL in a matter of months.
That's probably why a defensive back hasn't won the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award since 1998, and only eight have won it since 1967. In fact, the NFC Pro Bowl roster hasn't contained a rookie defensive back this century, and only three rookie DBs have been named to the Pro Bowl since Charles Woodson got an AFC nod way back in '98.
So history indicates it wouldn't be wise for the 'Skins to rely too heavily on first-year players to help revive that secondary. Here's a breakdown of every rookie defensive back who took at least 25 percent of his team's defensive snaps in 2012:
Only Hayward truly stood out, which is why he was the Defensive Rookie of the Month in October and went on to finish third in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. Beyond that, Smith merely lived up to first-round expectations in Minnesota while pleasant surprises like Trumaine Johnson, Dennard and Wilson were generally trumped by mediocre rookie safeties and corners.
Five teams were listed twice on the above chart, which is something we might see the Redskins accomplish in 2013. Here's how those defenses fared with two rookies playing prominent roles in the backfield in 2012:
Three of those five defenses ranked in the bottom 10 against the pass, but four ranked above the median in terms of points allowed, so it's sort of a mixed bag.
Considering that the Redskins ranked 22nd in points allowed and 30th in passing yards allowed last season, the above chart would seem to indicate that there's a very strong chance they actually improve with a young D.
That's somewhat flawed logic, though. Here's why:
1. While the defenses above improved in eight of the 10 categories observed during their youthful year in the secondary, the 'Skins were already improving quite a bit. While they technically ranked 30th and 22nd in those two areas, they actually ranked 23rd against the pass and 11th in terms of points allowed during the final nine weeks of the 2012 regular season.
2. Every situation is unique, and keep the chicken-or-egg causality dilemma in mind. These teams didn't go heavy on young defensive backs by design, but as a last resort. The Packers had no choice when Sam Shields and Charles Woodson went down. The Pats lost Patrick Chung and shifted McCourty to safety. Chris Cook went down for the Vikings. Biggers, Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald all missed time in Tampa. The Rams were a mess.
The Redskins might end up going young in the defensive backfield this season, and when that happens they might be pleasantly surprised. But that probably shouldn't be their plan of attack at the outset. It's just too risky.