The Washington Redskins defense is in somewhat of a state of flux.
The unit as a whole has been picked on quite a lot in the last two years, and now it's preparing to take the field without longtime leader London Fletcher.
Meanwhile, top pass-rusher Brian Orakpo is working under the franchise tag and the Redskins are counting on a strange potpourri of washed-up veterans and unproven youngsters to help fix the secondary and parts of the front seven.
With organized team activities rolling along, we've now had a chance to get a feel for who might be able to step up and play an increased role within this defense.
Here are three players we're looking at who have the ability to not only replace departed or struggling starters, but also help make this unit better in 2014.
Just as the rookie Robinson was beginning to gain more opportunities in November of 2012, he tore his right pectoral. Then, after recovering from that and with his role expected to increase heading into 2013, he went out and tore his left pectoral in training camp.
Now, with Fletcher gone, the 24-year-old desperately needs both pecs to hold up because it looks like he's the first man up to fill that vacant spot next to Perry Riley.
It’s very early but it seems like Keenan Robinson has the inside track on the inside linebacker spot vacated by London Fletcher. To be sure, in shorts and helmets he’s going to look better than Akeem Jordan and Darryl Sharpton because he knows the defense. And he still has a lot to learn. But Jay Gruden saying that “we have high hopes for Keenan” is telling. He’s the guy they would like to see win the job and it’s likely that he’ll have to fall flat on his face to lose it.
Chris Russell of ESPN 980 also chimed in:
We have said multiple times, including on ESPN 980's the "Sports Fix" on Wednesday, that if Robinson stays healthy (a big if) he will be a starter at one inside spot
"Mentally he’s in good shape. [Inside Linebackers] Coach [Kirk] Olivadotti has done a great job with him getting him up to speed," [Jay] Gruden said. "Physically, he looks excellent to me. He’s running, he’s long and he can run sideline to sideline in pass coverage. He’s disruptive. He gets into zones and is a big guy to throw over. He can cover tight ends, he can cover backs. We have high hopes for Keenan and we love the progress he’s making."
Gruden and the coaches continue to pour praise in on Robinson and that started the first day of mini-camp in late April when Jim Haslett told me the same thing.
Robinson remains a dark horse because he was only a fourth-round pick in the first place and has played just 69 defensive snaps in two seasons.
Plus, he hasn't played in an NFL game in 18 months.
However, Fletcher was doing more harm than good at the very end of his career and Robinson probably brings more range and better cover skills to the table.
That could be huge for the 'Skins defense, because Fletcher and Riley missed a combined 25 tackles last season and were both ranked in the bottom 10 by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) among 55 qualifying inside linebackers, with Fletcher landing in the 55th spot.
It's been two-and-a-half years since the oft-troubled Jackson has played a regular-season NFL game.
The 28-year-old was only recently reinstated from an indefinite suspension related to multiple violations of the league's substance abuse policy, but the Redskins are desperate for help at the safety position and Jackson must know he's on thin ice.
This has to be his last chance.
The good news is he's playing for the veteran minimum, so the Redskins have little to lose gambling on a guy who was once a very reliable starter in Tampa. He's got his former coach with the Buccaneers, Raheem Morris, as his position coach in Washington and don't forget that he also spent two years with Gruden at the start of his career with the Bucs.
Obviously, 2013 draft picks Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo are also dark horses here, but nobody knows what to expect from those guys.
Vets Brandon Meriweather and Ryan Clark are also in the mix, but Meriweather hasn't been trustworthy for half a decade and Clark is, like, 76 years old.
The point is nothing is written in stone at the safety position.
And there sits Jackson, at a prime age and presumably desperate to prove himself. A guy with 56 career starts under his belt. A guy who had five interceptions, two forced fumbles and two defensive touchdowns in only 12 games when he last played a semi-full season in 2009.
|Most picks + forced fumbles, 2009|
|Player||INT + FF||Games||Per game|
|Pro Football Reference|
I know, '09 is a century ago in NFL terms, but he's executed before and has a high enough ceiling to do it again.
I have been dismissive of Tanard Jackson’s chances of making the team. With just 12 games on his ledger since the start of the 2010 season the odds are still against him. But he has impressed during the time since his suspended ended and he has a legitimate shot. ““He doesn’t look like he’s been away for two years,” said Jay Gruden. Jackson will have to play well enough to knock Bacarri Rambo off of the roster since the team is unlikely to keep more than four safeties.
"I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to be back out here after being away from football for two years," Jackson told reporters last week. "I’m just blessed to be in this position."
If he truly has turned a corner off the field, this final chance for Jackson might be extremely beneficial for both him and the team on the field.
Amerson isn't necessarily trying to redeem himself like Jackson or prove that he can stay healthy like Robinson. With that said, a lot more is being placed on the shoulders of the 2013 second-round pick.
That's because Josh Wilson is gone and the Redskins would rather not have to rely on E.J. Biggers or Tracy Porter in full-time starting roles opposite DeAngelo Hall.
Since the start of 2012, only two defenses have given up more passing yards than the Redskins. Last season, this secondary allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 65.6 percent of their passes while giving up 8.0 yards per attempt, which was tied for the second-highest average in the NFL.
Those opposing signal-callers had an average passer rating of 96.1.
Unsurprisingly, Wilson was terrible in coverage. Amerson isn't necessarily being asked to fill clown-sized shoes, but merely replacing Wilson won't be good enough.
The Redskins need this secondary to be better in 2014. Maintaining the status quo can't be the goal. That's why Amerson needs to deliver this year by becoming a reliable cover corner—somebody who can hold things down while Hall gambles.
The North Carolina State product was torched often during the early part of the 2013 season, but he did settle down and put together some respectable performances late in the year.
|David Amerson's rookie season|
|Snaps/game||Yards per attempt||Yards per comp.||30-yard passes|
|First 8 games||51.3||11.0||19.0||5|
|Last 8 games||35.5||5.9||9.9||0|
|Pro Football Focus|
Now he has to pick up where he left off because the guy truly does possess the ability to become a Pro Bowl defensive back, which is something the Redskins haven't had since Hall received the honor in 2010.