Reporting David Elfin
It has been a decade since the Redskins headed to training camp with both starting safety spots truly open.
In 2003, Ifeanyi Ohalete was coming off a solid first season as a Washington regular. The next spring, the Redskins drafted Sean Taylor fifth overall. Ryan Clark played well enough in 2004 to be a sure thing alongside Taylor the next year. Over-priced free agent Adam Archuleta was going to be Taylor’s partner in 2006 with sixth overall pick LaRon Landry following suit in 2007. And Landry remained a fixture the past four years.
However, the Redskins didn’t try to re-sign the oft-injured Landry this offseason while cutting his latest partner, Oshiomogho Atogwe. As they were leaving, free agents Brandon Meriweather, Tanard Jackson and Madieu Williams and seventh-round selection Jordan Bernstine were coming aboard to join veteran Reed Doughty and second-year man DeJon Gomes, who started next to each other during the final four games of 2011.
“Is it wide-open?” said Doughty, who led Washington safeties with 11 starts last season, his sixth with the Redskins. “I don’t know. Brandon, obviously, they brought in to start.”
That’s not so obvious to Meriweather, who was let go last summer by New England after a second consecutive Pro Bowl season in 2010 and who was a backup with Chicago last year.
“Everything totally wide-open, don’t nobody have a job yet,” said the 28-year-old former University of Miami star, who fell out of favor with his other teams with his freelancing ways and borderline hits.
However, Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said that of the three free agent newcomers, Meriweather is the one who fits his system the best with his nose for the ball.
Williams, 30, had been a regular for eight years with Cincinnati and Minnesota before playing in a reserve role with San Francisco last season. Although the 49ers reached the NFC Championship Game, the graduate of DuVal High and Maryland decided to come home and battle to start for a team that has finished last in the NFC East four years running.
“It provided an opportunity for me to come out here and compete,” Williams said. “I want to be on the field and contribute. Hopefully, I’ll get that opportunity here.”
Haslett said that although Williams has only been working in the defense for two months, he’s “kind of like having a coach on the field.”
Jackson, who’ll be 27 next month, is also coming home, having played at Bullis. But after being cut by Tampa Bay, Jackson is more thrilled to be reunited with former Bucs coach Raheem Morris, who’s now in charge of the Redskins’ secondary.
“Coach Morris being here was a huge factor for me,” said Jackson, who missed much of the offseason while rehabbing knee and shoulder injuries but still prompted Haslett to rave about his athleticism. “Right after I was released, I got a call from the Redskins and it was a no-brainer for me. It’s a very competitive situation. It should bring out the greatness in all of us. We’ve all got chips on our shoulders so the Redskins are going to get the best out of all of us.”
Those chips are more like rocks.
Meriweather wants to prove the Patriots and Bears wrong while rewarding the Redskins for sticking with him after he was arrested on a DUI charge less than six weeks after signing with Washington.
Jackson, who was suspended for the first four games of 2009 and then for a year beginning in September 2010 after failing multiple drug tests, wants to demonstrate that he can stay clean and that the Bucs were wrong to let him go.
Williams wants to show that he’s still an NFL starter after being an afterthought with the 49ers in 2011.
And one-time sixth-round draft pick Doughty, who has always been doubted, is out to fool the skeptics for yet another year.
“If you don’t think you’re competing for your job, if you think you’re safe, you’re fooling yourself,” said the 29-year-old Doughty. “I come out here every single year with something to prove.”
And that goes for the entire group of safeties, who don’t want to be the defense’s weak link as they were last season.
“I think we held our own, but there could have been a higher level of play for sure,” Doughty said of a quartet that produced just three interceptions (all by Atogwe), 14 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 2011. “There was a lot of uncertainty about who was going to be playing: ‘Are guys hurt? Are they out?’ I don’t think we lost any games, but we didn’t win any either. We need to make more plays on the back end.”
Which ultimately is why Landry and Atgowe are gone and Meriweather, Jackson and Williams are here.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin