by David Elfin

The Redskins were in an odd position at the just-completed NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Not only is Washington without a first-round draft choice for the first time in five years, it’s coming off its first NFC East title-winning season in 13 and has a young quarterback it believes in for the first time in 16.

Coach Mike Shanahan has to feel very good about his top-ranked running game, a passing game that should be improved if quarterback Robert Griffin III (knee) and receivers Pierre Garcon (toe) and Josh Morgan (ankle, hands) are fully recovered from their respective injuries, and if tight end Fred Davis re-signs and is 100 percent after Achilles tendon surgery.

If captain London Fletcher, a Pro Bowl inside linebacker four years running, returns for a 16th season at 38, the fifth-ranked run defense should remain solid.

Special teams coach Danny Smith is gone and Pro Bowl coverage ace Lorenzo Alexander is unsigned 12 days from the start of free agency, but Smith’s successor, Keith Burns, helped run Denver’s third-ranked coverage units in 2012 and kid kicker Kai Forbath, senior citizen punter Sav Rocca and proven snapper Nick Sundberg should all be back.

So in none of these areas will the Redskins lament their lack of a first-round pick in April’s draft courtesy of the trade that enabled them to draft Griffin second overall last year.

But then there’s the pass defense, the lone area of his team that probably has kept Shanahan up at night since the 2012 season ended with a wild card playoff loss to Seattle.

Only Philadelphia was torched for more touchdown passes (33) than Washington’s 31. New Orleans and Tampa Bay allowed more passing yards than Washington’s 4,720. The Redskins finished 24th in yards allowed per pass while surrendering 60 completions of at least 20 yards, 21 of at least 30 yards and nine of more than 50 yards.

Losing expected free safety Tanard Jackson at the end of preseason to a year-long suspension for yet another failed drug test was a blow. So was expected strong safety Brandon Meriweather’s series of knee injuries which limited him to a little more than 30 minutes on the field all season. Nickel corner Cedric Griffin was suspended for the final four games for his own substance abuse issues.

But there were no such excuses for three-time Pro Bowl pick DeAngelo Hall, who didn’t play well until the final weeks, or fellow starting cornerback Josh Wilson, who got beaten often, too.

All told, it was just an ugly debut for defensive back coach Raheem Morris, the former Buccaneers head man. A healthy Meriweather should help in 2013, but the Redskins also need Hall – still just 29 after nine NFL seasons – to make his contract more salary cap-friendly and to bounce back in a big way. If Hall declines a pay cut, Washington needs to draft a starter-ready corner in the second or third rounds or figure out a way to pay a free agent such as Atlanta’s Brent Grimes or Philadelphia’s Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie, given the $18 million penalty assessed by the NFL for alleged cap shenanigans in 2010. New England’s Aqib Talib has had his own substance abuse woes which should make the Redskins think twice about pursuing him.

Free safety has to be just as big a priority for Shanahan and Co. Madieu Williams was lousy last season and shouldn’t return. Drafting a free safety in the second round seems like a no-brainer unless replacing Hall becomes mission one. San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson and Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd are the top free agents, not counting Hall of Fame lock Ed Reed, who’ll be 35 in September.

In an offseason in which so much attention has been focused on RGIII’s surgically repaired right knee, the Redskins can’t take the next step towards a championship without fixing the problems on the back end of their defense that bedeviled them in 2012.

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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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