by David Elfin

Last year, there was no suspense regarding the Redskins’ first draft pick. Indianapolis was going to choose Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck first overall leaving Washington to select its preferred player, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, at No 2.

The Redskins’ selections of pass rushers Brian Orakpo at No. 13 in 2009 and Ryan Kerrigan at No. 16 in 2011 (after trading down six spots with Jacksonville) weren’t big surprises. Nor was the choice of offensive tackle Trent Williams at No. 4 in 2010.

But when you don’t have a pick until No. 51, as is the case with Washington this year, the choice is much less predictable. I was thrilled to nail the Redskins’ selections of cornerback Tom Carter and defensive end Kenard Lang at No. 17 in 1993 and 1997, respectively. Guessing whom the Redskins will draft 34 spots later is virtually impossible. Coach Mike Shanahan was thrilled when “his guy” was still on the board when Denver made its first choice, 51st overall, in the 2002 draft.

“Sometimes when [No.] 51 comes up, you have your guy,” Shanahan recalled. “One of those guys was [running back] Clinton Portis and I was hoping he would be there. He actually got mad at us because we picked him at 51. He wanted to go in the first round. I said, ‘Clinton, don’t get mad at us. We picked you.’ He said, ‘You should’ve picked me in the first round.’ He said, ‘I’m going to make you very, very happy.’ That’s the kind of mindset when you do pick a guy in the second round, that he feels like he is a first-round guy and he’s going to prove to everybody that he can play. Hopefully you get that kind of guy.”

Given Washington’s crying need at free safety with Tanard Jackson still on an indefinite NFL substance abuse suspension, its lack of salary cap room (if a competent veteran was even available) and its set starting lineup otherwise, it certainly makes sense for Shanahan to find his guy at that position.

Taking a cornerback could be tempting given that Washington’s top three corners, Josh Wilson, DeAngelo Hall and newcomer E.J. Biggers, are all unsigned beyond 2013.

Neither 2012 fill-in starter Tyler Polumbus nor free agent pickups Jeremy Trueblood and Tony Pashos, are as good at right tackle as Pro Bowl pick Trent Williams is on the left side which could sway Shanahan to jump at the right player at that spot.

Starting linebackers London Fletcher, Brian Orakpo and Perry Riley are all due to be free agents next winter with the former likely to retire at 38, making drafting help at that position a priority.

Two of Washington’s top three receivers, Josh Morgan and Santana Moss, soon to be 34, are also unsigned for 2014 as is No. 1 tight end Fred Davis, which means choosing another target for Griffin would be nice.

However given Jackson’s murky status and with Madieu Williams not having been retained after faltering as his replacement, the Redskins really don’t have a free safety on their roster other than September 2012 pickup Jordan Pugh, whom they don’t see as a starter.

Reed Doughty and D.J. Gomes really belong at strong safety where they played when Brandon Meriweather was hurt for all but one game in 2012. Jordan Bernstine, a seventh-rounder last year, went down with a torn ACL in the opener and is probably a special-teamer at best this season. Devin Holland got into four games for Tampa Bay, then coached by current Washington defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, as a rookie in 2011, but was out of the NFL last season.

The top-rated safeties in the draft – Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro and Florida’s Matt Elam were taken last night as was, surprisingly, LSU’s Eric Reid. Florida International’s Johnathan Cyprien also figures to be gone before the 51st choice.

However, Fresno State’s 6-foot, 208-pound Phillip Thomas could be there for the Redskins. Thomas, who led the nation with eight interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns, also forced four fumbles and was credited with 82 tackles, 12 for losses. He played well in the Senior Bowl, an all-star game that the Redskins always value highly, and ran 4.53 on his pro day.

Georgia Southern’s 6-foot, 213-pound J.J. Wilcox has the versatility that Shanahan likes. Wilcox began his college career as a receiver and moved to slotback before switching to safety as a senior. He runs 4.58 and averaged 24 yards on kickoff returns. Some believe that Wilcox could even get a shot at cornerback in the NFL after he played so well in man-to-man coverage at the Senior Bowl.

South Carolina’s D.J. Swearinger, Southern Cal’s T.J. McDonald, Nevada’s Duke Williams and Florida’s Josh Evans are safeties who also figure to be fairly high on Washington’s draft board, but they seem more likely as third-round or even fourth-round selections if Shanahan opts to look to the future at cornerback, linebacker, tight end, receiver or right tackle and gamble that a lower-round pick could step right in and start at free safety as a rookie as Thomas figures to be able to do.

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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