Reporting David Elfin
When the Redskins bypassed Fresno State’s Phillip Thomas and some other top college safeties and took N.C. State cornerback David Amerson with their first pick (51st overall) in the 2013 draft, I couldn’t disagree too strenuously. After all, while free safety was Washington’s biggest need, its top three corners – DeAngelo Hall, Josh Wilson and E.J. Biggers – are unsigned beyond this season so Amerson could be a regular as soon as 2014.
However, when the Redskins skipped over Thomas again with their second selection (85th overall) in favor of Florida tight end Jordan Reed, I couldn’t believe it. While Reed has potential and Washington starter Fred Davis is coming off a torn Achilles and is unsigned for 2014, coach Mike Shanahan is always praising third-string tight end Niles Paul and the club just re-signed second-stringer Logan Paulsen for three years. A fourth-string tight end over a leading candidate to start at free safety?
But, of course, Shanahan wound up looking very smart when Thomas was still on the board for Washington to grab with its third pick (119th overall). And just like that, the Redskins owned the nation’s interceptions leaders from 2011 (Amerson with 13, one shy of the Division I record) and 2012 (Thomas with eight).
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Then for good measure, Washington selected Georgia’s talented but troubled (supposedly formerly troubled) safety Bacarri Rambo in the sixth round to give Thomas and veterans Reed Doughty, D.J. Gomes and Jordan Pugh and 2012 seventh-rounder Jordan Bernstine even more competition at the spot that the Redskins hoped Tanard Jackson would fill before he was suspended by the NFL for substance abuse on the eve of the 2012 season, an indefinite sentence that remains in effect.
Roy Helu’s inability to stay healthy since early December 2011 and Evan Royster’s so-so season as Alfred Morris’ backup in 2012 prompted the selections of running backs Chris Thompson from Florida State (fifth round) and Jawan Jamison of Rutgers (seventh) while Thompson’s college teammate, linebacker Brandon Jenkins, was picked with the fifth-rounder that Washington obtained from New England in exchange for malcontent defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth in 2011.
While the Redskins haven’t had a ballhawking safety like the 6-foot-, 208-pound Thomas since the late Sean Taylor in 2007, the 6-1, 205-pound Amerson is a high-risk, high-reward corner in Hall’s mold.
“He’s a guy that we feel can play in off coverage, can play in bump coverage,” Shanahan said. “He’s got the speed that you look for. He’s got some length, a guy we thought would fit into our system very well. He’s come up with some big interceptions throughout his career.”
While Shanahan was high on Amerson, he was even more effusive about Thomas, whom he expects to push to start this season.
“He does a great job adjusting to the football,” Shanahan said. “He had a lot of interceptions. That was one key. The next key is that he’s not afraid to hit people. He would support the run. He played a lot of different coverages that we play. He was very quick mentally. I think for a guy like Phillip [the transition to the NFL will] be a little bit easier because he ran a very similar system to what we have.“
Washington picked off just 14 passes – six by Hall – in Shanahan’s 2010 debut season while finishing 6-10 with a minus-4 turnover ratio.
The Redskins slipped to 5-11 in 2011, in part because of a minus-14 turnover ratio that included just 13 interceptions. Free safety Oshimogho Atgowe led the way with only three.
Last year, Washington rocketed to 10-6 and the NFC East title with a plus-17 turnover ratio that included 21 interceptions. And yet, it was 37-year-old inside linebacker London Fletcher, who paced the defense with five picks, one more than Hall and outside linebacker Rob Jackson produced. All of Washington’s safeties combined for only four while the corners other than Hall managed just three.
That helps explain why Amerson, who had five interceptions in 2012, and Thomas, who totaled 11 interceptions and six forced fumbles in his two years as a college starter, were two of the Redskins’ first three choices this past weekend.
“Usually the teams that excel in turnovers, they win championships,” Shanahan said. “If it’s not Super Bowls, it’s getting into the playoffs. That will always be an emphasis [for us]. These guys have come up with a lot of turnovers, [which is] one of the reasons [why] they were drafted where they were.”
Make that whom they were drafted by, Mike.
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