Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor had five interceptions in the nine games in which he played during his final season in Washington, the one that was cut short in November 2007 by a knee injury.
In the five full seasons since Taylor was shot to death at 24 that same month, Redskins defensive backs have picked off just 53 passes. That’s just 53 interceptions in 80 games, an average of fewer than 11 per season. Last year, linebackers London Fletcher (five) and Rob Jackson (four) had more and as many picks, respectively, than anyone in Washington’s secondary, of the 636 passes opposing quarterbacks launched.
So cornerback David Amerson and safeties Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo, three of the first six players chosen by the Redskins in last month’s NFL draft, understand why they’re wearing burgundy and gold.
Amerson led the nation with 13 interceptions in 2011 and totaled 18 the past two years for N.C. State. Rambo was second to Amerson with eight picks in 2011 for Georgia and had 11 over the past two seasons despite being suspended for five games. Thomas was the national pacesetter with eight interceptions in 2012 for Fresno State, giving him 11 over his final two college seasons (he missed 2011 with a broken leg). Between the three of them, that’s 40 picks over two years, just 13 fewer than Washington’s DBs managed over the past five years.
“I know they needed a safety who could play the ball in the air,” said Thomas, who picked off a pass and forced a fumble during the final rookie minicamp practice last Sunday. “I’m happy that the Redskins organization chose me to be that safety. I feel I’m going to be the steal of the draft.”
He could be since he’s a leading candidate to start at free safety where expected 2012 starter Tanard Jackson remains on an indefinite NFL suspension and Madieu Williams, last year’s fill-in, wasn’t retained. Thomas will compete with Rambo, holdover backups D.J. Gomes, Jordan Pugh and Jordan Bernstine and ex-Bucs reserve Devin Holland.
“I’m very excited,” Thomas said. “I’m ready to put in the work. I’m ready to bug all the veteran safeties, get the knowledge they have about what they’ve been doing for a while. To get drafted by the team you rooted for your whole life doesn’t happen. I have a great opportunity and I’m not going to waste it.”
Thomas and Rambo are ahead of the game as third-day draft picks because Washington’s defensive scheme is similar to the schemes at Fresno State and Georgia.
“I kinda knew the system because we run the same system at Georgia with [former Redskins linebackers coach Kirk] Olivadotti,” said Rambo, who simply took the football away from the receiver he was covering for his interception this past Sunday. “I just follow the scheme and do what the coaches ask me to do. Once you do that, it allow you to make plays, it allow you to play full-speed. It’s just natural once the ball’s there to go get it and make a play.”
It’s more of a transition for Amerson, who’s behind established starters Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall as well as 2012 Tampa Bay regular E.J. Biggers and maybe even last year’s fourth corner, Richard Crawford, on the depth chart. But Amerson is happy to be learning from coordinator Jim Haslett and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris.
“The defense is very corner-friendly,” Amerson said. “At N.C. State, our corners were often out on an island. But here, you’ve got a lot of help over the top, so you can be aggressive when it comes to jumping routes and things like that, and that’s how I love to play.”
Of course, as Hall as shown over the years, playing aggressively doesn’t only produce picks, it helps produce big plays for the opposition. But in May, everything is rosy for the Redskins and their new good-hands kids.
“It was real impressive to see their size and their quickness and their speed,” head coach Mike Shanahan said. “Their ball skills were very evident out there over the last few days. We do a lot of different things with our secondary and we put a lot of pressure on them mentally as well as physically.”
No pressure, right, rooks?
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.