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The Redskins slipped from 21st in points allowed in the NFL in 2011 to 22nd in 2012. However, coordinator Jim Haslett’s defense took a big step back in terms of yards surrendered, falling from 13th to 28th.
In response, Washington didn’t add any expected new starters. However, Haslett will welcome back his best pass rusher, Brian Orakpo, and his most proven safety, Brandon Meriweather, while holding out hope that Adam Carriker, who had a career year in 2011 will eventually return from the long-ailing right leg that halted the left defensive end’s 2012 season in Week 2 and on which he just had a third surgery in 10 months.
That was also the week that two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Orakpo went down for the year with a torn left pec after previously hurting it in the second preseason game. That was the night that Meriweather, a two-time Pro Bowl pick signed as a free agent in March 2012, suffered the first of three injuries to his right knee that would ultimately limit his Washington debut to less than three quarters in Week 11.
Carriker was replaced by Jarvis Jenkins, who had missed his entire rookie year of 2011 with a torn ACL and took most of 2012 to find his way. Without Orakpo playing behind him, right end Stephen Bowen didn’t repeat his strong Washington debut from 2011. However, Barry Cofield, another 2011 free agent signee, continued to be a rock at nose tackle for the NFL’s fifth-ranked rush defense.
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Former starting end Kedric Golston remains a valuable reserve while Chris Neild, Cofield’s backup as a rookie in 2011, and Chris Baker, who replaced Neild when the latter tore an ACL last August, will compete for that role this summer along with Ron Brace, formerly with New England.
Phillip Merling, a one-time hot prospect who failed to produce in 50 games with Miami and Green Bay, has the inside track to be the No. 4 end as long as Carriker remains sidelined.
Orakpo’s return makes the linebackers Haslett’s top unit. London Fletcher was chosen for his fourth straight Pro Bowl last year inside at 37 while Ryan Kerrigan was selected for his first outside at 24. Fletcher picked off a career-high five passes last year and, as always, led his team in tackles despite missing plenty of practice time after mid-season Despite seeing way more double teams in Orakpo’s absence, Kerrigan recorded eight and a half sacks.
Fletcher’s protege Perry Riley isn’t as flashy inside but made nearly as many tackles as his mentor along with three and a half sacks in his first full year as a starter. Orakpo was back to 100 percent this spring as he aims for a return to his playmaking form and a rich, long-term contract in 2014.
Rob Jackson, who had barely played during his first four years, replaced Orakpo in 2012 and provided four and a half sacks and four interceptions including the one that clinched the NFC East title. However, he’ll miss the first four games of 2013 while serving a substance abuse suspension for a pain medication opening the door for free agent signee Darryl Tapp, fifth-round draft choice Brandon Jenkins and perhaps December pickup Vic So’oto to fill the role of top outside reserve.
Keenan Robinson was starting to see some playing time as a rookie inside before he tore a pec in Week 12. Veteran Bryan Kehl, who was cut last August before being re-signed after Thanksgiving, will also compete for a backup job as will Roddrick Muckelroy, who played with Orakpo and Robinson at Texas.
Haslett’s biggest headache during his first three years in Washington was unquestionably the secondary and that might not change in 2013 despite Meriweather’s return, the signing of former Tampa Bay starting cornerback E.J. Biggers and the selection of corner David Amerson and safeties Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo in the draft.
The Redskins surrendered 31 touchdown receptions in 2012 with 21 catches of at least 30 yards and 60 of at least 20 yards. The absence of expected starting safeties Tanard Jackson to a still-ongoing drug suspension at the end of preseason and Meriweather certainly was a major blow, but three-time Pro Bowl corner DeAngelo Hall didn’t play that well until the critical finale against the Cowboys. Josh Wilson, who starts camp on the physically unable to perform list while recovering from shoulder surgery, is really a No. 2 corner who has been forced into the No. 1 role because of Hall’s dropoff.
Madieu Williams, who was supposed to be a reserve, became the starting free safety and wasn’t re-signed after a disappointing year. Reed Doughty, a sixth-rounder in 2006 who makes his money on special teams, is always on the verge of getting cut because he’s not great in coverage but always winds up starting the majority of games because of circumstances, his smarts and his solid play in run defense
Biggers was signed to replace last year’s usual No. 3 corner Cedric Griffin and is ahead of Amerson, Richard Crawford, who finished last year in that role despite being a rookie seventh-rounder, as well as Chase Minnifield, who spent 2012 rehabbing after knee surgery.
Amerson (second round), Thomas (fourth) and Rambo (sixth) were drafted because they were all playmakers in college. The latter two will compete with holdovers DeJon Gomes and Jordan Pugh to be first in line to take over if Doughty falters opposite Meriweather.
The Redskins will need to perform better on defense if they expect to successfully defend their NFC East title and advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
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