Training camp questions countdown: Free safety

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Hello, folks. I’m back after some necessary time away to recharge the mental batteries. I hope the summer has treated you as well as it has me.

Training camp is almost here. I can smell the mix of sunscreen, bug spray and sweat already. Rookies arrived Monday morning (no news to report on RG3’s contract status yet), and veterans report on Wednesday, July 25. The first full-squad practice is Thursday morning, July 26. A schedule of open practices can be found on the team’s website: here.

I’ll take this week to count down the five most important personnel questions facing the Redskins in training camp and the preseason. Let’s go…

No. 5: Who will start at free safety?

Madieu Williams will try to hold off a group of challengers, the most intriguing of which is Tanard Jackson. But first, let’s take a broader view of the back end.

There’s significant uncertainty in the secondary compared to the defensive front seven, where every first-stringer returns. Generally speaking, Washington’s safeties struggled too often last season. But, for the optimists out there, the Redskins should at least be as good at safety this in 2012 as they were a year ago because Reed Doughty (11 starts, four at free) and DeJon Gomes (five starts, four at free) still are on the roster.

Doughty and Gomes establish the base line for comparison to last year’s production. Either new first-string strong safety Brandon Meriweather and a new free safety upgrade the back end, or Doughty and Gomes are available to continue the status quo.

Williams, 30, must prove his best days are not completely behind him. The University of Maryland product was a starter in each of his first seven NFL seasons, but he started only three games for San Francisco last season.

Coaches and teammates consistently praise his intelligence on the field and his professionalism, but as free-safety Oshiomogho Atogwe proved in a disappointing 2011 campaign, that can’t completely compensate for a lack of physical prowess. Let’s see how explosively Williams plays the ball in the air, how fast he is closing on receivers, how wide his range is in the deep secondary and how well he can tackle.

Jackson, 26, appears the most formidable challenger because he started 10 games last season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose head coach, Raheem Morris, is now Washington’s defensive backs coach. (Jackson missed the first six games last season as part of a 13-month suspension for multiple violations of the league’s substance abuse policy.)

The Silver Spring, Md., native has the range and ball skills of a productive free safety. His biggest issues are availability and learning the Redskins’ scheme. Jackson has not missed a game due to injury in five NFL seasons, but he missed almost all of Washington’s offseason practices while recovering from surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. His familiarity with Morris figures to help, but let’s see how well he knows his positioning and coverage responsibilities.

Gomes last season looked like a rookie safety who played linebacker in college. He’s at his best moving toward the line of scrimmage and making tackles, in other words as a strong safety. For him to make an impact at free this season, he must sharpen his decision making in coverage.

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