Redskins training camp preview: Safeties

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Before the Redskins report to Richmond for training camp on July 24, I’m examining their strengths and questions at each position. Next up: safeties.

(Previous position previews: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers | Tight ends | Offensive line | Defensive line | Outside linebackers | Inside linebackers | Cornerbacks)

SAFETIES

Returning starter: Strong safety Reed Doughty

Returning first-stringer: Strong safety Brandon Meriweather

Top reserves: Strong safety Phillip Thomas; free safeties Jordan Pugh and Bacarri Rambo

Others: Strong safeties DeJon Gomes; free safeties Jordan Bernstine and Devin Holland

Notable departure: Free safety Madieu Williams (expired contract, not re-signed)

New faces: Thomas (fourth-round pick, Fresno St.) and Rambo (sixth round, Georgia)

Final cuts history: Mike Shanahan kept five in 2012 and four in 2011 and 2010.

What to like: The ‘strong’ and ‘free’ safety labels above apply loosely in several cases. Shanahan demands versatility from his safeties so the defense can disguise coverages when the offense changes the strength of its formation. Washington has acquired several safeties who can straddle the line between strong and free, including Meriweather, Pugh, Thomas and maybe Rambo. Such depth is this group’s greatest asset after a season in which opposing quarterbacks exploited a lack of athleticism in coverage.

Meriweather’s expected return from a torn ACL in his right knee is the key to setting the depth chart. When healthy, he’s the Redskins’ best safety because of his combination of athleticism and NFL experience. That allows him to disguise coverages well before the snap. During the two-plus quarters he played against Philadelphia last November, he proved he can cover in the flat and that he takes quality angles required to be a good tackler. Deep coverage was not his strong suit during his brief tenure in Chicago, but he has extensive experience in Cover-2.

I’m interested to see more of Pugh. Last season, he replaced Doughty in sub packages, so although Williams was the free safety, Pugh often was responsible for deep coverage. If Pugh proves he can read the field properly, range in deep coverage and tackle, he and Meriweather would be an intriguing duo.

The two rookies were known in college for intercepting passes, so they fit well into a Redskins 3-4 defense that is designed to force turnovers. Thomas, a unanimous first team All-American, led the FBS last season with eight interceptions. He has superb ball skills and instincts that compensate for less-than-elite athleticism and speed. Rambo played free safety during spring practices, so his opportunity to earn playing time is tremendous for sixth-round rookie.

Preseason questions: Shanahan often says he can’t fully evaluate running backs and safeties until preseason games because of the tackling element. That makes for appointment viewing next month because this position features the most intense roster competition. Shanahan kept an extra safety last season, and this summer there are at least six who could deserve to make the team.

Meriweather was never fully healthy after the second preseason game last year. He must prove his knee injury hasn’t affected the athleticism that makes him so versatile.

How quickly the rookies come along will determine Shanahan’s roster flexibility. However, it’s never good when a defense must rely on a rookie in the secondary. NFL offenses are much more complex than the collegiate offenses rookies are used to, and players are faster. Thomas’ college coaches raved about how quickly he picked things up. He played a significant amount in the box and in Cover-2 at Fresno St., so he must prove he can cover as a single high safety and take proper angles on tackles. Rambo says he likes to tackle, and he’ll have to prove that in the preseason. Both had their learning moments during spring practices.

While Thomas and Rambo get acclimated to the pro game, opportunity for playing time exists for veterans such as Doughty, Pugh and Gomes. The competition within the competition at safety could be Doughty and Gomes fighting for one roster spot. Keep in mind that coaches chose to play Doughty over Gomes last season.

Both are best suited playing the run in the box. Doughty is a smarter player and more experienced, while Gomes is more athletic. Perhaps most importantly, both are key special teams contributors, so it would be difficult for that overhauled unit to live without either one. Keeping two strong safeties who do many of the same things might not be feasible, though, considering the lack of proven depth at free safety.

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