Thoughts and observations from Redskins rookie camp

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Here are some thoughts and observations following Sunday’s conclusion of the Redskins’ three-day rookie camp:

One buzz word of the Redskins’ offseason is: interchangeable. As in, coach Mike Shanahan, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris want their strong and free safeties to be interchangeable. You will hear a lot about this concept as fourth-round pick Phillip Thomas and sixth-rounder Bacarri Rambo assimilate into the Redskins’ defense.

Leave it to the rookie Thomas to explain its importance:

“Everything is formation-driven at this level,” he said Sunday. “If the [offense’s] formation changes, we’d rather have the safeties switch it off on the other side rather than me running around, a safety running around, with the motion.”

Having one safety in the box run with a receiver in motion “just lets the offense know what you’re in and know what you’re doing,” he said.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see why the Redskins drafted Thomas and Rambo. Each played both strong and free safety in college. Each player has different strengths and weakness in that regard, but the Redskins hope to mitigate those weaknesses enough to move away from the safety-by-committee approach they used last season in SS Brandon Meriweather’s absence. That partly depends on how long it takes Thomas or Rambo to establish his versatility.

The Redskins, however, proved they could get by with last season’s rotation. Shanahan on Sunday complimented how SS Reed Doughty played in the box last season and the play of SS Jordan Pugh, who often subbed for Doughty in passing situations.

Thomas knows what he’s up against in the competition for playing time. He’ll have to be proficient in making pre-snap calls, he’ll have to tackle well, he’ll have to prove he can play different coverages, etc.

“It’s going to be hard for me to come in and try and be a starter or try and get on the field early because people have been doing it for a long time,” he said. “But I feel like I can. It just all depends on my learning curve and how comfortable coaches feel with me being back there.”

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Let’s look more closely at Thomas’ interchangeability. He played strong safety for most of rookie camp, he said, while Rambo played free safety. Fresno St. often used Thomas in the box, and when deep in passing situations, he frequently played to the wide side of the field.

“Even though I feel like I can do both, they had me playing in the box this weekend, doing some calls,” Thomas said. “They also had me up high, too. But doing all the quarters coverages and the Cover-1s and everything, it’s just really similar to what I did at Fresno St. So I came in feeling really comfortable.”

How quickly Thomas learns the Redskins’ calls and alignments will help determine his playing time. He also must prove he can defend the deep third as a free safety. Coaches believe he can; but he’ll have to prove it in the coming months. That is one of the team’s most intriguing storylines moving forward.

“Even though I played in the box more [in college], I was out in all the space when the balls were on the hashes,” Thomas said. “We had a lot more space than in the NFL. They knew I could cover. They knew I had great change of direction and was able stick with receivers in the slot. If they did an out route or a corner route, I could stay with them and make up ground. I have a lot of length and I have a lot of height and good size at safety, so I could make plays on the ball and jump with the receivers.”

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My story for Monday’s paper focuses on how Thomas, Rambo and second-round CB David Amerson give Shanahan more options in the secondary. That’s what Shanahan sought to accomplish by drafting them, and it’s clear how those three at least provide depth.

Consider the secondary those three are joining. It was a liability for the first half of last season, but, statistically, the pass defense’s improvement was a major reason Washington won seven straight games and the division title.

The Redskins last season surrendered 7.09 yards per pass play, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. Over the first nine games, the average was 7.38. But during the seven-game winning streak, the average was only 5.99. A season-long average of 5.99 would’ve ranked sixth in the league. (The league average was 6.66.)

The Redskins’ final seven games included two against Philadelphia rookie quarterback Nick Foles and one against Cleveland rookie Brandon Weeden, but Washington’s defense deserves some credit.

Injury replacements such as OLB Rob Jackson, Doughty and Pugh eventually settled into their roles, and the Redskins blitzed more often to effectively pressure the opposing quarterback. The pass defense improved as a result.

With OLB Brian Orakpo and Meriweather expected back this season from their injuries, the Redskins’ optimism about improving the pass defense is easy to understand. Disregard the three draft picks, and the pass defense still should be better. The three draft picks only increase the upside.

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Players at rookie camp didn’t wear pads and didn’t hit. They were introduced to the playbook as recently as Friday, so the speed of practice was slower than a normal training camp or regular season session. Amerson’s tackling and reads will be major focuses once training camp starts and the pads come out.

For now, though, he at least is aware of why he surrendered too many big plays last season at NC State and what he needs to work on as he begins his pro career. Intercepting 13 passes as a sophomore turned out to be something of a poisoned chalice for him.

“It made me get a little bit too greedy,” Amerson said. “It’s definitely something that I had to learn from. I was trying to make every play, trying to make every ball that came to me an interception. It really made me lose sight of the little fundamentals or letting the game come to me. It’s something I have to grow from.

Amerson understands he developed a reputation for being beaten by double moves. That awareness and his apparent willingness to be coached bodes well for the Redskins.

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Third-round TE Jordan Reed did not practice because of a left knee bone bruise he suffered during Florida’s last game. He sat out as a precaution, Shanahan said, and Reed hopes to be back in a couple of weeks.

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Redskins new senior executive A.J. Smith attended practice Sunday, as did most of Washington’s scouts. Smith, the San Diego Chargers general manager for the last 10 seasons, is serving the Redskins as a San Diego-based consultant.

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The Redskins hosted 48 tryout players, several of whom have noteworthy bloodlines. It never hurts to have good genes and good connections.

Birmingham Southern RB Shawn Morris is Alfred’s younger brother.

Central St. OLB Chris Clady is the younger brother of Denver Broncos tackle Ryan Clady, whom Shanahan drafted 12th overall in 2008.

Western Illinois G Andrew Robiskie is the son of former Redskins interim coach Terry Robiskie.

“When I was with the Raiders, Terry was on the staff, and I got a chance to know Terry quite well,” Shanahan said. “In fact, I brought his son into the office today and I talked to him for about 10-15 minutes and shared some stories with him about me and Terry when I first got to the Raider job. We had some fun stories to talk about. But he’s a class young man. You can see that he handles himself just like Terry. Very smart, just coming off some injuries and he did a heck of a job in our camp.”

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