The fact that H.B. Blades is considered a significant contributor for the Washington Redskins signifies something's not as it should be. Whether it's his stature (5-foot-10, 242 pounds) or his inexperience (Blades played mostly special teams after the Redskins him drafted in the sixth round in 2007), the 24-year-old linebacker has plenty of work to do before he develops the cachet to suggest the team is completely comfortable with him in its lineup.
But each week, Blades earns himself a little more ground, slipping from one linebacker spot to the next, making a play in practice or stepping in for a Pro Bowl teammate without the kind of attention that, at this juncture, would only come if he made a mistake.
He has started twice for the Redskins, providing largely anonymous contributions in two victories, but gradually proving he's worth the team's confidence.
"Every time you step on the field, especially in the increased role I'm getting right now, is an opportunity to show people that I can play," he said. "Every time you step on the field is like that - either you show people you can play or you can't play. It's either one or the other."
Blades is listed as a reserve middle linebacker but has shown ability to play all three linebacker spots, including the strong side, where he started against the Saints and Eagles with Marcus Washington out because of hamstring injuries.
He recorded six tackles and a pass defense against the Saints. He had three tackles against Philadelphia.
Washington is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Rams, so Blades figures to have a bigger role. And he has shown enough versatility that head coach Jim Zorn doesn't worry about moving him to a new position.
"I think it's been good for him," Zorn said. "He's one guy that we can transfer to other positions. Some guys cannot do that, either at the offensive line position or linebacker position. You're talking about playing two positions, that's bearing a lot of responsibility."
The son of former Detroit Lions safety Bennie Blades and the nephew of two former NFL players (Seahawks receiver Brian Blades and the late Al Blades, who played part of two seasons with the 49ers), H.B. Blades makes up for his limitations with a physical style and football instincts.
He played strongside linebacker for two years at the University of Pittsburgh before switching to the middle and earning Big East defensive player of the year honors as a senior.
It still wasn't enough to get him selected on the first day of the 2007 draft, where teams shied away from him out of fears that his short frame would get him swallowed up and his pedestrian speed (4.69 seconds in the 40-yard dash) wasn't good enough to make him any more than a competent run-stopper.
In the NFL, though, Blades has contributed enough to overshadow his inherent weaknesses.
"The one thing he understood that maybe some rookies don't is how you have to prepare," linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said. "I think that's what he got from his time being around his father and his uncle."
Both Olivadotti and middle linebacker London Fletcher said Blades is a quick study in picking up pass coverage concepts. And while he might not have Washington's diverse talents, he's been solid enough on the strong side that the Redskins haven't missed a beat with Blades in the lineup.
Now the question is whether he can parlay the spot starts into something more.
Olivadotti said it's too soon tell whether Blades can be a fixture in the NFL.
"He's played fine," he said. "We'll just kind of progress."
For now, the linebacker's main goal is to make sure that progression keeps moving forward.
"Like I tell people all the time, I don't expect the performance to drop off at all, just because I'm learning from these guys," he said. "For me not learning from these guys, it'd be a slap in their faces."
Notes - Tackle Stephon Heyer (shoulder), cornerback Shawn Springs (calf), guard Pete Kendall (knees) and right guard Randy Thomas (knee) all participated in all or part of practice Thursday. ...
Sitting out a second straight day were safety Reed Doughty (back), defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin (shoulder) and linebacker Marcus Washington (hamstring).
Zorn said Doughty's nerve irritation is likely to keep him out Sunday and Washington must do work Friday in order to play.