- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

Only when the Denver Broncos used the 220th pick in last year’s draft on a safety did Chris Horton really start to worry.

Before Arizona State’s Josh Barrett was selected, Horton remained convinced his name would appear at the bottom of the television, finally allowing him to exhale and then start preparing to make an NFL roster.

But then Barrett’s name appeared. Only 31 picks remained.

“I actually know Josh, and I would have taken a chance on a guy like that, but what some of the other teams were doing, I was asking myself, ‘How? What more could I have done in college to be drafted a little higher?’ ” Horton said. “All I wanted to see was my name go across the screen.”

Finally, with the 249th pick, Horton got the call. The Washington Redskins, who had drafted a safety earlier in the day, were his new team.

The phone call moments earlier from the Buffalo Bills asking whether he wanted to sign as an undrafted free agent and then covert to linebacker became a memory, as did queries from the Oakland Raiders and the New York Giants.

Horton was a Redskins safety… and developed into the best seventh-round pick of 2008.

It was yet another example of how teams - thanks to private knowledge and a little bit of luck - can find gold in the seventh round.

Because of compensatory picks awarded for losing free agents, last year’s seventh round consisted of 45 picks. Twenty-four players appeared in at least one game, but only three - Horton (10), Indianapolis guard Jamey Richard (seven) and St. Louis linebacker David Vobora (one) - started a game. Horton finished with 76 tackles.

“I told Chris what I tell all my guys - all you want is a helmet,” said DeWayne Walker, a former Redskins assistant who was Horton’s defensive coordinator at UCLA. “It’s all about the opportunity - as a draft pick or as a free agent - and he took advantage.”

Pac-10, not SEC

Just as he would defy expectations by quickly working his way from seventh-round pick to NFL starter, Horton made the unconventional decision to head west after graduating from De La Salle High School.

“I could have gone to some school in the SEC where they pound the ball all day and had 300 or 400 tackles,” he said. “But I figured, why not go to UCLA? I knew I could tackle. It’s what I do. But I wanted to enhance my game and learn how to cover.”

The Pac-10 is a pass-first conference, and Horton was able to round out his game.

“It helped him tremendously,” said Walker, the new coach at New Mexico State. “The run game was never his problem. The Pac-10 is similar to the NFL in terms of the pro-style offense, so we really tried to help Chris in the passing game.”

Horton made 238 tackles in 41 college games, including a 90-tackle senior year that earned him all-conference recognition. He was invited to the scouting combine and ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash.

Although he wasn’t invited to any individual workouts by teams, he was confident of being drafted - but not early because he figured teams would gloss over how he wasn’t the flashiest player on the field. But he was one of the most productive ones.

“A lot of people said I couldn’t run fast and I had tight hips and things like that,” Horton said. “If I was a model, then you could judge on those kinds of things. But I’m a football player. When you turn on the film and look at me, you see a productive player in a conference where they throw the ball.”

Horton spent draft weekend at his mother’s house in New Orleans. Like most players, he vowed not to watch the draft. Of course, he couldn’t take his eyes off the screen.

Watching with him during various points of the weekend were his brother, an aunt and several cousins. Saturday was low-stress because Horton knew he wouldn’t go in the first two rounds. The family feasted on turkey wings, corn bread, gumbo and baked macaroni and cheese.

In the picks leading up to No. 249, Horton was on the phone with a Buffalo coach. The linebacker idea didn’t appeal to him. On the other line was a call from the 703 area code (Northern Virginia).

“I thought it was going to be another free agent call,” he said.

Redskins safeties coach Steve Jackson wasn’t surprised Horton was still on the board come the final round.

“Most people are looking for production - he should have this many interceptions, this many tackles, he should do this, he should do that,” Jackson said. “A lot of times, playing safety is really boring, but you need a guy who, when he gets the action, isn’t wrong. A linebacker can miss a tackle, and the safety is there. A safety can’t miss.”

The Redskins also drafted safety Kareem Moore, but knowledge of how Horton played on the field would help them select an instant playmaker.

Inside information

Horton materialized as part of the Redskins’ plans because of his connection to Walker.

A Redskins assistant from 2004 to 2005, Walker used a system at UCLA that had several similarities to the Redskins’, and he thought Horton would be a good fit. When asked, he gave high reviews of Horton to the front office and scouting staff. Jackson also spoke with former UCLA running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, who recruited Horton out of New Orleans.

“DeWayne’s insight was the system and the technical stuff and how he picked things up,” Jackson said. “Eric gave insight because he knew Chris when he was in high school and what he was like as a person.”

Said Walker: “Once he got used to the speed of the game, he felt he knew what he would be doing.”

Especially when the Redskins draft in the seventh round Sunday, just that morsel of information could decide whom they select.

“If he plays for a guy I trust, I’ll introduce him, and even though you see things you may not particularly like, you give him the benefit of the doubt based on the recommendation,” Jackson said.

Late in the draft, the Redskins’ philosophy is to take a player that Jackson said “has at least one redeeming quality. … He has to have something, and then you work on the other things.”

Horton’s qualities were his coverage ability and competitiveness. His study habits made an immediate impression.

“As soon as Chris got here and we started meeting, the guys have notebooks but his would be filled - not just two, three lines,” Jackson said. “He would have a full page of notes and then questions. When he got here, he would do ugly things, but the next thing I knew, he would be taking an interception the other way.”

Horton wound up with a team-high three interceptions. Now a player with starting experience, Horton said second-day prospects shouldn’t watch the draft. Once they do get picked, he said they should forget about when they got selected.

“I was bummed that I went No. 249, but I was happy because I’ll always be remembered as a seventh-round pick that made a team and played,” he said. “You can’t worry about where you’re picked because there’s no pressure. If you come out every day and go to work, the coaches will notice.”

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