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NFL draft: Secondary help is Redskins’ first priority

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As the Washington Redskins prepare to pick Friday night after sitting out Thursday's first round of the NFL draft, they face one pressing question, as ESPN analyst Mel Kiper sees it.

"Is it a better corner or safety when the Redskins are up with that 51st pick overall?" Kiper said.

Regardless of the answer, there could be much rejoicing inside the Redskins' draft room if their top-ranked player available at No. 51 plays in the defensive secondary. That would address what many analysts believe to be the team's most glaring need.

And fortunately for the Redskins, the quality of talent in this year's draft class suits that deficiency.

"It's a great safety class — best safety class I've seen in years," said Mike Mayock, NFL Network draft analyst and former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback. "Maybe not with a bunch of first-round guys that you're going to run around and say, 'That's my guy,' but depth of the class."

Coach Mike Shanahan on Wednesday expressed contentment about the secondary because of its experienced cornerbacks. Last season, however, the Redskins surrendered 7.09 yards per pass, 23rd in the NFL.

Each of their top three cornerbacks — DeAngelo Hall, Josh Wilson and E.J. Biggers — is entering the last year of his contract. Strong safety Brandon Meriweather is coming off left knee ACL reconstruction surgery entering the last year of his contract, and there is no true first-string safety on the roster.

Washington tried twice in free agency to sign a top cornerback but could not complete a deal with Aqib Talib, who re-signed with New England, or Antoine Winfield, who chose Seattle after visiting Redskins Park.

On Friday, though, the Redskins can handpick their man.

"You try not to reach," Shanahan said Wednesday when asked about lessons from picking 51st three consecutive years as coach of the Denver Broncos from 2001-03. "You might have a position need and you push the envelope a round or two and you are looking for that one piece to what you consider a championship team. So what I have learned through the years is that you have to be true to your board."

In addition to the quality safety depth, Mayock believes at least five cornerbacks will be selected in the second and third rounds.

"This is a draft people are complaining is not sexy at the top, but I would tell you that there's probably 25 to 35 more draftable players this year than last year," he said. "So there's more depth in this draft than I've seen in awhile."

Some draft analysts expect four safeties to be taken before the Redskins pick 51st: Texas' Kenny Vaccaro, Florida's Matt Elam and LSU's Eric Reid were drafted Thursday in the first round. Florida International's John Cyprien generally is regarded as the best remaining safety. Kiper expects Syracuse's Shamarko Thomas to be in that group.

"There's an elite group that are all going to go high," Kiper said. "You're going to have a run on safeties in the second round."

The class of cornerbacks also is widely regarded as deep. Alabama's Dee Milliner, Houston's D.J. Hayden, Florida State's Xavier Rhodes and the University of Washington's Desmond Trufant were drafted Thursday night.

After them, though, Washington should have the freedom to select from several quality corners. Mayock, former NFL scouts Dan Shonka and Russ Lande and the scouting service Scouts, Inc. generally agree that Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay and Boise State's Jamar Taylor are the best remaining cornerbacks entering Round 2. Slay would fit well as the Redskins' second-round pick, according to Nolan Nawrocki, Pro Football Weekly's draft analyst.

The choice would depend on coaches' and scouts' particular preference.

"Forget the size for a minute; you have to be able to have those long arms, and certainly you have to be able to turn the wheel and contort your body and react to quickness," said Jon Gruden, ESPN analyst and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach.

"The zone corner, you see it in their schemes. Can they reroute the wide receiver, keep vision on the ball, can they tackle? Are they good in primary force? Do they understand where their help is?"

If the Redskins do select a defensive back, the next question would be how quickly he could contribute.

"A lot has to do with their awareness, how sharp they are, relative to their football-related intelligence," Shanahan said. "Some guys are all football. Other guys are, maybe, a man-to-man coverage guy, and it's easier if a guy is more well-rounded and he understands zone concept, man concept. Depending on the play and the system you're using depends on how quickly he can get on the field."

Considering how the Redskins' pass defense played last season and the long-term roster outlook, the newcomer would at least have a strong opportunity.

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