- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Life is sweeter for the Washington Redskins on their NFC East division throne. The sunshine is warmer in Cabo and other offseason vacation spots. The Five Guys burgers served in their draft room Sunday were juicier. And coach Mike Shanahan could afford to select high-upside players and value picks in the 2013 draft.

Shanahan didn’t need to play it safe. He could swing for the fence, and he did. That freedom comes with returning 21 of 22 starters from last season’s 10-win division champion. That Redskins team was flawed in some areas, particularly in pass defense, but Washington entered the draft with sufficient talent — especially at the quarterback position — to mitigate those weaknesses

And so Shanahan in Rounds 2 and 3 selected N.C. State cornerback David Amerson and Florida tight end Jordan Reed, respectively, two exceptional athletes with high upsides. They don’t need to make an immediate impact, and they could develop into key pieces of a perennial contender.

Then Shanahan met his annual Day 3 goal of establishing depth by drafting free safeties Phillip Thomas from Fresno State in the fourth round and Bacarri Rambo from Georgia in the sixth. Considering free safety is the only first-string position not occupied by an incumbent, the selections present quality value.

Looking through burgundy and gold lenses, it’s easy to see why the Redskins drafted their seven players when they did. Skepticism about each pick is justified, as always. But Shanahan, director of player personnel Scott Campbell and area scouts have earned the benefit of the doubt because of their results since the 2011 draft, the first in which they operated after a full scouting cycle together.

In picking Amerson 51st overall, two elements of Shanahan’s reputation emerged: his affinity for physical prototypes and his steadfast belief in his and his staff’s ability to coach a player.

Amerson likely would have been a first-round pick after the 2011 season, in which his 13 interceptions tied for second-most all time in the Football Bowl Subdivision. At 6-1, 205 pounds, Amerson is now the Redskins‘ biggest cornerback. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds at the NFL combine, an impressive accompaniment to his ball skills.

In 2012, though, he admittedly gave up too many big plays. “I was trying to make everything an interception,” he said Friday. “I started sitting on routes, and eyes in the backfield. It was a lot of me beating myself.”

Shanahan, however, wasn’t deterred.

“We don’t really worry about that,” he said. “We’re going to coach him the way we want to coach him.”

That will include Amerson’s ability to support the run defense. Just as cornerback DeAngelo Hall has become a more physical, willing tackler during Shanahan’s tenure, expect coaches to emphasize that to Amerson.

Reed is an example of Shanahan staying true to the team’s draft board, a vow he made Wednesday. The Redskins entered the draft with some uncertainty at tight end because Fred Davis is on a one-year deal coming off left Achilles’ tendon surgery, but other needs were greater, such as those in the secondary.

Again, Shanahan chose the athlete. Reed started at quarterback for the Gators in the 2011 Outback Bowl before converting to tight end. He’s 6-2, 236 pounds with a 4.72-second 40 time. He needs to improve as a blocker, but he’s a passing-game weapon in the slot and could be used quite creatively in the option game.

Reed “has a great ability to make people miss,” Shanahan said. “When he has the ball in his hands, he can do things with the ball that are very athletic, something that a lot of tight ends can’t do. We weren’t necessarily looking for a tight end, but when he was there we couldn’t pass him up.”

Thomas could be the next Perry Riley. Riley, a linebacker, was drafted in the fourth round in 2010 and became a full-time starter midway through his second season.

Thomas‘ inclusion in the starting lineup could occur even sooner, although it’s challenging for a rookie to get acclimated at free safety because of the increased speed and the necessity to read more complex NFL offenses.

Thomas, whose eight interceptions led the FBS last season, is familiar with Redskins‘ defensive concepts because Fresno State ran similar ones last season, he and Shanahan said. So often for Day 3 draft picks, their NFL success depends on how quickly they can grasp the playbook and assimilate to the pro level. Thomas‘ head start is one reason why the Redskins drafted him.

“When we did meet with him, he was very quick mentally,” Shanahan said. “We think he will adjust very quickly to our system.”

Finding starters beyond the fourth round is rare enough that teams with talented rosters can justify risks. Perhaps these guys end up on the practice squad for more seasoning.

Fifth-round running back Chris Thompson could complement the option game with his elite speed, but he comes with injury questions. He broke two thoracic vertebrae in 2011 and tore the ACL in his left knee in October. He hopes to be ready for training camp.

Rambo might have been drafted earlier if it weren’t for a history of marijuana infractions. It’s OK to risk a sixth-round pick on a player from the SEC who intercepted eight passes two seasons ago.

Seventh-round selection Jawan Jamison out of Rutgers is a value pick similar to Reed. Shanahan said he wasn’t looking for another running back, but the Redskins again stayed true to their board.

That’s the luxury of drafting without an overwhelming amount of roster needs. The Redskins positioned themselves as such by drafting well since Shanahan arrived in 2010. And if Shanahan and his scouting staff are right about the upside in their 2013 draft class, life would only get better.

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