- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

The Washington Redskins cornerbacks are banged-up, fresh-faced and awash in speculation about their future. And tomorrow they get to face perhaps the most dangerous group of wide receivers in the NFL.

The Minnesota Vikings’ offense is so potent that Redskins defensive line coach Greg Blache suggested U.N. inspectors should investigate. Said Blache: “They’ve got weapons of mass destruction and multiple sources of them.” Washington counters in the season finale at FedEx Field with a highly uncertain group of corners.

The outcome of the matchup could ripple well beyond the final score. When Redskins coaches gather next week to pick apart the organization, some of their most important decisions will come at the cornerback position.

Fred Smoot, who won’t play because of a bruised kidney, is set to become an unrestricted free agent. At least one coach prefers to start Walt Harris next season rather than pay Smoot a big-money deal. In tomorrow’s game, Harris, as well as rookies Garnell Wilds and Rufus Brown, will give a good indication of whether the club really can let Smoot leave.

Harris talked openly yesterday about making a statement for 2005. Pretty much fully healthy following a risky knee surgery in February, the 30-year-old former first-round draft pick is eager to prove he’s still the player who started 113 games from 1996 to 2003.

“I’m definitely excited about that chance,” Harris said. “I’m really grateful for this opportunity. I look at it like that. I’m going into the last game to show I’m ready to play and that I’ll be ready next year.”

Defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker called Harris a “true professional” for playing so much this season. According to director of sports medicine Bubba Tyer, Harris’ surgery to remove a third of his patella tendon was so precarious that it had just a “50-50” chance of success.

But Harris has played in all 15 games, starting once in place of injured Shawn Springs, and recorded two interceptions, five passes defensed and a forced fumble. He even blocked a punt and scored on a blocked punt while playing special teams.

“For him to be doing what he’s doing now …” Walker said in amazement. “He just told me today, ‘Coach, wait until next year.’ Only a true professional would contribute like he’s contributing. We’re lucky to have him.”

Harris will play a crucial role against the Vikings’ Randy Moss, Nate Burleson and Marcus Robinson. The three have combined for 152 catches for 2,264 yards and 28 touchdowns, while the Redskins as a team have passed for only 2,658 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Springs, who missed most of practice this week with a foot injury, should play but at less than 100 percent. Wilds, an undrafted rookie out of Virginia Tech, will man the nickel role (coming in on passing downs). Brown, an undrafted rookie out of Florida State, will play special teams but could see time on defense in the event of injury.

It’s a motley crew, to be sure. But Redskins coaches are confident it will be up to the test.

“Even if you had Fred and Walt and Shawn, it would still be a challenge,” Walker said. “But with what we have planned and what we’re trying to do, I think we have a chance.”

Added Blache, with regard to Wilds and Brown: “Just because you haven’t heard of them doesn’t mean you won’t have heard of them come Sunday night. We ain’t losing no sleep over having to play those guys.”

In fact, coaches have been buzzing about Wilds and Brown for months. Wilds, despite missing much of his senior season with an injury, has the “instinctiveness” to blossom in the NFL, Walker said. And Brown is known around Redskin Park as “Twitch” for his astonishing burst of speed.

“As a matter of fact, his DB coach [at Florida State] said laterally he had the best quickness of any corner he coached,” Walker said. “Garnell is probably a little ahead of him, but you can just see: If they can get over their youngness, I think these guys belong in this league.”

The other corner in the mix for 2005 is Ade Jimoh, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury last week. But Jimoh, a 2003 undrafted rookie out of Utah State, hasn’t developed the cover skills to go with his athleticism. Although he has made an impact on special teams, he has been beaten for a number of long passes in the NFL.

Thus any decision with Smoot likely will rest on Harris, Wilds and Brown. With a typical corner’s confidence, Wilds said he isn’t intimidated by getting his first extended action (he did play 18 snaps at San Francisco two weeks ago) against the NFL’s No. 2 offense.

“I’d like to see how I match up against the so-called best,” Wilds said. “I think this is a very good group of receivers, a nice offense and a nice scheme. It’ll be a good test for me.”

Notes — Linebacker Marcus Washington, like Springs, sat out the contact portion of practice. While Springs is almost certain to play against the Vikings, the status of Washington (knee) won’t be determined until just before the game.

“I was probably about 80 percent out there today,” Washington said. “But I hadn’t hit anybody yet, and nobody hit me yet. So I don’t know what percentage I’ll be after all that goes on.” …

Taking the lead on kickoff returns will be James Thrash and Antonio Brown, the latter of whom already is returning punts. Ladell Betts, the normal No. 1 kickoff returner, will start at running back in place of injured Clinton Portis. …

Spectators attending the Vikings game can take Metro’s Blue Line to the new Morgan Boulevard station, which the Redskins said is a 10-minute walk from FedEx Field. Shuttles still will run to the stadium from Landover on the Orange Line and Addison Road on the Blue Line.

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