Shawn Springs grew up idolizing Rod Woodson, one of the great cornerbacks of his generation.
In the latter stages of Woodson’s career he switched from cornerback to safety. As Springs nears the twilight of his time in the NFL, he also may make that transition in the coming seasons.
“Rod Woodson went from 12 to 17 [years in the league] and had [23 more] picks. [Whistles] … That would be awesome,” Springs said. “I think it might be a natural transition. I’ve got the size for it. It’s just about getting back there and getting used to it. It is still a new position.”
Springs, who has spent his entire 11-year career at cornerback, has gotten a preview of playing free safety during training camp. Injuries and a lack of experienced defensive backs pushed the Washington Redskins to experiment with Springs at the position.
Starting free safety LaRon Landry has missed three weeks with a lingering hamstring injury. The Redskins cut free agent acquisition Stuart Schweigert after the first preseason game. That leaves special-teams standout Vernon Fox as the only player on the roster with any significant NFL experience at the position.
“We’re kind of thin right now,” safeties coach Steve Jackson said. “He’s got the body type, and he knows this defense inside and out. He’s been here as long we have, and we’re comfortable with him back there controlling and patrolling as well as any of other guys.”
Added defensive coordinator Greg Blache: “It depends on what we need. You do what have to do. Shawn Springs is capable of playing safety. He is still our starting left corner, but if need be and it presents itself, we’re preparing ourselves to have a safety.”
In contrast, the Redskins have more depth at cornerback. Fred Smoot and Carlos Rogers have both been starters, and Leigh Torrence had 43 tackles as the third cornerback last season.
The injuries have led to Springs flipping back and forth at practice from left corner to free safety, sometimes during the same set of plays.
“I don’t know what position I am playing,” Springs joked after one practice. “What am I? Do you know?”
When Fox wasn’t available for Saturday’s preseason tilt with the visiting Buffalo Bills because of personal reasons, Springs experienced his first NFL game at the position. He started at free safety with Torrence in his place at corner.
He looked like a natural sprinting up “the alley” to meet Buffalo tailback Marshawn Lynch on a sweep with a big hit. On the next play he had a potential interception in his hands when he stepped in front of a pass near the goal line, but it fell to the ground.
“I’ve got to make that catch. It does give you a lot of opportunities to make plays back there,” Springs said. “It was pretty cool. I feel comfortable recognizing plays, but I have no idea when it comes to the footwork and technique it takes. I obviously would have to practice that a lot.”
Other cornerbacks like Aeneas Williams and Troy Vincent also have made the switch late in their NFL careers. While it might give players fewer opportunities to spar verbally with wide receivers, Springs doesn’t consider a potential move a downgrade for him.
“Safety is a glamorous position,” Springs said. “There are some damn good safeties out there - Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu. You got some guys back there that can really play.”
Springs is under contract with the Redskins through next season, and right now Landry is the long-term solution at free safety. It might be with another organization, but Springs roaming the middle of the field might someday become a permanent move.
“I’d definitely be willing to try it,” Springs said. “I am working on free right now. I think I’ll learn one spot at a time. At free safety, I can stay back more at my post and read guys. Eventually though you’ve got to learn both of them to become a full-time safety.”