- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2017

ASHBURN — At the end of the Redskins’ second day of OTAs on May 24, members of Washington’s defense posed together for a group picture. Safety D.J. Swearinger rushed over to see how it turned out.

The newest member of the Redskins defensive backfield wanted to see what he looked like as part of the group.

On the practice field, Swearinger has fit right in.

Swearinger signed a 3-year, $13.5 million deal with the Redskins in March after two seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.

The 25-year-old safety practiced with the Redskins’ first unit, slotted next to Su’a Cravens at free safety.

Swearinger said he’s ready to bring physicality and more.

“A guy who can be a leader,” Swearinger said regarding what he can bring.”I’m going to be sort of the quarterback on the defense, for sure. My study habits, me knowing the game. Just my vision. I believe I’m going to be a hard-nosed leader, a force in the middle.” 

Granted it’s early and OTAs are filled with optimism, but Swearinger would present a much needed solution for the Redskins if he pans out.

The safety position has been a revolving door under Redskins coach Jay Gruden and even before him. Duke Ihenacho and David Bruton lacked the coverage skills to shore up the defense. DeAngelo Hall has a great football mind, but he spent most of his career playing cornerback. Brandon Meriweather, Ryan Clark, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner were all veterans brought in at one point, only to not pan out.

The Redskins have a talented cornerback group in Bashaud Breeland and Josh Norman, the latter who played high school football with Swearinger. But they need help if the pass defense ever wants to be truly elite.

“No offense to the previous safeties we’ve had before,but I just think D.J. is to a level in his career right now where he’s got a lot of confidence,” Gruden said. “He has got a lot of talent. We know that he’s a physical guy, but as far as coverages and breaking up things, he’s got a lot of confidence and I think he’s going to really, really emerge as a top safety not only for this team but in this league.”

Building Swearinger’s confidence took time. In his previous four seasons, Swearinger had been with three teams.

Swearinger, who excelled at South Carolina, was drafted by the Houston Texans in the second round in 2013 and was slotted to play strong safety because of the talent ahead of him. He was initially cast in dime packages, but ended up starting 22 games for Houston.

But Swearinger was out of his comfort zone and struggled. His most notable moments in Houston were hits in the preseason on Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller and Denver Broncos receiver Wes Welker. Keller suffered a torn ACL, MCL and PCL on a low hit from Swearinger and Welker suffered a concussion.

The Texans moved on from Swearinger, releasing him in May 2015. The following season, the safety failed to make an impact with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was waived.

When Swearinger joined the Cardinals in December 2015, he was able to develop. Suddenly, the years of playing strong safety helped him and he was able to roam the middle of the field as a free safety. He had a career-high three interceptions last season.

“(Free safety) fits my style of play, being back in the middle,” Swearinger said. “Being able to communicate with guys and going from sideline to sideline, that fits me well. I’ve been successful the last couple of years doing that.”

Pro Football Focus, a website based on analytics, ranked Swearinger as a top 10 safety last season after he started playing full time from Week 5 onwards. With Swearinger, the Cardinals finished third in pass defense in Defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), another advanced metric used to equalize efficiency against a league baseline.

Swearinger’s path wasn’t the easiest, but he can rely on his experience. He said he can use it to help Cravens, who is entering his second season and played mostly linebacker last year.

But Swearinger said he likes the Redskins defense because of the group’s potential to make big plays. Swearinger wants to be the one who makes sure they’re made. 

“The free safety has to be the most vocal guy because he sees everything,” Swearinger said. “… I’m always in the middle so a lot of receivers, they’re not going to be lurking in the middle when they see me back there.”

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