RICHMOND, Va. — At the Redskins’ new training camp here on the banks of the James River, the fan interest in Robert Griffin III is Bieber-esque. Crowds line 10 deep and cheer full-throat hoping to get close to the quarterback who is part rock star, part pigskin Messiah, and the biggest thing to affect the franchise’s fortunes since the Fun Bunch in the mid-1980s.
There’s little question that the fate of the 2013 season rests on how effective Griffin can be once his surgically repaired right knee gets battle-tested in game action. Will he still be the same player who turned the franchise around, leading Washington to a 10-6 record as a rookie last year following three straight losing seasons?
Provided that RG3 can still be RG3—that is, the total package of daring runs and strong-armed throws—the key to whether or not the Redskins can become Super Bowl contenders will likely be its secondary.
Watching a light practice on Tuesday, it was easy to see that the Redskins have promising veteran experience in their front seven, especially with Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo threatening the edges at outside linebacker. Now in the fourth year under defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, the defensive line and linebackers are well-adjusted to the kitchen sink of tactics that Haslett likes to throw at opponents.
Little good that will do, however, if the Redskins struggle again on the back end. And that leads to another inescapable thought coming out of Richmond: how green this secondary could be in a division featuring quarterbacks Eli Manning and Tony Romo, and whatever Eagles coach Chip Kelly is about to unleash on the NFL.
At cornerback, veteran DeAngelo Hall (10th season) and Josh Wilson (eighth) figure to be in the mix, though you wonder what they have left, especially Hall. Second-round pick David Amerson is rising rapidly and could be headed for a starting spot at some point. He’s quick and has a nose for the ball. Richard Crawford (second year) and free-agent E.J. Biggers are also shaping up to be on the roster, but the pickings are slim among Chase Minnifield, Jerome Murphy and Ryan Mouton.
Washington drafted two safeties, but there’s been a bit of a surprise: it’s Bacarri Rambo (sixth round) and not Phillip Thomas (fourth) who looks to be headed for a starting spot. Thomas missed a week of offseason practice due to the league rule that prohibits rookies from practicing until their college class has graduated. That allowed Rambo to get a jump, and he hasn’t taken a step back. Rambo looks to be a natural fit after playing in a complicated scheme at Georgia.
As for the other spot, if veteran Brandon Meriweather can’t make a full recovery from his knee surgery—the Redskins sat him for a week, but Meriweather said he’s now good to go—Thomas could get the call (he certainly will in the first exhibition game). Reed Doughty is a solid veteran but he’s better suited as an in-the-box safety rather than playing in open space.
So depending on how injuries go with Hall (ankle, finger), Wilson (shoulder surgery) and Meriweather, the Redskins could be fielding a secondary that features three rookies in Amerson, Rambo and Thomas.
The Redskins have been in dire need of a talent infusion in the secondary for quite some time. They now have that talent in Amerson and Rambo, and Thomas might not be far off. But talent isn’t the same thing as experience. Is this the best thing for a team that seems to be knocking on the door of contender status? Probably not. But it will help immensely if the front seven can compress the time a quarterback has to function in the pocket. That was a big problem last season after Orakpo went down with a triceps injury, but he’s back. Now it’s up to the secondary to take the Redskins to the next level.