Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall (23) celebrates with Redskins strong safety LaRon Landry (30) after an interception against the Philadelphia Eagles at FedEx Field. Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE

Washington Redskins roster analysis: defensive backs

With the NFL’s free agency period set to kick-off March 13, the Washington Redskins are expected to have about $40 million in salary cap space with which to make the many improvements needed to field a more competitive squad in 2012. Over the next week we’ll take a closer look at each offensive and defensive unit, examining how the current roster shapes up and whether potential upgrades exist either in-house, on the open market or via the April draft. First up, the secondary:

Current starters

DeAngelo Hall, cornerback — Hall tends to be a very polarizing figure among Redskins fans; they either love the fact that a corner wearing the B&G can finally catch or they hate the rate at which he surrenders key receptions at critical moments (see: Weeks 3 and 11 versus Dallas). In truth, Hall is a good cornerback but a better playmaker. He has the athleticism, instincts and hands to intercept a lot of passes and return them for good yardage, but he also has limitations in coverage and gambles too much to consistently carry out a corner’s primary responsibility: keep your guy from catching the ball. In this way, he’s sort of the anti-Carlos Rogers (as Skins fans remember Catch-22, anyway). To his credit, Hall has developed into a willing and solid tackler, his Week 14 whiff on Rob Grankowski notwithstanding. Despite his reputation and six-year, $55 million contract, Hall is ideally suited to be a No. 2 starter where he can focus on making plays without the pressure of covering an opponent’s No. 1 receiver, but the roster as currently constructed does not allow for that.

Josh Wilson, cornerback — Signed as a free agent in 2011, Wilson got off to a disappointing start before finishing the season strong, recording interceptions in Weeks 14 and 15 and 10 of his 15 defended passes in the final eight games. At 5-feet-9-inches tall, the former Terp has always had physical limitations but makes up for them with technique, savvy and solid ball skills. A dependable, if not spectacular No. 2 cornerback.

Kevin Barnes, cornerback — I know, I know, Barnes isn’t technically a starter. But in today’s NFL, nickel corners are more important than ever and spend more time on the field than some starters at other positions. For that reason, I’ll treat the nickel as a starting role, and right now Barnes has a hold on that spot, but almost by default rather than merit.  Another former Terp, Barnes was expected by many, including Redskins coaches, to seize control of the nickel role in 2011 but proved to be maddeningly inconsistent. On some plays he’d lock his man down and on others would seem to lose focus and, subsequently, the receiver. He finished the season with two interceptions and only four defended passes. A physical player despite his slight frame (as Jahvid Best can attest), Barnes has the skills to eventually develop into a No. 2 corner but needs to really dedicate himself this offseason to improving in coverage.

LaRon Landry, safety — At this point it’s looking more and more unlikely that Dirty 30 will be back with the Redskins, and based on his monstrous physique, that might be a good thing. Lifting weights and football in many ways go hand in hand, but it is possible to go overboard, especially when you play in the defensive backfield. One also has to wonder whether Landry’s workout regimen has had any detrimental effect on his chronically injured Achilles tendon, though not as much as his choice to once again skip offseason surgery. A difference maker when healthy, Landry at this point presents too much of an injury risk to offer him the lucrative long-term deal he undoubtedly seeks. If he’s willing to sign a one-year contract in order to recoup some of his lost value, fine. If he stubbornly insists on big bucks and several years, pass.

Oshiomogho Atogwe, safety — Another 2011 signing, Atogwe was expected to join with Landry to form one of the better playmaking safety tandems in the NFC, but the former Ram was stunted early on by injury and seemingly took all season to get his game back on track. Atogwe came to the Skins with a reputed ability to force turnovers, both interceptions and fumbles. He didn’t make good on that reputation in his first year in D.C., recording only three picks. Assuming he is brought back, next season will be key for Atogwe, though his effectiveness could ultimately be determined by who is playing safety alongside him.

Backups

Byron Westbrook, cornerback — A special teams standout, Westbrook is ideally suited to be a No. 5 cornerback but has steadily improved since being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2007 and filled in admirably as a dime corner due to his competitiveness. All good teams have players like Westbrook who know their role on the team and cherish the opportunity to play in the NFL.

Brandyn Thompson, cornerback — After showing brief flashes in the 2011 preseason, the rookie out of Boise State did little to distinguish himself thereafter, recording two tackles in six games. The fact that the Redskins waived and re-signed Thompson three times during the season reflected both his lack of production and potential as a future depth player.

Phillip Buchanon, cornerback — Re-signed to a one-year deal before the 2011 season, Buchanon served a four-game suspension to begin the season and played in only one game before being placed on injured reserve Nov. 5. The Skins should let the veteran leave in free agency.

Travon Bellamy, cornerback — Who?

Reed Doughty, safety — Another “glue” guy who, like Westbrook, all successful teams have a handful of. Fans unfairly criticize Doughty for his physical limitations and inability to always perform the tasks he’s assigned by the coaching staff. One play comes to mind immediately — Week 2 of the 2010 season versus Houston, when Doughty was left covering Andre Johnson 1-on-1 on a jumpball in the endzone. The play ended predictably, the Texans won in overtime and fans grilled Doughty, even though there may be a couple players in the entire NFL that could check Johnson in that situation. The truth is Doughty should have never been isolated on one of the league’s top receivers because he simply doesn’t have the physical tools to match up with elite pass-catchers. What Doughty does have is the grit, determination and competitiveness to fill in when needed. He’s rarely outworked on the field and is actually pretty effective in the box and crashing across the line of scrimmage to tackle ball carriers in the backfield. Heady enough to play either safety spot when called upon, Doughty is obviously a better fit at strong safety and a severe liability playing centerfield, where his deficiencies in coverage are laid bare.

DeJon Gomes, safety — A solid draft choice, Gomes showed a lot of potential for a fifth-round selection. On the shorter side but solidly built, the Nebraska product showcased explosiveness when blitzing and good tackling technique but also took inconsistent routes to the ball, resulting in some big gains for opponents. Better when he’s playing in the box, Gomes showed enough that he could eventually develop into a decent starter at strong safety, though the Redskins would be wise to not solely rely on him in 2012.

Overall — The weakest defensive unit on the team, the Redskins’ secondary has two key problems — they have a collection of No. 2 corners and strong safeties. There is no potential “shutdown” corner on the roster and behind Atogwe there is no safety that can be relied on to defend the deep ball. A third and bigger issue will present itself if and when the Redskins let Landry walk in free agency. Doughty has played enough in recent years that the team could get by with him starting at strong safety, but he’s not going to strike fear into the hearts of any offensive coordinators. Unless if Gomes improves dramatically during the offseason, the team would be wise to bring in a more capable veteran, but options are scarce, as I’ll get to in a moment. The Redskins made the shift to the 3-4 defense in order to put more pressure on quarterbacks and force more turnovers. While not a weak unit, the Skins secondary as a whole needs an upgrade in talent in order to realize the 3-4’s potential.

Potential solutions

Free agency — In a solid class of free agent cornerbacks, the only option that makes much sense for the Skins is Kansas City’s Brandon Carr, who at 25 is the best unrestricted free agent available (Baltimore’s Lardarius Webb is the best free agent corner, but he’s restricted and any team that signed him away would need to give up draft picks in exchange).  Carr has good size and has never missed a game in four NFL seasons. But with only eight career interceptions (albeit a good number of passes defended) Carr isn’t a true “shutdown” corner and will likely demand a higher salary than he is worth. Other No. 1 corner options include Cortland Finnegan, who is just the kind of headcase the Skins need to avoid, and Carlos Rogers, who, well, let’s just say he isn’t coming back to D.C. (For the record, I always thought Rogers was a very good corner, excellent at a corner’s primary job of keeping his man from catching passes, and would have been a star if he could have just caught the daggum ball.)

As for safeties, the Raiders, Titans and 49ers have already slapped the franchise tag on the top options — Tyvon Branch, Michael Griffin and Dashon Goldson, respectively. Ironically, Landry might be the next best available, because there really isn’t much left to get excited about. The Skins might have to get by for a year with below-average production at the strong safety spot.

Draft — Most fans either want the Redskins to trade up for RG3 (!!!!) or trade back and accrue more picks like they did in 2011 (eh…), but they could also opt to remain at No. 6 and select the best player available or even take Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill,  considered the third-best college passer available and whose stock, much like Jake Locker and Christian Ponder last year, is due for a meteoric rise as the draft approaches. If the Skins go BPA, there’s a good chance LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne will be available at their pick. The best defensive players in the draft, Claiborne is considered a true “shutdown” corner, perhaps the best prospect at the position in some time. Not the dynamic return man his former college teammate Patrick Peterson is, Claiborne has great size, speed, quickness, hands, coverage skills and instincts. As a cornerback, he is the complete package. But do the Redskins have the luxury of selecting a defensive back so high in the draft when they have so many more pressing needs elsewhere? Maybe not, but there’s probably no single player the Redskins could sign or draft that would improve the defense as much as Claiborne. Adding him would instantly transform an average duo of Hall and Wilson into one of the better trios in the league. Beyond Claiborne, the Skins already have enough depth at cornerback that they should focus their later round selections on other positions.

As for safety, Alabama’s Mark Barron is the only first-round talent at safety in the 2012 draft, but the Redskins are in no position to use a high draft choice on a safety, particularly if they trade them all away for St. Louis’s No. 2 selection (plzplzplzplzplzplz). There is some decent depth beginning in the latter half of Round 2 and continuing through the next few rounds, but none of those players can be expected to come in and play at a high level right away. Barring dramatic improvement from Gomes, it looks like Skins fans should get used to the idea of Doughty lining up alongside Atogwe in 2012.

Statistics are courtesy of NFL.comYou can follow Riggo’s Rag (@RiggosRag) on Twitter!

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