The Washington Redskins have largely ignored the safety position and the hole remains, but should they make it a first-round priority in the 2017 NFL Draft?
Nov. 27, 2007 is arguably the worst day in the history of the Washington Redskins storied franchise. Sean Taylor, Washington’s uber-talented fourth-year safety, tragically passed away at the young age of 24 on that day.
Since that time, the Redskins have employed a who’s who of washed-up cornerbacks, past-their-prime players and mid-round picks at safety. O.J. Atogwe, Kareem Moore, Phillip Thomas or Baccari Rambo are just a few of the names Washington has used at the position over the last nine seasons. The team has failed to spend a high draft choice on a safety or throw big money at the position.
Washington’s preference is often to turn older cornerbacks—see DeAngelo Hall and Will Blackmon—into safeties and pray it works. While Hall has shown progress at the position, injuries have derailed his transition.
Last season, the team drafted Su’a Cravens, a hybrid linebacker/safety from USC in the second round only to use him as a linebacker in his rookie season. The team announced late in the season Cravens would be a full-time safety in 2017. That solves part of the problem—or does it?
Cravens projects as a strong safety and the team still doesn’t know what it has in the second-year player. Offseason workouts and OTAs will be crucial for Cravens and the defensive coaching staff.
In free agency, Washington signed 25-year-old D.J Swearinger to a three-year deal in early March. After struggling to make his mark as a former second-round pick with Houston, Swearinger was cut twice before sticking with Arizona and becoming a good all-around safety in 2016.
But like Cravens, Swearinger appears to be a better fit at strong safety. However, Swearinger did show he could play the deep middle last season with the Cardinals, an important trait for a free safety. While this pair is young and under contract for the foreseeable future, should the Redskins be done at safety with a draft class that is deep at the safety position?
No, and there plenty of reasons why Washington should still be in the market for a safety in the 2017 NFL Draft.
This class is so deep with Malik Hooker and Jamal Adams both projected to be picked inside the top 10 (perhaps even the top five) that there are still other options for the Redskins at pick No. 17. When was the last time you could choose the third-best safety in the draft at 17? Probably never.
Safety is becoming one of the most important positions on defense in recent years. The league is filled with fast-paced offenses, meaning the need for good safety play is more important than ever. A competent free safety can limit what opposing teams can do downfield. Earl Thomas of Seattle is the perfect example of what teams desire in a free safety. Finding players like Thomas is the hard part.
This draft has the potential to field several Day 1 starters at safety. Hooker and Adams are not options for the Redskins. Unless Bruce Allen—or whoever is calling shots for Washington—trades up, those guys aren’t realistic options. And the Skins aren’t trading up for a safety.
If the team stays at 17, Washington’s Budda Baker could be a good choice. Baker is an ideal free safety and he can slide inside and cover the slot, too. The knock on Baker is his size as he’s listed at 5-10 and 194 pounds. The Redskins could slide back, pick up an additional selection and still probably get Baker.
What about Connecticut’s Obi Melifonwu?
Melifonwu is one of the draft’s most intriguing prospects. At 6-4, 219 pounds, Melifonwu has the size of an imposing strong safety combined with the speed and athleticism of a free safety. Melifonwu is so athletic that some believe there are teams that could try him at corner. Mike Mayock of the NFL Network even intimated at such, per Peter King of The MMQB:
I know NFL guys who think, ‘I’d love to try him at corner. Let’s see if he fails.’ That’s where the NFL is going. A big, very athletic guy, and instead of thinking him automatically as a safety who may be able to play linebacker, now we’re thinking of him as a safety who just might be able to play cornerback.
Melifonwu could go anywhere from the late first round to the middle of the second round. He won’t stick around any longer than that. For those worried about him being just a workout warrior, well, that isn’t true. Melifonwu was a good starter for the Huskies.
Melifonwu would give the Redskins a versatile defensive back they could employ in a number of ways. It would also allow defensive coordinator Greg Manusky to use Cravens as a dime linebacker in certain packages to get his best players on the field. Melifonwu is capable of playing the deep middle or closer to the box.
If Washington thinks taking Baker or Melifonwu is too much of a risk that high, perhaps they could look at Utah’s Marcus Williams or Justin Evans of Texas A&M. Both players project as second-round picks.
Drafting Cravens last year and signing Swearinger is a good start for the Washington Redskins. But they shouldn’t just settle on those two alone. The position is far from solved until those two players show the team they’re capable through 16 games. Sure, the Redskins can wait another year to see if this is the right combination, but this type of safety talent won’t be around in 2018.
That’s why selecting a safety with one of their first two picks should be high on the Redskins’ draft priorities.