After decade-long search, Redskins hope safeties Su'a Cravens, D.J. Swearinger excel

ASHBURN, Va. -- The plan for nearly a decade changed on a yearly basis. Not a whole lot stuck. The Washington Redskins would form a new safety combination, only to seek another one the following year.

Since 2008 -- the year after safety Sean Taylor, who was becoming one of the game's best safeties, was murdered -- the Redskins have had 24 different players start at least one game at safety. And only six players have started at least 10 games in a season for the Redskins in that time.

But the Redskins finally have two young safeties who, if they play well, could change this trend. It's not a stretch to think they might: free agent signee D.J. Swearinger is a former second-round pick whose game finally matured last season with his third team, Arizona; and Su'a Cravens, another second-round pick, will play his more natural safety position after a year at nickel/dime linebacker.

Redskins corner Josh Norman knows what to expect from Swearinger, his high school teammate.

"We're just balling. Dogs and ballers, that's it," Norman said. "I know he has that in him just playing with him. On one of those routes [in practice] he cut and I was like, 'Bro, what [are you doing?].' He's like, 'Man, I'm just out here balling.' It's fun to have that back here."

And, if he works, it'll be even more fun for the coaches.

"He just looks like a safety back there," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "No offense to the previous safeties we've had before, but D.J. is to a level in his career where he's got a lot of confidence. 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 he's going to really, really emerge as a top safety not only for this team but in this league."

The spring really will be about seeing how each one can handle the job. The Redskins will ask their safeties to rotate so they'll both have to be skilled in the box as well as deep middle. Swearinger, only 25, had been more of a strong safety in his career until playing a lot of free last year, as well.

"I like free safety better," he said. "I'm always in the middle so a lot of receivers won't be lurking in the middle when they see me back there so I like that better.

"I like going against the quarterbacks and you're going against the quarterback."

Cravens was a standout freshman safety at USC, earning placement on freshman All-American teams, before becoming more of a hybrid safety/linebacker. He was ecstatic late last season, his first, when the Redskins decided to use him full time at safety. Cravens is not a speed demon in the 40-yard dash, but he always has played faster on the field because of his instincts. A key will be the angles he takes -- on runs or passes.

It's too early to judge, but now is the time for first impressions. There's plenty to learn: Wednesday, the offense hit some deep passes down the field; on one play, Cravens vacated the middle. He's more natural playing in the box but still must prove to the coaches he can play deep, too. As a nickel linebacker last year, Cravens showed he could make plays and tackle. But with safeties, it's often hard to gauge their true progress until they're in live hitting situations.

"He looked like he was fluid, looked like he has some range," Gruden said. "I like the way he's bought into the safety position. I think he's fired up about it. That's half the battle. He feels like he belongs out there. The confidence is going to grow the more he understands the system and plays within the system. He still has a ways to go, but he has got a great chance to be a very good safety because he can play in the box, and if he shows us the range that we think he might have, he can be very versatile. And D.J. can come down, he can play back, whatever, so it's a good mix."