Since the Redskins drafted University of Miami safety Sean Taylor with the fifth overall pick in April's draft, expectations are that the talented Taylor will develop into a fixture in Washington's defense for years to come.
In the early going this preseason, though, while Taylor learns the ins and outs of the NFL, a different player stepped into the void to earn starts at safety versus Denver, Carolina and St. Louis.
Among the biggest surprises of the Redskins preseason, Andre Lott has impressed the Redskins' new defensive coaching staff. He started the first two pre-season games alongside strong safety Matt Bowen. Last Friday against St. Louis, Lott started at strong safety alongside Taylor.
In the four preseason games, Lott recorded a total of eight tackles, mostly during action with the first team in the first quarter.
"It's going well," the soft-spoken Lott said when asked about playing with the first-unit defense in the early stages of 2004. "I'm just taking advantage of my opportunities right now. You don't get many opportunities to play with the first team, so you have to take advantage of it."
Assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams cautioned against reading anything into Lott starting in preseason, saying that he continues to experiment with different combinations. But it's clear that Lott has made an impression on Williams.
"The thing I really like about Andre is that he has corner movement skills," Williams said. "Now I need to see him display safety toughness skills--I'm anxious to see him play. He's been practicing very well."
After missing time with a sprained ankle last season, Lott finished the year on a high note. He established a career-high with five tackles against Chicago in Week 16. Lott carried that momentum into the offseason and, subsequently, training camp. He has become a reliable contributor on defense and special teams during his first two NFL seasons. He avoids a lot of attention because he isn't a flashy player, but his play has earned him the respect of his teammates.
"Andre is a smart guy," said Bowen. "He's quiet, but smart. He makes plays in practice and he doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He's got good feet, and he plays aggressively."
The Redskins drafted Lott in the fifth round of the 2002 draft out of the University of Tennessee. At 5-10, 196 pounds, Lott played cornerback in college and garnered first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors in 2001. A year earlier, he was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is given to the best defensive back in college football.
Despite Lott's experience as a cornerback in college, the Redskins moved him to safety upon his arrival in Washington because they already had Darrell Green, Champ Bailey and Fred Smoot at cornerback. Since the change, Lott has been adjusting to the new position.
Of course, the return of head coach Joe Gibbs and the demands of the new coaching staff this offseason means that every Redskin has to prove himself again. For Lott, it was a chance to show his readiness to take on more responsibility at safety.
"Any time you get new coaches, you always have to prove yourself again," he said. "I just saw it as a new opportunity for me, and right now it's going well."
Williams has installed a defense that appears to be more aggressive than the ones Lott played in under defensive coordinators Marvin Lewis and George Edwards. Williams' aggressive, attacking style is preferred by all Redskin defensive players--and Lott is no exception. At the safety position, he hopes to see more errant passes float his way and more chances to attack the ball carrier.
"I love it," Lott said, referring to Williams' defense. "Every defensive guy loves an aggressive defense so you can attack the guy instead of waiting back to take the blow. It gives us a chance to give the first blow."
Entering his third season, Lott feels he has matured and has a better idea of the preparations necessary for a successful NFL season. He worked hard this offseason to position himself to earn more playing time, even after the Redskins drafted Taylor.
Said Lott: "More than anything, I think you have to come into training camp in great shape and you have to be mentally smart. I'm going into my third year, so that's something I've learned about the NFL."
Should Lott continue to impress, he'll help solidify a safety position that has been in flux for the Redskins in recent years. Bowen started 16 games a year ago, and Ifeanyi Ohalete earned 15 starts. Todd Franz and David Terrell also saw time at the position last year.
The Redskins parted ways with Ohalete, the fourth-year player out of Southern Cal, in mid-August. Terrell did not return in 2004 and is now playing with the Oakland Raiders.
And yet the addition of Taylor to the mix has already paid dividends. He had a pair of interceptions in the Hall of Fame Game against Denver and returned one for a touchdown. So far this preseason, he has logged a remarkable three interceptions, two forced fumbles and 10 tackles.
Along with Lott and Taylor, the veteran Bowen returns to the lineup after a solid first season in Washington. He posted career highs with 97 tackles and three interceptions in 2003. Franz, who made a name for himself on special teams last season, had an interception against Carolina.
"We've got good depth at safety right now," Bowen said after the Carolina game. "We can play together, and get the job done."
Among that group of players, Lott knows it's time for him to establish himself at the NFL level.
"I'm taking advantage of my opportunities," he said after the second pre-season game. "That's all I can do right now."