ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — The projected starting defensive lineup for the Washington Redskins' season opener includes six players acquired as free agents, all signed to impressive, big-money contracts.
There are also four blue chip Redskins draft picks, three taken in the first round and one in the second. No wonder there's a lot of confidence in Washington that this could be the best defense in the league.
Then there's Chris Horton. Seventh-round draft pick in 2008, with a contract so modest it was worthy of the NFL's version of pity pay last year — a $342,197 performance bonus because his playing time was so disproportionate to his salary.
A strong safety determined not to be the weak link.
"Last year I was just trying to come in and learn as much as possible as quickly as possible and get on the field in some kind of way," Horton said Tuesday. "This year I know the defense, I know everything, and it's about making plays, do whatever I've got to do to make those same plays I made last year."
Only three players were taken lower than UCLA's Horton in last year's draft. The rookie with the plentiful dreadlocks made a good impression with a pair of sacks in the first preseason game, earned a roster spot, then had one of those out-of-nowhere performances in his first regular-season start. With Reed Doughty out with a stomach virus, Horton started Week 2 vs. New Orleans and snared three turnovers: two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
When Doughty was later lost for the season with a back injury, Horton became the regular starter. He still has the job.
"I don't think it's a fluke that he's our starting strong safety," coach Jim Zorn said. "I think he's a football-savvy guy. He's not afraid to hit. I think he's still learning, but he's so much more comfortable this year, and he's going to start Game 1 instead moving into that. Drafting a guy that low and have him come in and be a solid player is pretty remarkable."
Coaches tempered their praise of Horton during his rapid ascent last year, noting that he didn't have full command of the defense. His takeaways were more opportunistic than anything, and his production tailed off in November.
"He went through a drought; that's the rookie wall they talk about," safeties coach Steve Jackson said. "But he's doing things a little bit different as far as taking care of his body, doing things more mentally opposed to physically."
Part of the mental work is knowing the playbook. As Horton noted: "I wouldn't be in the right spot always at the right time" last year.
"It becomes being able to anticipate plays versus reacting to plays," Jackson said. "Now he's better at anticipating things because there's only so many ways you can run the ball, so many different ways you can throw it. When you've seen it for 800-and-some plays, it's not like you've seen it eight plays, which was the case last year."
With a starting job comes the inevitable nickname. A fan suggested that Horton call himself "Predator." Teammates liked it, and now Horton offers "Predator48" T-shirts on his Web site.
"I took it and ran with it," Horton said. "And it became a big hit."
But nothing about Horton stands out like his hair. He might have the least glamorous resume on the defense, but the lush dreadlocks are the envy of follic-challenged teammates and coaches.
"I love his hair," said Jackson, removing his cap to reveal a bald head. "They say he has the most luxurious hair on the Washington Redskins."
Notes: More rookie hazing: First-round LB Brian Orakpo and DL J.D. Skolnitsky were tied to a goal post and squirted with water after Tuesday's practice. ... T Chris Samuels and G Randy Thomas were given the afternoon practice off — a much appreciated gesture on a day of sweltering heat.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun