In a film room at Redskins Park, rookie safety Chris Horton studies one offense after another, dutifully learning to read formations and decipher tendencies. But every so often, his eyes wander to the other side of the ball. "Sometimes you'll be watching tape of an offense and they'll happen to be playing the Redskins," Horton said. "I'll always watch the offense, but I'll also watch Sean Taylor. You can't miss him out there -- how he sets himself up, how he makes a play on the ball. Every time he is on the film, I just sit there with my eyes wide open. This was a guy who truly played the game with no fear."
When Taylor was shot and killed last November, Horton was a senior at UCLA, an accomplished college player though not much of a pro prospect. The Redskins took him with their last pick in the draft, 249th overall. Only three players were drafted after Horton. If the Redskins were looking for a safety to help replace Taylor, one who could bait and blitz opposing quarterbacks, surely they could not find him in the seventh round.
And yet, thanks to Marques Colston, every seventh-round pick must now be taken seriously. Two years ago, the Saints drafted Colston 252nd overall, and watched him catch more than 1,000 yards worth of passes as a rookie. This year, Horton has become the new Colston. He leads the Redskins in interceptions, ranks third on the team in tackles and is the leading vote-getter among NFC safeties for the Pro Bowl. "People tell me all the time that I remind them of Sean Taylor," Horton said. "I tell them, 'No.' I give it everything I've got and I always will, but I will never be Sean Taylor. He will never be forgotten."
The first time Horton walked into Redskins Park, he paused at Taylor's locker, encased in glass. Now, before every practice, he stops at the locker and peers inside. Horton never played with Taylor, but he is occupying one of the Redskins two safety spots, and thus carrying on his legacy. Horton has never been as acclaimed as Taylor, but he too is a relentless worker and a punishing hitter with an uncanny sense for the ball.
The Redskins are in a state of disarray right now, having lost four of five games. Tailback Clinton Portis is sniping at head coach Jim Zorn. Offensive tackle Chris Samuels is out for the year. Even Horton is nursing a shoulder injury. But he remains the brightest spot.
Seventh round picks do not start as rookies, not without an incredibly fortuitous bounce. For Colston, the break came in training camp two years ago, when the Saints traded receiver Donte' Stallworth to Philadelphia, creating an opening. For Horton, the break came on the morning of Sept. 14, when he was still lying in bed. The Redskins were playing that day against Horton's hometown team, the New Orleans Saints, and Reed Doughty was set to start at safety alongside LaRon Landry. But when Horton rolled out of bed and checked his cell phone, he had a text message from Doughty, saying he was out because of a stomach virus. Suddenly, Horton was the one who felt nauseous. "I'm a big sweater anyway," Horton said. "So I got to leaking."
It was Doughty who calmed him down. He sent Horton a text message that read: "I believe in you. I know you can do this. I've watched you practice and play. It doesn't change. Just do what you've been doing." In his first career start, Horton intercepted two passes, recovered a fumble and helped the Redskins beat the Saints. Doughty came back to start the following week against Arizona, but after that the job was Horton's for good.
Redskins' blogger Homer McFanboy started referring to Horton as The Predator -- because of his shoulder-length hair and aggressive style -- and somehow the nickname stuck. Horton is so enamored with the moniker that his website is www.predator48.com.
Like most late-round draft picks, Horton is fueled by all the teams that passed on him, determined to make them pay. He still does not understand why he lasted until pick No. 249, but his college career was at times tumultuous. He broke his foot, needed surgery on his wrist and played for a head coach, Karl Dorrell, who was under constant heat.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans, a tree fell through the roof of Horton's family's home in Metairie, La., destroying the house and virtually everything inside of it. Most of Horton's family had evacuated to a Houston suburb, but his 90-year-old great-grandfather, George Falley, decided to hang back at his home in the seventh ward of New Orleans and ride out the storm. More than a month later, Falley's body was identified. Horton's family eventually moved back to Metairie, into a new house across the street, and Horton had Falley's name tattooed across his chest.
For all the challenges Horton endured in his college years, he made a couple of contacts who were crucial in getting him to Redskins Park. One was James Washington, the former UCLA safety who was once a Cowboy and finished his career with the Redskins. When Horton was struggling, he'd inevitably get a call from Washington. "Hey Horton," Washington would say. "I think we need to go watch some film." Horton cringes at the memory of those sessions. "He would critique every little thing I did," Horton said. "It made me upset at times. But it made me better. He grabbed me and said, 'This is how things should be done. This is what it takes to get to the NFL.'"
It helped that Horton's defensive coordinator had been there, too. DeWayne Walker was the Redskins cornerbacks coach in 2004 and 2005 and brought part of their scheme with him to Westwood. Walker, one of the most respected assistant coaches in college football, told Horton after last season: "I don't know where you'll get drafted, but someone will give you a shot and keep you on their team because of the way you work."
Horton worked himself onto the team, into the starting lineup, possibly all the way to the Pro Bowl. Last season, the Redskins sent three players to Hawaii, each of whom paid tribute Taylor by wearing jersey No. 21 in the game. This season, Horton could be the one to honor Taylor at the Pro Bowl, just by taking his place on the field.