With training camp set to begin on July 26, Redskins.com previews the current state of the Redskins' roster, continuing today with the team's safeties.
The main storyline of the safety group is who will be the starting strong safety for the 2018 campaign. After the retirement of 10-year Redskins strong safety DeAngelo Hall, Washington has competition going on to see who takes over the up for grabs position.
Addition(s): Troy Apke (NFL Draft), Quin Blanding (College Free Agent)
Subtraction(s): DeAngelo Hall (Retired)
CURRENT STATE OF THE UNIT:
Even though the 15-year NFL veteran is no longer on the field in a Redskins uniform, he still has an influence in how the current safeties defend the secondary. Hall was often seen around the the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park during offseason workouts, communicating with veterans and continuing to assist the younger players.
Although the direct contact on the field is no longer there, the newer NFL safeties have taken Hall's advice to heart and have taken his points from his final year to improve their game heading into 2018.
"Last season was kind of learning curve, sitting there and learning from guys in the meeting room," second-year safety Fish Smithson said. "[D.J.] Swearinger, DeAngelo Hall was a great role model to me last year. It was good to get that year under my back."
When Hall became unavailable at the start of last season due to an ACL injury in 2016, it was free safety D.J. Swearinger Sr. that took over the leadership role of the secondary, as well as the rest of the defense. After being named the defensive captain for the Redskins prior to the 2017 campaign, the South Carolina product had a career-high in combined tackles and passes defensed while leading the team in interceptions with four. His leadership in the defensive secondary allowed the Redskins to string together a Top-10 passing defense statistically.
The favorite to take over at the strong position is second-year safety Montae Nicholson. Despite being placed on Injured Reserve for the final six games of the regular season, the fourth-round pick out of Michigan State finished 2017 with 24 combined tackles in eight games. According to defensive backs coach Torrian Gray, Nicholson has adjusted well after his rookie season and has already shown promise during offseason workouts.
Fourth-year safety Deshazor Everett also looks to get some time at that position, who served as the backup strong safety last season. Coming off a career-high of 62 tackles in 2017, the former Texas A&M defensive back has seen reps with the first team during offseason workouts.
During the final six games of the season, the six-foot safety came up with at least four tackles and had double digit tackles against the Chargers and the Giants. While Everett had his best NFL season last year, he felt like he was not accountable at times. Besides becoming the full-time starting strong safety, Everett only has one goal in mind for this year: being consistent.
"I played good some games. I played some good plays," Everett said. "This year, I want to be a guy that's accountable. That's not going to be [a guy where],'oh is he going to mess up this play?' I'm consistent. I'm consistent and I'm going to do it the right way the whole time. That's my goal this year. I want to make plays. I want to get some takeaways. I want to make a difference for the team, not just be a guy out there."
Washington added depth to their safety group when they selected former Penn State safety Troy Apke with a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. While the 6-foot-1 rookie is known for playing free safety, he has shown his versatility throughout his college career by switching from wide receiver to defense entering his freshman season. Apke is also a valuable guy to have on special teams, and played a vital role in that group for the Nittany Lions during his career.
Smithson showed potential during his first season, coming up with a 63-yard interception against Cincinnati in the preseason and being called up from the practice squad for the final two games of the regular season. The Redskins also added Quin Blanding as a college free agent, who finished No. 9 on Virginia's career tackle list and is looking to make the team in a reserve role with a strong impression during training camp.
"I really, really like our safety group," Gray said. "You got Montae [Nicholson] and D.J. [Swearinger] who are second year into the system in what we're doing. We're familiar with what they can do. Deshazor Everett I thought has taken leaps and bounds from where he's come last year. Troy Apke is a talented guy who is in a learning process. I think you got four really good safeties there. And then you got Fish Smithson, [Quin] Blanding, guys who are trying to learn and come up. I really like our guys."
WHAT TO WATCH:
Not only will the competition for the strong safety spot be something to look out for in training camp, but how much more the secondary is talking to the rest of the defense. According to Swearinger, he noticed that there are more players acquainted in their roles heading into their second season and that has resulted in them being more verbal.
With the secondary corresponding more with what is going on on the field, it has helped make the passing game's job of executing more difficult during 7-on-7 and full team drills.
"We're doing a lot more communication," Swearinger said. "Communication is very evident this year. I feel like for a lot of people it's their second year playing for this defense so I feel like everybody is more comfortable. Communication has been a lot better this year."
Check out images of the Washington Redskins' fourth day of Phase 1 offseason workouts at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park.
The emergence of Nicholson is also an area where coaches and fans will be able to see how much the West Mifflin, Pa., native has improved in his second year. Swearinger has noticed that the 22-year-old is more focused on the mental side of things and his communication has been different after Nicholson "wouldn't say a word" in 2017.
With a year of experience and his improvement in almost every area of the defense, look for Nicholson to be in the discussion as starting strong safety for 2018.
"He's been flying around," Swearinger said. "The thing with Montae is we always tell him that he's got to lock it in mentally. He's doing way more than he did last year. Last year, he wouldn't say a word. This year, he's definitely trying to understand it and as the repetitions keep going, his confidence and communication will get better. I'm not worried about that and we'll definitely get communication going once this season starts."