With training camp set to begin on July 25, Redskins.com will be previewing the current state of the roster, starting today with the team’s safeties.
After losing both starting safeties from last season, the Redskins will likely rely on free agent signing Landon Collins and other young options to fill the void under first-year defensive backs coach Ray Horton.
-- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
-- D.J. Swearinger
-- Landon Collins
CURRENT STATE OF THE UNIT:
Collins signed a six-year deal with the Redskins in March after spending four seasons with the New York Giants. He recorded 96 tackles and a forced fumble over 12 games last year until his season ended four games early due to a partially torn rotator cuff.
In 2016, Collins flashed his potential that solidified himself as one of the league’s top safeties.
He was the first player in NFL history to record 125 solo tackles, two sacks, five interceptions and 12 passes defended in a season. He made the All-Pro team, an honor no Redskins player has received since 1996.
Collins’ signing was crucial after the Redskins cut D.J. Swearinger, the team’s interceptions leader last season, in December. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who the Redskins traded for in the middle of last season, signed with the Chicago Bears in March.
“He understands his importance to this football team,” coach Jay Gruden said about Collins during OTAs. “It's fun to look at him over there instead of playing against him with the [New York] Giants all the time. He’s a good guy to have out there. He’s a communicator. It’s hard to tell how his presence is felt in shorts, but when the pads are on, that’s when you feel Landon."
While Collins is slated at strong safety, there will be a competition for the starter alongside him.
One option is Montae Nicholson, who started seven games last season before the Redskins traded for Clinton-Dix. Nicholson stood out his rookie year in 2017, recording 24 tackles, two passes defended and an interception in eight games.
In the second half of last season, Nicholson saw limited time while dealing with concussion symptoms. He was then placed on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list in December due to an off-field incident before returning in May.
“I’m extremely grateful and blessed to even be sitting in this chair right now, to be back [at Redskins Park]," Nicholson said during "Redskins Nation" with Larry Michael in May. "It’s showed me and taught me to make the best of every opportunity and don’t take anything for granted.”
Another option at free safety is Troy Apke, the Redskins’ fourth-round selection in the 2018 NFL draft. He displayed his athleticism during last year’s NFL Combine with a 4.34 second 40-yard dash and 41-inch vertical jump, but the 24-year-old played two games last season due to a hamstring injury.
Apke has limited experience at safety, only playing the position for one season at Penn State after switching from wide receiver.
"I think any rookie that comes into the league, it's hard,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said during OTAs. “I remember even when I first came in, you know exactly what you're supposed to do, and I think last year I remember telling him, 'I want you in those meetings every week just to get the concepts and understand exactly where your eyes are supposed to be … because you're actually the signal caller on the back end.' And he was in every one of the meetings, and he took note of it and it started to show up on the field.”
Fifth-year veteran Deshazor Everett, who’s impressed Gruden this offseason, recorded 21 tackles a year ago and put together his most notable performance (seven tackles, one pass defended and an interception) in the Redskins’ regular-season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles. Still, he's largely been a valuable special teams contributor during his time in Washington.
Rounding out the group are sophomore Jeremy Reaves, who spent time on the Redskins' practice squad last season before being called up to the active roster in December, and JoJo McIntosh, a three-year starter at Washington who the Redskins signed as an undrafted free agent in April.
WHAT TO WATCH:
The Redskins’ starter at free safety will likely be decided during training camp and the preseason.
Nicholson displayed his upside in 2017 and was key to the Redskins’ defense early on last season. The Redskins also invested in Apke with a fourth-round pick and could see his athleticism translate into on-field production this season. A key for those players, Gruden said, will be developing chemistry with Collins.
“Communication is critical for those guys, and the more work they get and the more situations we can put them in … the better they are going to be,” Gruden said. “But with Apke and Montae, those are the most important things, critical things for them just to get the reps and get the communication."
At strong safety, Gruden expects Collins to be tone-setter this defense has been missing in recent years. Collins, who is still working his way back to full strength after shoulder surgery, said the Redskins’ defensive schemes are similar to the Giants’, which bodes well for his transition.
“What he really needs to do is acclimate himself into new terminology, the new people he’s playing with,” Horton said in June, “and just getting healthy for us."