Here’s a side-by-side view of the safety depth chart for June from last year and this year:
As you can see, Sean Davis and Maurice Smith are gone, replaced by Bobby McCain and Chris Miller, and Darrick Forrest was selected in the 5th round of this year’s NFL draft.
But there are other changes changes as well. This time last year, Kam Curl was an unproven rookie 7th round pick who wasn’t expected by many to make the roster; this season, many are suggesting that, based on his play in the latter part of his rookie season, he should be the team’s starting strong safety. Troy Apke, who was the starting free safety for the first five games of the 2020 season, is now seen as a player “on the bubble” whose only chance to remain on the roster is his high level of special teams play.
Let’s take a look at the 2021 safety group player-by-player to assess where we are as a group.
McCain was signed late in the offseason when he was released by the Dolphins after the draft. His release was something of a surprise, even to informed observers, since he was a captain and had been with Miami since being drafted by the franchise in 2015.
Due to the circumstances of his free agency — signed late in a year where very few teams had post-draft needs and when cap space was limited for most franchises — McCain was always going to sign a limited-dollar one-year deal with someone. It turned out to be the Washington Football Team, whose situation at free safety probably offered McCain the best opportunity he could find in the league.
McCain, drafted in 2015, signed a 4-year extension with the Dolphins in 2018. He was due to earn $6.4m in 2021 and $7.0m in 2022. Being released late in the offseason, many clubs were limited on cap space. At the time of his release, OverTheCap listed Washington as one of only 11 teams with at least $16m in available cap space for 2021. McCain was facing limited opportunities at that point for a big contract, and was likely seeking out an opportunity to either get significant playing time or to join a high-quality roster with playoff opportunities.
Washington may be able to provide both of those things.
McCain is 27 years old, and is listed at 5’11” and 192 pounds. He played 923 defensive snaps in 2020, with 717 of them coming at free safety, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s no Pro Bowler, but is a competent veteran safety. PFF gave him an overall defensive grade of 62.1 last season, which ranks 48th among all safeties with a minimum of 400 snaps. In other words, McCain graded out among the top 64 safeties in the league, which indicates that he is a starter-quality player at the position.
He very much fits the same mold that Sean Davis did a year ago; specifically, he is an experienced veteran starting free safety from another team (Davis had been signed from the Steelers) looking for a one-year opportunity to reestablish his market value in Washington. Ultimately, the WFT released Sean Davis at the end of training camp last year despite having guaranteed $2m for the 2020 season.
In June last year, I thought Sean Davis would line up as the Week 1 starter at free safety, but that didn’t happen. This June, I am expecting Bobby McCain to be the Week 1 starter against the LA Chargers. It’ll be interesting to see if I’m any more correct this year than I was last season.
Collins, of course, had four outstanding seasons with the Giants, who selected him in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL draft. With the Giants, he earned three consecutive trips to the pro bowl and was named an All-Pro in 2016. He was signed as a veteran free agent by the Redskins in 2019. While there was not much criticism of signing Landon Collins as a player, there was a great deal of consternation among fans over the lucrative contract (6 years, $14m per year) that he received.
That criticism has not dissipated. While Collins has played well as part of the Washington defense, he simply hasn’t yet lived up to his contract money. When he ruptured his Achilles tendon in Week 7 last season, it aggravated the dissatisfied fans, and when rookie 7th round pick Kamren Curl replaced him and seemed to out-play Collins, some fans started screaming for Landon Collins to be cut.
That won’t be happening in 2021. First of all, if the team were to release Collins this season, they would face a $9.3m reduction in cap space. His contract precludes him from being released. Secondly, his play doesn’t warrant it. While Collins has issues in coverage, he is a strong run stopper and if he is used correctly, he adds to the defense. Thirdly, the coaching staff seem committed to him — not just as a member of the team, but as a starting safety and defensive leader.
There was a fair bit of discussion this off-season about utilizing Landon Collins as a linebacker in order to use his skills more effectively, allowing 2nd year player Kam Curl to start at strong safety. That idea was poo-pooed by Collins publicly on social media, and seemed to also get quashed by Jack Del Rio in an off-season interview in which he indicated that Collins was the presumed starter, and that it was Curl who would likely play multiple defensive positions, as he did last year.
Even so, those comments seem to have been walked back slightly at times, with the coaching staff saying that the defense is very fluid and that Collins might line up in multiple positions on the field, sometimes at the line of scrimmage, sometimes looking like an off-the-ball linebacker in the box, sometimes blitzing, sometimes playing deep.
In the end, I don’t think the label of “safety” or “linebacker” is very important in Collins’ situation. He will, if he is healthy, be on the field often.
But health is an issue. As mentioned, his injury was to his Achilles tendon in late October of 2020. This is a difficult injury to recover from. Consider this from a medical journal article published in 2017:
Of [NFL players] that suffered an Achilles tendon rupture, 26% did not ever return to play in the NFL. Players who did return to play in the NFL took an average of 9 months to recover after the date of injury. Across all positions, there was a net decrease in power ratings by 22% and a net decrease in approximate value by 23% over 3 years following player return after Achilles tendon rupture.
An estimated recovery time of nine months would put Landon Collins’ return somewhere between the middle of training camp and the start of the regular season. Given the depth of strong safety position and the expected flexibility of IR rules, there is no real need to rush Collins back onto the field. The team should be able to give him as much time as he needs to return to full health.
But the other part of the medical report is troubling — the part about a 22% decrease in power rating. That’s a significant loss for any player, and especially for a strong safety who needs explosion in tackling and in coverage, and who relies on change of direction abilities in the open field.
That said, there was a hopeful note in the same medical report:
[T]hese numbers optimistically suggest that advancements in treatment protocol and rehabilitation are resulting in faster recovery and improved performance after Achilles tendon ruptures in NFL players.
This report, published 4 years ago, painted a positive picture of advances in treatment for this injury. There’s a definite possibility that Landon Collins returns to play at a high level in 2021, but the team has the depth to start the season without him, or to “ease him in” on a limited snap count to begin the season if needed.
Curl surprised everyone, I suspect, aside from himself, his mom, and the Washington coaches, with what he was able to do in 2020. He began the season playing special teams and appearing in a number of different positions on defense, but had an opportunity to shine at strong safety when Collins was injured.
Is Kamren Curl 2020’s Matt Ioannidis?
I remember that when Landon Collins was injured in October, reporters asked Ron Rivera if he would consider signing a veteran free agent — I believe Eric Reid was available — and the head coach replied that he had been impressed by Curl and the other young players on the roster, and that he didn’t see the need to sign anyone to join the regular roster as a starter.
I think it’s fair to say that Kam Curl took that opportunity and ran with it.
In 836 defensive snaps, Curl pulled down 3 interceptions — one of those returned for a touchdown. He had 4 passes defended, 2 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 5 QB hits, and 88 tackles. Curl played 73% of the team’s defensive snaps and 30% of the special teams snaps in 2020.
I think it’s fair to say that if Kam Curl had been the starting strong safety from Week 1 of the 2020 season, he would have been in contention for defensive rookie of the year (an award that went to his teammate Chase Young) ahead of players like Jeremy Chinn of the Carolina Panthers.
Could Kam Curl Excel at Free Safety?
Kamren Curl leads Washington players in Performance-Based Pay with $477,316
Many Washington fans — and I count myself among them — feel as if Curl earned the starting strong safety job in 2020, and that the job should be his rather than Landon Collins’. Jack Del Rio seemed to shut that particular door, but, as mentioned above, a lot depends on Collins’ health. If he’s not ready to go by Week 1, it may be a moot point and Curl may be the starter by default.
No matter what, the Washington coaching staff will find a way to get Curl on the field a lot. He has the flexibility to play many different positions on defense and special teams as well. According to PFF, in 2020, Curl lined up on the defensive line, as a box safety, as a slot corner, boundary corner and free safety, and participated in special teams on kick coverage, kick returns, punt returns, field goals and extra points.
The coaches will absolutely find a way to get him on the field frequently in 2021.
Deshazor Everett and Jeremy Reaves
Both Everett and Reaves came to the NFL as undrafted free agents, Everett in 2015 and Reaves in 2018. Each signed initially with a different team before coming to Washington; Everett signed initially in Tampa Bay and Reaves in Philadelphia. Both were waived by their clubs prior to the start of their respective rookie seasons and signed almost immediately by the Redskins, and each has spent the balance of his career to date in Washington, spending time on both the practice squad and the regular roster.
Reaves suffered a concussion in his first career start in 2019, but was active the following week. He has been active for 20 games in his 3-year career, but never more than 9 in any given season.
Everett was injured in December each of the past two years and finished both seasons on IR, but he has been active for 75 games in his 6-year career, and was active for 34 of a possible 36 games from 2016 to 2018.
Reaves played very well as the starter after Everett was injured last season, leading many fans to have high hopes for him in 2021.
But the fact is that Everett seems to have always been favored by the coaches over Reaves in the three years they’ve been on the team together. In all three seasons, Everett was on the opening day roster while Reaves began each season as a practice squad player. Last year, when the decision was made to bench Troy Apke for poor play, it was Deshazor Everett who was promoted to the starting role, not Reaves.
One key reason why Everett has had preference over Reaves is because of Everett’s special teams play. He was first named captain of the special teams in 2018, and was still the ST captain at the start of the 2020 season.
Even the respective contract situations argue that the franchise sees Everett as more valuable. He was signed to a 4-year extension in 2019 and has cap hits in 2021 and 2022 of $1.8m and $2.3m per Over The Cap. Jeremy Reaves, on the other hand, is in the final year of his contract and counts just $850,000 against the salary cap.
Despite a noticeable level of fan sentiment in favor of Reaves, the evidence points to the 29-year-old Everett returning to the roster in 2021 and playing out the remaining two years of his contract.
At just 24 years of age, Reaves seems to have a future with the Washington Football Team, but it may include additional stints on the practice squad as he fights a seemingly endless battle at the fringe of the 53-man roster.
Miller is a young defensive back who was claimed off of waivers from the Arizona Cardinals in mid-May. In a Tweet by the Washington Football Team announcing the transaction, Miller was referred to as a cornerback, but he has always played safety in the past, and he is listed on the team website as a safety.
Miller, 23, was undrafted out of Baylor and initially signed a UDFA contract with the Seattle Seahawks in 2020, but didn’t survive the end-of-camp cutdown. He signed with the Titans practice squad last year and later joined the Cardinals. He appears to be the least likely safety in training camp to make the team’s regular season roster. This year, the NFL has re-instituted staged roster cut downs, with 5 players being released after the first preseason game, 5 after the second game, and final cutdown to 53 players following the third and final preseason game. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Miller one of the first five casualties.
During his college career at Baylor, Miller recorded 177 tackles, one sack, three forced fumbles, two recoveries and six passes defended.
He appears to be a long-shot for an NFL career.
Troy Apke is in the final year of his rookie contract after being drafted in the 4th round of the 2018 draft. Despite being blessed with excellent speed, Apke seems to have little understanding of angles and tackling skills in the NFL. It seems unlikely that he will be signed to a veteran contract by Washington when his rookie contract ends.
I have to say, after seeing him benched after starting the first 5 weeks of the 2020 season, I never imagined that Apke would make it to OTAs this year, much less training camp or the 53-man roster.
I felt like Ron Rivera and the coaching staff had to be given a pass in 2020 because of the absence of preseason games. I think Apke must look like a coach’s dream with his speed in non-contact practice. The fact is, however, when the pads are on and the whistle blows on Sunday, Apke demonstrates an astonishing lack of field awareness and tackling skills.
He has been a participant at the two sessions of organized team activities (OTAs) in May and June. A couple of beat reporters tweeted that he was getting some time at cornerback during these early offseason sessions. Whether this is a genuine opportunity for Apke to try to resurrect his flailing career in Washington or simply an aberration of spring practice, I don’t know.
I, personally, don’t have any real belief that Apke will wind up on the regular season 53-man roster. Last year, when Deshazor Everett was injured late in the season, the coaches didn’t go back to Apke as the team fought for a spot in the playoffs, but turned to Jeremy Reaves. I thought that decision spoke volumes. If Apke makes the roster at all in 2021, it will almost certainly be as a special teams player and backup-of-last-resort, unless this seeming experiment at cornerback blossoms unexpectedly.
Oh yeah - Darrick Forrest
As pointed out in the comments, I neglected to include the draft pick, Darrick Forrest in this article when I posted it; however, I just published a spotlight article on Forrest a week ago. Here are some hightlights from that article.
The 5th round safety is a backup who will earn his crust in the NFL as a special teams player and general dogsbody when it comes to his position in the defensive backfield. Forrest is a bit undersized, but he’s fast and explosive, and we know from his college tape that he’s a good tackler. When you consider that both Rivera and Del Rio talked about Forrest as being primarily a special teams player as a rookie, the picture seems to sharpen.
Darrick Forrest compares favorably to a player like Deshazor Everett — a guy who will make his mark on special teams and merely add depth and some flexibility to the safety position on defense, hopefully growing into the defensive role over time.
Forrest is seen as a leader and high-character guy; maybe coaches project him as a future special teams captain.
Athletically, he tests elite for speed and explosion, and he’s surprisingly strong on the bench press for a guy his size. He should be able to get downfield in a hurry on kickoff and punt coverage, and bring a hammer to the return man when he arrives.
He will make the team as a special teamer or not at all.
My (updated) Week 1 roster projection
Landon Collins is a roster lock, though I think it’s about 65/35 whether he’ll be physically ready for the start of the season. As mentioned above, the team has the depth to allow him to take his time returning to the lineup, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Collins was put on the 53-man roster at final cut downs then moved to IR to start the season, allowing him to return to the lineup after just a few weeks.
Bobby McCain could be beat out for the starting free safety spot, but I think he provides veteran leadership and should be the odds-on favorite to start at that position Week 1.
Kamren Curl is the other roster lock at the safety position. He will likely see as many snaps as the starters, but will, if Jack Del Rio is to be believed, move around the defense quite a lot, just as he did last season.
Chris Miller feels very much like a camp body. I think his ceiling in 2021 is practice squad, and he could find himself out of the league if he doesn’t have a good training camp.
Troy Apke is the wildcard here. I am surprised he wasn’t released in March; the fact that he’s still here indicates that the coaches still believe in him to some degree. Ultimately, I think he gets cut, and maybe re-signs as a practice squad player. I’ll be surprised if he makes the 53-man roster in Week 1, but could be re-signed later in the season as injuries take their toll. The wildcard factor is that he always seems to impress coaches in non-contact practice, but I’m relying on Ron Rivera to apply the principle of “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”.
Deshazor Everett will make the team as the fourth safety and special teams captain.
Darrick Forrest & Jeremy Reaves - If the team keeps five safeties, which is a possibility given Collins’ health concerns and Curl’s positional versatility, then I think Forrest and Reaves are in a battle to make the cut, and this is what I think will happen. Forrest, as a current draft pick, probably has the edge. Reaves likely goes to the practice squad for the 4th consecutive season, ready to be elevated when injuries bite during the season.