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Washington’s safety room is stacked

Washington Commanders v Houston Texans Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Somehow, it seems like since Sean Taylor’s passing in 2007, Washington has been lost in the safety wilderness. LaRon Landry, DJ Swearinger, Reed Doughty, Madieu Williams, Brandon Merriweather, Baccari Rambo, Ryan Clark, Dashon Goldson, and Trent Robinson. These are just a few of the names who have held down the safety position in DC over the course of the last decade and a half.

In 2022, however, Washington “suddenly” finds itself with an abundance of talent - deliberately cultivated through the draft - at the back-end of its defense.

Kam Curl

Selected out of Arkansas in the 7th round of the 2020 draft, it’s been speculated that the lack of a Combine as a result of COVID-19 protocols allowed Curl to go under the radar of much of the NFL, causing him to slip dramatically in the draft. In any case, from his rookie season, where he started 11 games, Curl balled out.

In 2021, unfortunately, Curl got off to a bit of a slow start as the coaching staff decided to continue to try to force Landon Collins at safety early on. Eventually, Curl reclaimed the starting role and resumed his stellar play.

So far this season, Curl is Pro Football Focus’ (PPF) top rated safety in the league, already posting a career high in tackles for a loss (5), and a career best “missed tackle percentage,” a miniscule 5%. He’s also taken an impressive 98% of the defensive snaps this year.

Somehow, only 2 and half years into his career, he’s already the elder statesman of Washington’s deep secondary.

The team will have to seriously contemplate whether to extend Curl this offseason, the first point at which it can be considered, but that’s a topic for another time.

Darrick Forrest

Coming out of the University of Cincinnati in the 2021 draft, Forrest, taken in the 5th round, was considered one of the best special teams players leaving college that year. He seemed like a logical, eventual, replacement for DeShazor Everett, but given his collegiate performance it wasn’t clear - at least to me - what his trajectory would be as a pro safety.

During his rookie season, Forrest didn’t start a single game at safety, but he did take over 80% of the snaps on special teams, where he made some very strong impressions.

With Landon Collins cut in the 2022 offseason, the competition for “buffalo nickel” opened wide up, and Forrest grabbed his chance. So far this year, Forrest has taken 72% of the defensive snaps at safety, and 100% over the course of the last two games, and has become an absolute menace. Through 11 games, “Forrest Thump” has three interceptions, two forced fumbles, and has allowed an opposing passer rating of just 59.1.

Together, Curl and Forrest have quickly become one of the most dominating safety tandems in the NFL.

Jeremy Reaves

Brought into the league in 2018 by the Eagles as an undrafted free agent out of South Alabama, Reaves has flown under the radar for much of his time in DC. He’s been an important special teams contributor for all five years he’s been in Washington, but he had something of a break out as a safety in 2020.

In the following offseason, I pondered whether he might be a long term option for the team at free safety, but it never materialized. In 2021, he only ended up playing in 5 games for Washington, as Bobby McCain was signed and thrust into the starting free safety role with mixed results.

This year, Reaves continues to be an important special teams contributor, but with Forrest’s ascendance, has gotten only 25 defensive snaps (about 4%). Nevertheless, he remains a very capable back-up should either starter go down. Reaves is currently only signed through this year, at around $1M.

Percy Butler

Washington went back to the safety well for the third straight year in the 2022 draft, taking Percy Butler in the 4th round out of the University of Louisiana. Like Darrick Forrest before him, and like Terry McLaurin before both of them, Butler was widely hailed as the top special teamer in the draft.

He was also considered, by at least one notable draft observer, to be the best pure free safety in the draft.

Jamual did a great profile on Butler after the draft, outlining both this strengths and weaknesses:

So what is Butler’s projection? With UL, he played in the box, post, and as a slot cornerback. As stated before, he has the athletic traits to thrive in the secondary, but how about his processing and reaction time? I understand the importance of the famous and overstated “Buffalo Nickel” package, but it all comes down to fit and what Del Rio wants to do. I believe Butler will see most of his snaps as a post player. With Landon Collins gone, for now, Kam Curl will likely see nearly every defensive snap in the box, given his skill set. The true versatile piece for this secondary is Bobby McCain, who had success as a slot cornerback and free safety. McCain is the piece you can move around. With his veteran experience, he can play at multiple alignments within a given game.

Putting too much on Butler coming out can slow his development. That is not to say he is incapable of learning a lot, but it is essential to start micro with rookies before expanding their role until they prove that they can handle more.

Thus far, Jamual’s take seems to fairly accurately reflect Butler’s utilization, with the rookie in on about 70% of the special teams snaps, and just playing on about 6% of the defensive ones.

What’s the future for Butler given that Forrest appears to have the free safety spot locked up for at least the next few years? It could obviously be as competent depth, but it may also present Chris Harris and Jack Del Rio with the opportunity to deploy him at corner at some point. He certainly seems to have the athletic profile for it.

With great starting talent and strong depth, Washington has one of the best safety situations that it has had in a very long time. It also has a tremendous youth movement, with three of the players above still on their rookie deals through 2023.

Now that the defensive line has gotten its act together this year, and with these guys tightening up the back end, Washington is capable of finishing as one the top defenses in the league this season if they can remain disciplined, and can continue to improve as formerly injured players re-join the ranks.

Poll

Since 2007, can you think of a time when Washington had a better situation at safety than it does now?

  • 95%
    No.
    (1026 votes)
  • 4%
    Yes (please provide details in the comments)
    (44 votes)
1070 votes total Vote Now