Nichol(son) Package: A Star Is Born?

I’m one of those crazy fans of the game of football that keeps his finger on the pulse of his team for close to the full yearly cycle.  Almost as soon as the regular season ends, if not before, I’m combing mock drafts, looking up prospects, and taking quick inventory of which veterans have expiring contracts.  (Spotrac is awesome for that sort of thing, by the way.  I highly recommend it.)  By February I’ve got some idea of who I’d like to see the front office take a crack at in the upcoming free agent pool.  2017 was one of my better years, as I liked D.J. Swearinger, and had been banging the Zach Brown drum very hard in the lead-up to free agency.  (And, at the risk of sounding less than humble… well, the results speak for themselves.)

Then there’s the draft.  The first round is a yearly event for me, and going to watch the first round in person is a definite bucket list item.  Team-building aspect aside, it’s just great theater – other than good playoff ball, perhaps the best theater the NFL has to offer.  That first shock trade that shoots everyone’s draft board to pieces; the often unbridled displays of emotion from young men, many from troubled backgrounds, when they receive the cellphone call that makes them almost instant millionaires; the chess match as general managers and draft war rooms jockey for the position needed to acquire the one prospect that could turn their fortunes around…

But I’m getting sidetracked.  My point is, I watch the first round of the draft on television almost religiously.  The second and third rounds I usually follow very closely as well.

The fourth round and later are on Saturday afternoon, and I’m typically out of the house doing other things.  I wouldn’t be able to tell you what I was doing half the time when a day 3 player gets drafted by the Skins.

Oddly, though, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the announcement of the Montae Nicholson pick came across the ticker on my phone.  

Playing music is one of my many hobbies.  A new Guitar Center location had just opened up in downtown Silver Spring earlier that week, and I had made the drive down to give it a look and see if I would prefer it to my usual stop in Glen Burnie.  (Spoiler: I didn’t.  Not for a 40-minute drive, anyway.  And they’ve since opened yet another store in Laurel that’s closer and, in my opinion, much better.)  I had just parked my van and was walking across the breezeway to the Ellsworth Place building when I decided to check my phone to see how things were going.

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My literal reaction to the name that flashed across my screen – and I vividly remember muttering it to myself audibly, not to mention I tweeted it – was, “Who the heck is Montae Nicholson?”

In hindsight, it seems almost like foreshadowing.

Nicholson was one of the few picks on the Redskins’ 2017 slate that was not well received by a lot of pundits, and subsequently by many fans.  I usually try to keep an open mind, especially in day three where misses typically don’t look so glaring - although you’d typically hope to get something out of a fourth-rounder, if only a developmental prospect that can contribute on special teams and grow into reliable depth.  And even if I had wanted to, the afterglow from our pure fortune at nabbing Jonathan Allen at #17 hadn’t worn off yet.  Welp… they can’t all be gems, I remember thinking.

Fast forward five months, and Nicholson’s essentially a starter at one of our safety positions and visibly a positive impact on our defense, which is more than can be said for a dozen or more men that have been tasked in recent seasons with trying to stop the bleeding on a positional wound that seemed to reopen yearly.  We’ve spent literally the last decade trying to find a true deep cover safety with the instincts to read and react, and the athletic ability to get there and do something about it.  More often than not, we’ve ended up each year with a pair of safeties whose talents are best geared toward in-the-box tackling.  (Often minus the actual in-the-box tackling.)  We’ve tried everything short, perhaps, of taking a high-end prospect early.  We’ve used younger guys, we’ve used veterans, we’ve converted cornerbacks, we’ve attempted salvage projects, we’ve taken chances on depth guys that have flashed on other teams in limited sample sizes.  And none of it has worked.  At the situation’s nadir, our starting safeties seemed unable to remember and execute a basic coverage assignment.

This isn’t to say that all of our safety problems are solved with Nicholson and the newly acquired D.J. Swearinger.  But the difference is obvious to anyone who watches.  Nicholson ‘gets it’ as far as his job description on a very fundamental level.  If an intangible like football IQ can jump off the screen, it most certainly does in his case.

But make no mistake – Montae Nicholson isn’t going to be the type of player that’s going to have to have to lean completely on his savvy to compensate for his lack of physical giftedness.  Quite the opposite.  Montae Nicholson is 6’2” and 216 pounds.  His 4.42 40 time is well above average for a safety.  He came in 3rd at his position group in the combine by the tiniest of margins (NC State’s Josh Jones came in at 4.41, and obligatory yearly lab experiment prospect Obi Melifonwu  In football terms, that equals ability to stay with most receivers in a foot race if called upon, the ability to come downhill quickly to break on a thrown ball or tag a ball carrier in the run game, and the ability to range from single high in the deep middle of the field to either sideline to make a play on ball on receiver.

This last competence showed up twice in the Redskins’ recent victory against the Raiders and their highly productive duo of Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper.  On the second play from scrimmage, the Raiders dial up a play involving a deep route to Cooper down the sideline.  Montae drifts inside toward the deep middle and appears, either by accident or by savvy far beyond his years, to fool Derek Carr into seeing no safety help over the top and throwing the ball to Cooper.  But this is a Cover 2 variation the whole time.  Montae flips his hips and puts on the burners to get to the numbers, before finishing the play with a leaping catch in traffic that a lot of pro receivers would frankly have a hard time making.

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But Nicholson isn’t simply a coverage safety with range and ball skills.  He can also use that speed to deliver a blow.  A hit he put on Rams rookie TE Gerald Everett took Everett out of the game for several plays.  The hit he laid on Michael Crabtree in the Raiders matchup – another deep-middle-to-sideline job taken straight out of the “How To Be An Enforcer From The Safety Position” textbook – forcefully separated Crabtree from the ball, and not only took him out of the remainder of that game, but gave him a chest injury that left his status for the Raiders’ following matchup in doubt.  The best thing about both hits is that neither drew the attention of the referees; both were perfectly legal by any stretch of today’s rules.

Montae Nicholson, in about two games, has displayed range, ball hawking, instincts, and the ability to dole out legal yet forceful punishment to pass catchers.  It’s almost frightening to realize that you’re likely seeing a young man (‘young’ being the operative word – he doesn’t turn 22 until December) at the floor of his NFL ability.  But such is the case with the Skins’ rookie safety, and it should be taken as a good sign.  His physical traits give him an extremely high ceiling – and with the instincts we’ve seen him flash at the safety position, we could see him climb up the ranks sooner than anyone expected.