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A closer look at Redskins’ fourth-round pick Montae Nicholson

With their second of two fourth-round picks, the Washington Redskins drafted safety Montae Nicholson from Michigan State. On first glance, Nicholson looks the part. He’s 6-foot-2, 212 pounds and is very athletic. That athleticism stood out in particular to Redskins Head Coach Jay Gruden.

“He’s a big kid that can really run,” Gruden said. “I think he ran a 4.4 at the combine, and worst case he’s going to help out our special teams and that’s important. That’s one of the big three phases so that’s a good add for us.”

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But there’s much more to being an NFL safety than just looking the part and running fast. Here’s a closer look at what Washington is getting in Nicholson.

Here on a third-and-2, Wisconsin shows a run-heavy formation with two tight ends tight to the left. Nicholson is the deepest defender, lined up about nine yards off the line of scrimmage, opposite the two tight ends. He has deep safety responsibilities, so after the snap, Nicholson quickly bails out and drops toward the middle of the field. But he spots the tight end running up the seam to the left of the formation and works back outside the hash marks. Nicholson arrives a fraction of a second after the ball does, but he lands a crunching hit that ensures the tight end drops the pass and saves the first down.

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It’s a good play from Nicholson that shows off his movement skills. First, he has to drop at an angle to get to the deep middle of the field before having to quickly shift back outside the hash marks to break up the pass. With the play in front of him, he can make the most of his speed and athleticism. His closing speed is a big part of what makes Nicholson appealing.

Like on the previous play, Nicholson is the deepest defender, 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. BYU opts to run a zone play to the left. As the deepest defender, Nicholson doesn’t necessarily have an immediate run fit on the play. However, he works down to the line of scrimmage and reads the running back. As soon as the back attempts to bounce his run outside, Nicholson finds another gear and closes the gap incredibly quickly.

By closing the gap so quickly, Nicholson takes away the edge and stops the back from being able to turn the corner. The back attempts to cut back, but the rest of the defense closes off the cutback lane and Nicholson trips up the runner behind the line of scrimmage for a loss.

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Having that type of athlete is somewhat rare and very desirable at the safety position. However, Nicholson’s athletic ability doesn’t necessarily translate to football skills. Safeties have to be able to anticipate, read and react to every part of the offense. They have to be able to quickly process and diagnose misdirection, play-action fakes and double moves. Nicholson struggled with that aspect at times during his college career.

On this play, Nicholson is given a relatively tough coverage assignment. Michigan State send the cornerback on a blitz, leaving Nicholson to stay on top of the receiver isolated to the left of the formation. Penn State must have recognized this blitz because they have the perfect play call lined up for it. The outside receiver runs a double move to use Nicholson’s athleticism against him.

Nicholson has to stay on top of that receiver, but as soon as he reads the break outside, he gets out of his backpedal and quickly works down to the receiver. The receiver then surprises him by breaking back down the field. Nicholson is late to read the double move and can’t recover his position, giving up the easy touchdown reception.

As the last line of defense, safeties can’t afford to get beaten on double moves. Playing aggressively is fine, but the priority of a safety in deep coverage is to stay on top of everything, not necessarily to break up every pass. That means reading the route combinations as well as locating the football; there’s no margin for error so safeties can’t afford to just guess.

Unfortunately, there were times when Nicholson appeared to be guessing where the ball was going, rather than locating the ball.

Here, Indiana runs a slant-flat concept with a seam route added in to clear space. Nicholson is the deep safety in the middle of the field on this play. The quarterback stares down the slant on the outside and made his intentions clear. But as the deep safety, Nicholson instead sprinted over to the seam route from his original position in the deep middle of the field.

As the catch is made by the receiver on the slant, Nicholson comes into frame with his body facing the receiver running up the seam and his head only just turning back inside to the slant receiver. Nicholson vacates a big hole on the middle of the field for the slant receiver to run into. By making the wrong read, he turned what should have been a routine tackle in the middle of the field for a 15-yard gain into a 55-yard gain and nearly a touchdown.

Mistakes are often exemplified in the secondary, especially at safety. But to his credit, Nicholson never gave up on the play and managed to turn around and chase down the receiver to make the tackle and save the touchdown. That effort is worth recognizing and commending. It’s something that shows up regularly when watching Nicholson.

On this play, Nicholson lines up about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, across from the tight end. The tight end runs a slant route, which Nicholson quickly breaks on, making up the ground quickly. However, Nicholson never appears to locate the football. The ball goes to the outside receiver, who secures his catch and breaks the tackle of the outside corner before running into the space originally occupied by Nicholson. He jukes past the free safety easily and then sprints for the end zone. Nicholson never gives up on the play and manages to not only catch up from behind, but have the awareness to knock the ball out and nearly create a turnover.

The effort is fantastic and I imagine it’s a big part of the reason Washington drafted him. It should make him a solid special teams player at the very least, as Gruden said. However, while the outside receiver wasn’t necessarily his play to make, it appears as though Nicholson wasn’t reading the quarterback properly. He broke quickly on the tight end inside, who was his man, but the quarterback was clearly working outside. Even the linebacker in the middle of the field read that and began to work over before he was caught in the traffic created by Nicholson’s hit.

Had Nicholson read the quarterback and allowed the quarterback to lead him to the throw, instead of assuming it was going inside, he might have been able to make the tackle on the outside receiver before he reached the first down marker.

The other concern I have with Nicholson is tackling. At times, he lands big hits and is an intimidating factor, but there are also times when he dives at the feet of the ball-carrier and misses tackles completely.

Here, Nicholson lines up about 10 yards off the ball, just outside the hash mark where the referee is standing. The ball is handed off on an inside run that the running back cuts back almost immediately. Nicholson quickly reads run and works up toward the line of scrimmage to fill the gap. However, as he approaches the running back with an opportunity to make a tackle and save the first down, Nicholson stops his feet and dives at the feet of the running back. The back eludes him easily and picks up the first down before another defender can get over to make the tackle.

Tackling is a huge part of the game for safeties. They have to be able to make every type of tackle, including open-field tackles. This diving at the feet of ball-carriers is too much of a common occurrence in Nicholson’s game and is something he’ll have to clean up in order to see the field in the NFL.

Overall, Nicholson is a fantastic athlete with ideal size and movement skills for the safety position. However, in my opinion, he needs a lot of work on fundamental tackling, diagnosing plays — particularly with play action and misdirection — and reading the quarterback to locate the football. For a safety, he was out of position too often as a result of missed reads and play-action fakes, which cannot happen at the safety position at the next level.