This time last year, Nicholson still was rehabbing from a torn labrum in his left shoulder. But that wouldn’t be the only setback the 2017 fourth-rounder would face as a first-year pro. A devastating blow to the helmet, delivered by San Francisco 49ers receiver Pierre Garcon in Week 6, left Nicholson twitching on the turf, and then five weeks later, he suffered a concussion against New Orleans. By December, Nicholson was still “symptomatic,” according to Coach Jay Gruden, and in the concussion protocol. That same month, the team placed him on injured reserve.
As Nicholson took inventory of his rookie year, he stressed why that one word could explain so much. “Just because last year, I didn’t get to experience this. I was out, sitting on the sideline. And that hurt,” he said. “… But now that I’m out here, I just feel great, I feel extremely blessed and relieved that I’m able to be out here.”
Nicholson is one of several Redskins players eager to make up for missed time in 2017. But his value within the defense can’t be overstated.
“There’s already a lot more expected of me, from myself. So the pressure they’re applying is not really anything to me,” said the safety, who was an intriguing Michigan State prospect due to his elite speed and raw, physical gifts. “But yeah, they do expect more out of me and I expect to give what they expect.”
During the NFL scouting combine in February, Gruden likened Nicholson’s importance to that of tight end Jordan Reed, the focal point of his offense. At the time, the coach highlighted how much ground Nicholson can cover in the open field, adding: “We need him back there.”
This week, Gruden stressed that a full offseason of work is “critical” for the 22-year-old Nicholson, given his age and lack of experience.
“Last year was a great test for him. We just got to sprinkle it in and saw him play,” Gruden said. “… And now it’s a matter of him learning the system and communicating. The comfort level you see from guys year one to year two, especially the safety position because so many things change – trying to disguise and coming down, playing a hole, playing post, playing box, whatever it is – there’s so many different nuances to your technique that you have to learn, and the more he gets comfortable, his athleticism is as good as there is a safety in the NFL.
“So mentally, once he gets it down, we have great faith that he’s going to be an excellent player for us for years to come.”
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky praised Nicholson’s speed, his reaction to balls in the air and his “great overall coverage.” But there’s plenty of room for improvement heading into Year 2, Manusky said, adding that Nicholson is expected to make a sophomore leap just like defensive end Jonathan Allen.
“Most guys come in and they are just trying to figure out what they are trying to do,” said the coordinator. “… And then the second year, they try to figure out, ‘OK, I understand all the stuff that’s going around me,’ and trying to learn exactly how the offense is trying to attack him. I think those two players are going to have a successful year.”
Nicholson, who ended his 2017 campaign with 24 tackles (including 12 solo), two passes defended and one interception, doesn’t have specific, number-driven goals in mind for this upcoming season. Instead, he’s focused on a broader goal.
“Personally, I just want to take my game to the next level,” he said. “But at the same time … the game that we play isn’t personal. So when it comes down to it, I just want to be better for my teammates so we can go where we want to go.”