The Redskins found stability and a vocal leader in free agent acquisition D.J. Swearinger, who headlined a young safety group that looks to build off a promising 2017.
As the Redskins head into the offseason looking to get back to their winning ways, Redskins.com will provide position-by-position reflections from the 2017 squad.
Up next: Safeties.
REVIEW OF THE UNIT:
For the last few years, the safety position has mostly been a revolving door in Washington, filled with young players and veterans but offering no real long-term stability. After some inauspicious news to begin the season, the unit found its leader and a reason to be optimistic moving forward.
The team signed D.J. Swearinger last March and returned him to his comfort zone at free safety, where he played infrequently over his previous four years with three different teams, most recently the Cardinals. The move turned out to be one of the best the Redskins made last year, as Swearinger played the entire 16-game season for the first time in his career and became the defense's vocal leader and captain, a role that had been missing previously.
In an injury-marred season, Swearinger didn't sacrifice his playmaking style, collecting a career high 79 tackles. He shared the team lead in interceptions with four, including two against the Vikings, and outperformed his previous individual record with 10 passes defensed.
"Personally, I feel like I did a lot, I made a lot of plays," Swearinger said. "Final stats are a career high for me in a lot of places, so individually I felt like I did a lot, helped this team a lot. Ultimate goal for the team, I felt like it was a failure. Anything less than the playoffs is a failure in my eyes. As a team, as a defense, we didn't do what we needed to do to get to the playoffs, 7-9 is unacceptable. Next year, the goal is try to find ways to where we can be a playoff contender."
Prior to the season starting, the position group had to adjust when Su'a Cravens, in line to be the starting strong safety, was placed on the Reserve/Left Squad list. Deshazor Everett took over in his place and began the season as the starter and would go on to play the eighth-most snaps on the defense.
Everett mostly fluctuated with -- and filled in for -- rookie Montae Nicholson, who started against the Rams in Week 2 and then had his breakout moment against the Raiders on Sunday Night Football, intercepting Derek Carr's first pass of the night.
The Michigan State product, who missed most of training camp with a pectoral injury he suffered the previous year, wasn't immune to the injury bug however. He missed two games after a brutal collision against the Cowboys, and then suffered a concussion the day he returned to the lineup against the Saints. The Redskins eventually placed him on Injured Reserve late in the season, finishing with 24 tackles and two passes defensed along with the interception in eight total games.
"He's obviously showed a lot of promise and we love him as a player and an athlete and the more we can get him to play this year, the better," Gruden said in December.
Helping smooth out some of the depth and injury issues was veteran DeAngelo Hall, who spent half the season on the PUP list before being activated against the Seahawks, where he was immediately thrust into action and made a game-saving pass defense to seal the team's comeback victory.
The Redskins also received contributions from Stefan McClure, who made the team as a training camp walk-on and played 23 defensive snaps while aiding on special teams in the early-going. Fish Smithson, an undrafted rookie from Kansas, stayed on the team's practice squad for the majority of the year and was activated with two games left to play.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE GROUP:
It's clear the Redskins are trending younger at safety, with Swearinger only 26 and Everett, Nicholson and Cravens (at this point, his status is uncertain moving forward) all younger. That leaves a bigger question mark for Hall, who enters free agency after 10 seasons with the Redskins.
Hall hasn't played a full season since 2013, and Achilles and ACL injuries have hampered him over the last couple of years. If Washington decides not to re-sign him, the veteran defensive back has plenty of options to consider.
"You know what, I've never done this before," Hall said at the end of the season. "So, I don't know what I'll weigh, but I guess I'll know what it looks like when it happens. So, I'm excited though. I'm excited to see what's next, whether I'm going to try to play again, whether I'm going to do something else. So, I'm excited."
Hall has expressed interest in working in a team's front office and eventually becoming a general manager, and the only way he might dip his foot into the coaching game would be a perfect fit for him and his family.
"You always get asked 'why don't you want to do x, y, z,? Why don't you want to do this? Why don't you want to do that?'" Hall said. "To me, it has to be worth it. And so, I've been blessed for a lot of years and I'm thankful for that. And so, I have the luxury of kind of deciding what I want to do. It just has to be the right situation, the right fit. And I guess I'll know what that looks like when the opportunity presents itself."
Even with the uncertainty regarding Cravens, Nicholson should be in line to defend his starting job at strong safety. Last year's fourth-round pick, standing at 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, put his size on display and proved to be an extremely athletic presence in the back of the field.
"He's coming along great," Gruden said of Nicholson last season. "He can run. He can hit. It's just, he's had issues with his AC joints on both shoulders and now the concussion. So, it's unfortunate because we love him as a prospect without a doubt. I think he's going to be an excellent safety."
SEASON IN REVIEW