There are several defensive players who have coaches and fans excited about Washington's defense -- including first-round pick Chase Young and three-time Pro Bowler Landon Collins -- but Troy Apke has emerged as one of the most intriguing players to watch in the first week of padded practices.
Washington's secondary has seen its share of alterations in the first week of padded practices with players switching roles each day. There have, however, been two constants in the starting lineup: Collins and Apke, who have held onto the starting jobs at strong and free safety, respectively.
Apke has slowly improved since he was drafted in the fourth round out of Penn State in 2018. He showed flashes of his ability with a serious uptick of playing time last season, and now he's in the conversation for being the starting free safety in head coach Ron Rivera’s new regime.
"He's doing a great job," Collins said of Apke. "He's understanding what he's supposed to be looking at. We're talking all the time on the back end, making sure what he sees. He's picking my brain on my knowledge about how to play different things and playing within the defensive calls and how we've got to see things and see different adjustments. Just being on the same page."
Apke had a quiet rookie season, but he became a more prevalent player on Washington's defense in 2019, appearing in 15 games and making two starts. He had 26 tackles last year, including 18 solo and two for a loss, and had his first-career interception against the San Francisco 49ers.
After receiving zero defensive snaps in 2018, Apke was on the field for 210 plays in 2019. Pro Football Focus also rated him as the highest-graded safety in the NFC East with a minimum of 200 snaps last year.
That performance has caught his coaches' attention.
"The biggest thing about Troy right now is he's got a really good, athletic skillset," Rivera said Tuesday. "He's got good range, good quickness."
Rivera added that being with the starting defense is part of Apke's rotation and that other safeties would see time with the starters so the team can find the right combination of players. Apke just wants to do his job, regardless of who's on the field with him.
"I'm just trying to go out every day and compete, and whoever I'm out there with, whether it's Landon or someone else, just getting our communication down and the details of the defense."
Apke has been primarily at free safety, but defensive backs coach Chris Harris said Aug.1 that players will learn multiple positions. So, he spent the virtual offseason learning the responsibilities for every position group in the secondary. He said that has helped everyone because it ensures that everyone knows what is happening on every play.
The communication will be important, especially if he ends up starting alongside Collins. Collins said he likes to move around a lot, so being on the same page with the free safety makes everything easier.
"You could give me a key," Collins said. "You could give me a little nugget to tell me I need to run a little bit wider because he feels like a run is coming my way or a pass might be coming my way or I might be giving up my leverage."
One thing Rivera said Apke can improve on is his angles when trying to defend passes. Last year, he was targeted six times by opposing quarterbacks and allowed four completions for 50 yards. Apke knows he needs to improve that aspect of his game, which is why he said he has been working on it every day.
"Whether it's middle field or if I'm guarding someone, just breaking towards the ball with eye discipline and making sure I make a good break on the ball."
Apke said he wants to be the starting free safety by the end of training camp, but he also wants to stay healthy. He also wants to be someone his teammates can rely on.
"Whoever I'm out there with, just be a leader out there and have everyone trust me," he said.
There have been a host of players who have seen starting reps throughout the past three days. Apke has been a part of every combination, and it looks like he has continued to impress the coaches each day.
Apke does not seem worried by where he is on the depth chart. He sounds happy to just be on the field for the first time since December. When asked what his role will be, Apke said, "Wherever they need me."
"I'm just trying to go out every day and do my best, get better every single day and keep competing."