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10 Questions for training camp: Can the Redskins count on Montae Nicholson?

10 Questions for training camp: Can the Redskins count on Montae Nicholson?

The Redskins report to training camp on July 24th, and for the next 10 days, JP Finlay will count down the 10 biggest questions the Redskins face going into the 2019 season.

10) Will the Redskins develop depth on the D-line?

The Redskins spent a ton of money to fix their safety position this offseason, shelling out $45 million guaranteed for Landon Collins.

There's only one problem, however, as a modern NFL defense requires two safeties.

Assuming health, Collins will undoubtedly start at safety. What player lines up next to him will bring concerns regardless of the direction the Washington coaching staff leans.

The leading contender for the job is Montae Nicholson, a third-year pro out of Michigan State. As a rookie, Nicholson looked like a potential draft steal, especially early in the season when he showed speed, pop and a nose for the football. His rookie season ended after just eight games though due to injuries and a concussion.

Going into this second year in 2019, Jay Gruden heaped significant praise on Nicholson, and compared his importance to the defense as Jordan Reed was to the Redskins offense.

Things didn't go well.

Nicholson never seemed to understand the new scheme in place, where he and DJ Swearinger occupied sides of the field instead of a more traditional strong and free safety role. Nicholson has the track background to play a real center field, and seemed bewildered at times playing close to the line of scrimmage.

As the 2018 campaign staggered along, Redskins team president Bruce Allen traded with Green Bay for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, effectively benching Nicholson. Clinton-Dix wasn't much better in D.C., and eventually he signed with the Bears as a free agent this offseason.

There was also a late-season arrest for Nicholson outside of a Loudon County bar. While charges eventually got dropped, the Redskins suspended Nicholson for the final few games of 2018.

Add all of that up, and it's hard to believe Redskins' brass when they speak about how much they trust Nicholson and expect great things from him. Still, the NFL is no place for hurt feelings, and both the franchise and the safety need to turn the page from an ugly 2018 and hope 2019 fares better.

The reality is the Redskins don't have many options if Nicholson can't reclaim his starting role. Troy Apke showed next to nothing in an injury-plagued rookie season last year. Deshazor Everett has been with the Redskins for four seasons and has been a valuable special teams player, yet, when the team has needed somebody to fill a revolving door at either safety spot, he rarely gets a chance.

Odds are there isn't more help coming.

The draft came and went without Washington adding a safety. Same with the second wave of free agency.

Maybe a veteran safety with legit speed emerges on the marketplace - an unexpected training camp cut - but the Burgundy and Gold can't count on that. It's also possible veteran defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can make the Redskins 53-man roster and help at safety in passing situations.

Remember, however, that DRC retired from football last year halfway through the season. Let's see him get through the grind of two-a-days in Richmond before considering the 33-year-old part of the solution.

Add all of that up and it's very clear the Redskins need a lot from Nicholson.

Collins should help Washington immediately, as a leader and as a sure tackler. He's had some elite seasons in the NFL, but that last happened in 2016.

Collins on his own as the last line of defense will help the Redskins, but not to the tune of an average salary of $15 million.

Collins paired with a healthy and fully engaged Nicholson could be special. But that requires Nicholson to be both healthy and fully engaged. Time will tell on that.

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'Just plain dirty': Trevor Matich blasts Keanu Neal after hit on Jordan Reed

'Just plain dirty': Trevor Matich blasts Keanu Neal after hit on Jordan Reed

On Thursday, the Redskins earned their first preseason victory of the season, defeating the Falcons 19-7 on the road in Atlanta.

But after the game, celebrating an exhibition win was not in the cards. Attention was turned directly to the health of Washington's star tight end.

After absorbing a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit from Falcons safety Keanu Neal in the second quarter, resulting in his helmet flying off, tight end Jordan Reed was forced to exit the contest. No. 86 started feeling concussion-like symptoms at halftime, and head coach Jay Gruden confirmed after the game that Reed had entered the concussion protocol.

The tight end has a history of concussions. If diagnosed with a concussion again, this would be the seventh documented instance for Reed since he started playing college football.

On Redskins Postgame Live, saying that NBC Sports Washington's Trevor Matich was furious about Neal's hit would be an understatement.

“Just looking at that hit, I thought it was a dirty hit. It was dirty," Matich said. "The safety coming up had plenty of time to see what was going on. Reed was in the grass. Reed didn’t duck his head down, and ended up taking a helmet to his head because of a defender coming in low and didn’t expect Reed to duck."

Matich completely put the blame on Neal and emphasized that there's no place for a hit like that, especially during exhibition football when the games don't count in the standings.

"Reed didn’t duck his head. That defender came in high," he said. "That was a dirty hit. It would have been dirty in the regular season, and especially dirty in the preseason.”

The play resulted in a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. But it's fair to question whether Neal deserved a harsher punishment.

Santana Moss was asked whether he thought Neal should have been ejected for the hit, and he had no doubt in his answer.

“It should have been," Moss said. "I saw last week in a preseason game a guy had one shot to the head and he was out of there."

Inconsistent officiating has been an issue in the NFL for several years. 

As the league continues each year to alter the rules in order to make the game safer, Moss wants to see the officiating improve its consistency as well.

"That’s one thing I wanted to see, that our officials do better," Moss said. "We talk about all the rules they are changing and the way they’re going to ref these games. When you see something like that, instantly get the guy out of there. This is something that we’re not trying to tolerate. If you allow guys to do this, you’ll find guys in situations like Jordan Reed.”

The NFL continues to try and make the game safer. Many rules have been put into effect recently to eliminate hits like Neal's. Of course, defenders largely dislike these guidelines, claiming it takes away from their ability to defend receivers. Some fans may dislike the lack of contact as well. 

“It takes away some spectacular hits that fans want to see," Matich said.

But at the end of the day, the NFL is a business. 

"Ultimately, this is family entertainment in the NFL. Head trauma is not good for business," Matich said. "It’s just not. You have an expense of losing some of those fantastic hits, but you also have fewer concussions and problems."

While Neal's hit may have been deemed acceptable and regarded as a great hit a decade ago, there's no place for a hit like that in today's NFL.

"I thought that hit right there was just plain dirty," Matich said.

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Cassanova McKinzy brave in face of stepbrother’s death with standout performance vs. Atlanta

Cassanova McKinzy brave in face of stepbrother’s death with standout performance vs. Atlanta

In the Redskins' 19-7 preseason victory over the Falcons, outside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy arguably solidified his spot on the 53-man roster. 

The former Auburn linebacker recorded three tackles and two sacks, one of which resulted in a forced fumble. The other, McKinzy blew by the left tackle using a Demarcus Ware-like technique to have a free run at the quarterback.

McKinzy, who is positioning himself to be on an active roster to start a season for the first time in his career, was asked by NBC Sports Washington's JP Finlay if any of the coaches had said anything to him regarding his stellar performance and roster status.

"I had a couple of coaches saying 'good job,' but I haven't talked to anyone," McKinzy told Finlay. "I stayed out there a little longer than I was supposed to."

After the clock hit zero and the initial on-field postgame exchanges concluded, McKinzy stayed a little bit longer on the turf. He had to let his emotion out.

Just three days prior, the linebacker's stepbrother had passed away. 

"I haven't cried all week. I haven't let anything out. I haven't told anybody. That was just my time to let it all out," McKinzy said. "I feel a little better, and when I get around my family, I'll feel even better. I'll see them tonight."

Despite his devastating loss, McKinzy was able to stay focused on football. Very few people, if anyone, in Redskins Park knew what the linebacker was going through.

He didn't want anyone to know, either.

"No one really knew. I didn't tell anyone because, at the end of the day, it's still my job," he said. "I don't want any pity from nobody. I just want to go out there and do my job and show that I can keep focus, no matter what's going on in my life."

"I have to do my job," he continued. "In that building, the only thing that matters is football. Everything else, you have to keep outside the building."

The linebacker was able to do just that on Thursday, as his standout preseason continued. In the three seasons since he went undrafted, McKinzy has just one NFL tackle to his name. He's changed his body and gotten quicker, and if this preseason is any indication, he could be a viable pass rusher for the Burgundy and Gold in 2019. 

While No. 58 would not say he dedicated his performance to his late stepbrother, it did give him, if anything, a little extra motivation.

"I would say half and half," on whether he dedicated his performance to his late step-brother. "I came out today saying I was going to work on some things, and I worked on them. I came out and said I was going to start reading, being better with my keys and more consistent running to the ball. Just paying attention to what the tackles were giving me, the whole nine."

While he's likely played himself onto the 53-man roster, McKinzy doesn't believe he's a sure thing yet.

"I wouldn't say lock, I still have a lot of work to do," he said. "It felt real good just to be back out there and do what I know how to do."

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