The end of Preston Smith’s 2015 rookie season set high expectations for his future. The outside linebacker racked up six sacks in the final four games including three in the Redskins’ division-clinching win in Philadelphia and one that got Aaron Rodgers for a safety in their wild-card playoff game. His eight sacks led all NFL rookies
But he wasn’t the player the team hoped he would be in 2016, at least not consistently. Smith got 4.5 sacks on the year. He had some dominant games like the one against the Vikings when he got two sacks and his first career interception. But he also disappeared for weeks at a time.
This past offseason the Redskins drafted outside linebacker Ryan Anderson in the second round and they re-signed Junior Galette. You always want to have good depth at the edge rushing position but it also appeared that the organization wanted to ensure that it would have alternatives if Smith’s sophomore slump extended into his third season.
But so far, we have seen a Preston Smith who looks more like the one who finished up his rookie season than the often invisible 2016 version. He has two sacks in two games plus two quarterback hits and two hurries. While it’s very early, Smith is starting to live up to the potential he showed as a rookie.
His versatility has impressed Jay Gruden.
“I think he’s doing good against the run, number one,” he said. “That’s what we have to do. He’s got to set the point. You’ve got to set the point of attack, and he’s done a good job of that.”
Per Pro Football Focus, Smith has played 86 snaps. He has rushed the passer in most his plays, 46. But he also has defended the run 28 snaps and has dropped back into coverage 12 times. He has allowed one reception for six yards in those coverage snaps.
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The rest of Gruden’s answer to the question about Smith’s play was interesting.
And then when he’s asked to rush some, he’s done fine. I think he and Junior [Galette] had some good rushes. Junior got that critical holding call that pushed them back out of the red zone and forcing them into a field goal and obviously [Ryan] Kerrigan is doing his thing, so all three of those guys are doing a great job as far as giving a chance of pace. Preston is doing a good job. He can go inside, he can use his bull [rush] and he’s working on his get off. So I think he’s getting better and better.
Note that Gruden is nowhere near over the top in his praise of Smith. He brings in Galette and Kerrigan to turn the topic to the pass rush in general and uses words like “fine” and “good” to describe Smith’s play. Smith has been a source of frustration for the coaches as he often has relied on his natural ability rather than working to master the finer points of the job. The willingness to work on the details is often the difference between a talented player who just gets by and one who racks up 15-sack seasons, goes to Pro Bowls, and gets paid with large contracts.
Smith’s start is encouraging for the Redskins but Gruden and company are going to want to see a lot more before they dish out big compliments for him.