In the coming weeks, Redskins Insider Tarik El-Bashir will take a look at the team’s rookies, grade their 2015 season and examine their future prospects.
Today, we’re evaluating outside linebacker Preston Smith.
Drafted: Second round (38th overall).
Stats: 35 combined tackles, 8 sacks, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery.
2015: Smith’s rookie campaign got off to an impressive start. The Mississippi State product recorded a sack and three forced fumbles while playing only 12 snaps in the season opener against the Dolphins.
Then…reality set in. And the reality of the situation was that Smith still had a lot to learn about preparing like a pro, translating what he learned in practice to the field on Sundays and playing each snap with full effort.
During Weeks 2-10, Smith recorded just one sack, even as his playing time increased.
But that discouraging lull was followed by a late-season breakout. Some young players show incremental improvement. For others it happens all at once, as if a light bulb turns on. Smith definitely falls into the latter category.
In the Redskins’ final seven regular season games, Smith was one of the NFL's most productive pass rushers, recording six sacks and a forcing fumble to bring his season sack total to eight—two more than any other NFL rookie. Smith also sacked Aaron Rodgers for a safety in the team’s Wild Card playoff game.
Future prospects: As Smith’s late season surge proved, he’s capable of producing double digit sacks. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if he achieves that milestone in 2016 after another offseason in which to polish his pass rush moves and pack more muscle onto his long, 6 foot 5, 271-pound frame.
On paper, the Redskins’ rush possesses enough talent to rank in the top-10 next season, with Ryan Kerrigan, the emergence of Chris Baker and Smith and the potential return of Junior Galette.
Speaking of Galette, he recently called Smith a rising star in the league.
“Preston Smith had eight sacks as a rookie,” Galette said earlier this month. “That doesn’t just happen. [Oakland’s] Khalil Mack as a rookie had four sacks, and he’s one of the elite edge rushers right now. That’s encouraging. I feel like I can call [Smith] an elite rusher. As a rookie to have eight sacks, I feel like that’s elite.”
It might be a little early to throw around words like “elite” when talking about a player who’s appeared in only 16 games. But it’s not too early to say that Smith could earn that title someday—and perhaps someday soon.
Previous rookie reviews: