Drafted in the second round, Preston Smith has just about every physical tool imaginable. At 6'5" with 34 inch arms, Smith has length that will disrupt NFL offenses. While he played mostly defensive end in college, Smith projects as an outside linebacker in the Redskins 3-4 scheme, and the rookie could be the player to replace the departed Brian Orakpo.
Not much of OTAs have been open to the media, but in the sessions that are, it's clear that Smith is impressing the coaches. From May to June, Smith has seen an increase in reps with the first team defense. Now it seems like Smith is splitting time with Trevardo Williams, and the second year linebacker talked about the rookie.
"He has a lot of gifts. His height, his weight, his flexibility," Williams said of Smith. "He has a lot of assets."
Flexibility is a key word for Smith, who has the size to rush the passer from the interior and, Washington brass hopes, the speed to keep up on the edge and in coverage where needed. Going upfield is the plan for Smith, but as with Orakpo, occasionally covering a tight end or running back in space will come into play.
"He’s done some good things," 'Redskins coach Jay Gruden said of Smith. "He’s learning like all these rookies are. We’re throwing a lot at these guys for a reason."
One of the good things Smith did last week was get his big hands up to knock down a Colt McCoy pass. The sound of the blocked pass sounded like a deep thud, similar to a blocked shot in basketball. With his arm length and large hands, the Redskins hope to see more of that this fall.
"To get Preston where we got him, we were very excited," Washington defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. "He is a good, young, talented kid, and I’m sure his head is spinning a little bit right now, like most rookies. But he comes to work every day and he’s doing a great job."
The praise for Smith has been measured, and rightfully so. Regardless of the All-SEC pedigree at MIssissippi State, he is still a rookie and undoubtedly will make mistakes. And there will be plenty of competition for Orakpo's old spot.
Williams has been getting starting reps, and there is also last season's second round pick Trent Murphy. Both players work very hard in the weight room and on the practice field, and the coaches like and respect that. Gruden specifically mentioned Murphy as a player standing out during the OTA sessions.
"He’s bigger, he’s stronger, he’s rushing the passer extremely well, he’s getting off the ball very well right now," Gruden said of Murphy. "I think I’m expecting him to make the biggest jump from first year to second year on our football team because not only is he bigger but he knows the position."
Where Murphy and Smith have high expectations as second round picks, Williams does not. He was picked in the fourth round by the Texans in 2013, but never played in Houston after spending a year on the injured reserve. Last season, he landed on the Redskins roster late in the year after a stint with the Colts. Too young to be a journeyman but on that route, Williams recorded a sack in the Redskins best win of the year, a late December victory over the Eagles that knocked Philadelphia from playoff contention.
The coaches must remember that sack of Mark Sanchez, or like Williams' work ethic. Either way, he is getting reps with the first defensive unit.
"It's great being able to practice with the first. It's always a good opportunity to have an open window," Williams said. "And to seize it. I'm taking advantage where I can."
Too much can be made about being a starter on an NFL defense, especially at the outside linebacker position in a 3-4 defense. Depending on the call, and the opponent's offense, the Redskins will be making near constant substitutions and package changes. This team will play a lot of nickel coverage, and players like Murphy, Smith and perhaps even Williams will be in the game as pass rushers. Don't forget Jackson Jeffcoat too.
"We’re going to give you a bunch of different looks when we are in our base group and when we are in our sub groups," Barry said.
There are options to replace Orakpo. There will certainly be intense competition once the team gets to Richmond and starts hitting.