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Rookie LB turning heads in Redskins Park, but competition looms

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Rookie LB turning heads in Redskins Park, but competition looms

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."

MORE REDSKINS: CHECKING OUT THE NEW DEFENSIVE LINE 

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. 

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Need to Know: What’s the outlook for the Redskins’ secondary in 2018?

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Need to Know: What’s the outlook for the Redskins’ secondary in 2018?

Here is what you need to know on this Monday, June 25, 31 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

Fan questions—The secondary

To be sure, there are reasons to be concerned about the secondary and we’ll get into those in a bit. But the popular notion that the secondary struggled last year is not accurate.

Do you want to go standard stats? They were ninth in the league in passing yards allowed and 10th in opponent passer rating last year.

Do you prefer more advanced analytics? They were sixth in defensive passing DVOA and 11th in adjusted net yards per attempt.

That’s not a great pass defense but it was a pretty good one. It should be noted that they also benefited from a solid pass rush; they were seventh in the league in sack percentage. Still, you don’t finish in the top third of the league in pass defense without at least a competent secondary.

The question is, will it remain competent? Kendall Fuller was indeed a key player, one of the best slot corners in the league. Bashaud Breeland was inconsistent, but he did shine on occasion. But the fact that he is still available as a free agent indicates what the league thinks of him, problems passing the physical notwithstanding. Those two will have to be replaced.

It is likely that Quinton Dunbar will take Breeland’s spot on the outside. That is at worst a lateral exchange if not an improvement. Dunbar has been working for three years to get this opportunity and there is confidence among the coaches and, perhaps more importantly, the players that he is ready.

Orlando Scandrick is the probable starter at slot. He is a downgrade from Fuller, no question about it. If he is healthy—a big if—Scandrick is good enough to get the job done. Don’t let the star he wore on the side of his helmet for so many years blind you to the fact that he’s a solid player.

The depth at slot consists of second-year player Josh Holsey, who played all of nine snaps on defense last year, and rookie Greg Stroman. That’s not ideal but most of the other teams in the NFL have a similar depth chart.

The wild card who could be the difference between this secondary being better than last year or worse is Fabian Moreau. He played only 59 defensive snaps as a rookie but he did show off his speed and hard-hitting style on some of his 349 special teams snaps. During the offseason practices that were open to the media, Moreau was mostly Josh Norman’s backup at left cornerback. The feeling is that he won’t remain a reserve. We will have to see how things sort out during training camp.

There should be some improvement at safety if Montae Nicholson figures out how to stay on the field in his second year. If he struggles with injuries again and Deshazor Everett has to line up alongside D.J. Swearinger for a good chunk of the season, the safeties are no worse off because that's what happened last year. 

The bottom line is that a secondary that was good last year may take a step down in 2018 but the decline should not be steep. And if Moreau can be the player the organization thought he could be when they used a third-round pick for him, it could be just as good if not better.

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler.

Tandler on Twitter

I tweeted this in response to a discussion about the relative popularity of the NFL and NBA. Albert Breer’s tweet on the TV ratings for the leagues’ respective drafts was the nexus of the discussion.

Timeline  

Redskins cornerback Josh Holsey was born on this date in 1994.

Days until:

—Training camp starts (7/26) 31
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 45
—Roster cut to 53 (9/1) 59

The Redskins last played a game 176 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 76 days.

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Jay Gruden wants excellent play from Alex Smith, but he also expects personal responsibility

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Jay Gruden wants excellent play from Alex Smith, but he also expects personal responsibility

As June minicamp concluded, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden pulled no punches when asked about expectations for new quarterback Alex Smith. 

"He has got to get it down by the first game," Gruden said of Smith. 

While that might not sound overly demanding, remember this is Smith's first season in Washington. The QB will be playing with new teammates and implementing new terminology. 

Still, Smith is a veteran with a lot of experience, and frankly, it seems like Gruden isn't worried about a transition period. 

"We are not in here to build the team around him, the team is built and he has to lead it like right now," the coach said. "This isn’t a two- or three-year process. This is a one-year process and we have got to win right away."

Gruden made things quite clear. He expects the best from Smith, yesterday. 

Those comments created headlines, but there was something else the coach said about his passer that also stood out. Asked about Smith's veteran presence, Gruden talked about what the quarterback might mean for his teammates. 

"The whole job a quarterback has is obviously getting the most out of the people around you. That’s what I think he does as good as anybody," Gruden said. "He’ll get the most out of the tight ends. He’ll get the most out of the backs."

The coach continued, and things got a bit more interesting.

"He’ll get the most out of the receivers and offensive line because they’re going to want to play for him and they’re going to feel confident that he’s going to make something happen in a positive way or at least give it everything he’s got and take responsibility if something doesn’t work out."

Redskins fans are often a weirdly divided bunch. Many liked former QB Kirk Cousins but plenty did not think he was worth the type of money he was paid the last two seasons. Along the way, some fans will read Gruden's comments about making something happen and taking responsibility as a jab at Cousins. That's probably wrong. 

Remember, Trent Williams played through a serious knee injury last season. Asked why, Williams said he wanted to be out there to protect Cousins. Guys played for Cousins. 

The responsibility comment might mean something else, though. There was a rather hostile back-and-forth last season between Gruden and Cousins last season when the QB and coach disagreed about taking more risks with the football. A quick reminder of the scene: Cousins told a reporter that he would throw 20 interceptions if he played like Gruden wanted. The coach responded that while the interceptions might pile up, the QB would also throw 60 touchdowns. (Relive it here)

Throughout his career, Smith has thrown fewer interceptions than Cousins. But that doesn't mean Smith doesn't take risks or put his receivers in position to make plays. 

It's entirely possible Gruden simply expects Smith, a veteran, to be a responsible player and leader. And it's likely that comment had nothing to do with the Redskins previous quarterbacks. 

The bottom line is that Smith better be ready to go Week 1, and his coach made that clear. And if Smith isn't, Gruden expects his quarterback to take responsibility. 

MORE REDSKINS NEWS:

— Contract years: Redskins face 5 tough decisions 

— Dead Money: Trades, misses and mistakes hurt Redskins salary cap

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