Washington Redskins: Is 2017 Preston Smith’s breakout season?

Jan 1, 2017; Landover, MD, USA; New York Giants running back Paul Perkins (28) rushes the ball as Washington Redskins linebacker Preston Smith (94) looks on during the first half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Redskins third-year linebacker Preston Smith had a strong rookie season before taking a step back in 2016. Could he have a big year in 2017?

Preston Smith was the Washington Redskins’ second-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. As a rookie, Smith played in all 16 games, registering eight sacks and forcing four fumbles. Smith was a big reason the Washington Redskins made the playoffs after a strong finish to the 2015 season.

Naturally, coaches were excited about Smith taking a big step in 2016 and finally having a consistent, reliable pass-rusher opposite of Ryan Kerrigan. Unfortunately for the Redskins, Smith didn’t actually take a step forward in his second season.

The Mississippi State product did play in all 16 games in his second season. However, he took a step back in all statistical categories. Smith posted just 4.5 sacks and did not force a fumble. Smith’s two best games of the season were against Minnesota and Chicago with his sack of Sam Bradford sealed a Redskins’ victory over the Vikings. The linebacker also picked off Bradford earlier in the game for his first career interception.

Unfortunately, those plays were few and far between last season. Instead, most of Smith’s 2016 season consisted of near-misses on the quarterback and lapses in the running game. Sacks don’t always tell the complete story. Teams want to see their pass-rushers force throws earlier, which can lead to turnovers or inaccurate throws. Smith didn’t do enough of that either.

In the 2017 NFL Draft, the Redskins selected Alabama’s Ryan Anderson, another pass-rushing outside linebacker in the second round. Anderson is the third outside linebacker picked by the Redskins in the second round in the last four seasons.

Is this a message to Smith? Yes and no. The Redskins love Smith’s pure talent and want him to take his game to another level. So he isn’t going anywhere. But competition — at least in theory — makes everyone better.

Head coach Jay Gruden raved about Anderson in a meeting with the media after the draft, per Rich Tandler of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

He’s a non-stop-motor guy. He plays extremely hard. I heard part of his interviews today. I think he’s that type of guy. Watching film with him, he’s standing up watching film and talking about everybody’s job. He’s just a very high energy, high motor, tenacious guy and I think it’s going to rub off on a lot of people.

According to Tandler, Smith’s laid-back demeanor could be helped by the intense and well-prepared Anderson. Perhaps, Anderson could rub off on Smith and push him harder in the meeting room and on the practice field. It certainly won’t hurt.

The Redskins have some depth at outside linebacker heading into 2017. Kerrigan, Smith, Anderson, Trent Murphy and Junior Galette should all play. Galette, a talented speed rusher, has missed the last two seasons due to injury. Anything the team gets from him is a bonus. Murphy, another former second-round pick, finally had a solid campaign in 2016. But he is suspended for the first four games of the 2017 season.

Smith is clearly Washington’s most talented pass-rusher. Now, it’s time for him to reward the Redskins. He’s certainly capable.

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