Position breakdown: Preston Smith will be counted on after Junior Galette injury
Washington Redskins second-year outside linebacker Preston Smith arrived at organized team activities this spring and looked more comfortable following a strong finish to his rookie season in 2015.
Smith finished the year with eight sacks. Teammates such as inside linebacker Will Compton and defensive end Ricky Jean Francois praised the progress they saw from Smith at OTAs, particularly the speed at which he was playing.
The expectation was that Smith would complete the Redskins’ trio of edge pass rushers, along with outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Junior Galette. Now Smith is expected to be thrust into a more prominent role after Galette, who missed the 2015 season because of a torn left Achilles tendon, tore his right Achilles tendon days before the start of training camp and is expected to miss the coming season.
At inside linebacker, the Redskins hope Compton and Mason Foster can build upon the chemistry they forged late last season.
Beyond that, the depth roles are less clear, particularly at the inside linebacker group. For now, rookie Su’a Cravens also factors in with the inside linebackers, where the hybrid safety/linebacker mostly played in OTAs as he learned the defense. When he gets more reps in training camp, he’ll likely get practice at both positions until the Redskins can define a role for the second-round pick from USC.
Roster locks: Kerrigan, Smith, Compton, Foster, Cravens
Likely: Perry Riley Jr., Houston Bates
On the bubble: Terence Garvin, Steven Daniels, Willie Jefferson, Lynden Trail, Martrell Spaight, Carlos Fields, Shiro Davis, Ejiro Ederaine, Mike Wakefield
What to expect: During Smith’s rookie season, the 6-foot-5, 268-pound linebacker often relied on his athleticism to overpower offensive linemen. In order for him to make a bigger jump in his second season, the Redskins want to see him combine his physical skills with a better understand of the game, something Smith began to show in OTAs.
Perhaps the bigger question is the depth at outside linebacker. Trent Murphy rotated with Smith last season but packed on nearly 30 pounds in the offseason and transitioned to defensive end. Bates played 10 games in 2015, making the climb from the practice squad. He played mostly on special teams, but could have an increased role this season. If the team sticks with its in-house options, Galette’s injury could also open the door for Willie Jefferson or Lynden Trail. Jefferson was recently playing in the CFL and Trail had stints on the Redskins’ practice squad in 2015.
At inside linebacker, it will be interesting to see how the team uses Riley. He struggled at times last season, but Riley played better when paired with Compton. After Riley broke a bone in his right foot in December, Foster emerged as the starter and recorded 32 tackles in the last five regular-season games. Riley has a cap hit just over $5 million, second-most of all linebackers on the team behind Kerrigan. That’s a pricey backup, but if Riley plays like he did when he paired with Compton, he could stick around.
Depth at the inside linebacker position will likely center on a player’s special teams value. Garvin, who signed on a one-year deal, was a strong special teams contributor the last three years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Daniels, drafted in the seventh-round, is a hard-hitting linebacker from Boston College and could also be valuable on special teams. Spaight, who missed his rookie season because of a concussion, could also make a push for the 53-man roster.