After the rest of the Redskins broke their final huddle at the team’s offseason practice Tuesday, outside linebacker Trent Murphy continued to work on the field, running extra drills with a pop-up dummy.
When they dispersed, Murphy located a giant red blocking pad on the sidelines. With a flick of his wrist, he propped it against the side of the white practice bubble at Redskins Park and sank his body into the cushion as if it were his living room couch.
It’s been a tiring offseason for Murphy, who said he’s put on about 10 pounds of muscle training in Arizona since the close of his rookie season. That, coupled with a year of NFL experience under his now-larger belt, has Murphy poised for progress in his second year.
“It’s definitely satisfying to know that the hard work of the offseason paid off, but that’s just the expectation, really,” Murphy said. “I mean if I don’t make big strides then I’ll be cut [for] somebody else. That’s just kind of the NFL so I’ve got to keep getting better every day and that’s for the rest of my career.”
This time last year, the NFL was somewhat of a foreign concept to Murphy, the Redskins second-round draft pick in 2014. He was supposed to have time to adjust to a new playbook and to the pace of the league, but was thrust into a starting role midway through the season when Brian Orakpo tore his right pectoral muscle.
He wound up recording 33 tackles, 2 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in 13 games in 2014, patching the hole opposite Ryan Kerrigan but showing his youth, particularly against the pass where he was a step slow reading plays.
His reaction time wasn’t due to mental lapses. Murphy is a high football IQ player who sometimes struggled from overthinking plays. He said that a year’s experience is helping him play more instinctually.
“A lot of the time I was thinking first and then reacting as soon as I was positive I knew what was coming and now I’m just playing fast, going and thinking after the fact,” Murphy said.
It’s a leap that has caught the eye of head coach Jay Gruden, who said he expects Murphy to make the “biggest jump” of last year’s rookie crop this year.
“Not only is he bigger, but he knows the position,” Gruden said. “He’s athletic. And when you put on some extra bulk and strength, it’s just going to give him more. He’s already a smart football player with great instincts. Now you add the extra bulk and we expect big things from him this year.”
The main question about that extra bulk was whether it would slow Murphy down. Murphy weighed 258 pounds at the start of the 2014 season and says he’s up to 267 now after five months of “sled pushes and eating big.” But his explosiveness hasn’t been diminished by the extra pounds.
With Orakpo gone to Tennessee as a free agent, Murphy has been practicing with the first team and is set to start opposite Kerrigan once he returns from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Kerrigan is expected to be ready for training camp, which starts in late July.
Kerrigan’s absence has given rookie linebacker Preston Smith, drafted this year in the same position that Murphy was in 2014, a chance to get more reps with the starters in practice.
Smith, who played defensive end in a 4-3 system at Mississippi State but will be used as an outside linebacker by in the Redskins’ 3-4 defense, is a project but a promising one. He’s versatile and could be used in many different sub-packages in defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s system, while keeping the pressure on Murphy to up his game in his second season.
Murphy said he didn’t take Smith’s drafting as a warning sign and that he feels like he’s fighting for a starting role with every linebacker on the team. He said that, instead of being seen as competition, he tries to be a mentor to Smith.
“I was in his shoes last year and I don’t envy him so I kind of help him out, help him with the defense a little bit if he asks questions,” Murphy said.
At practice Tuesday, Murphy would call out directions over the line to Smith as they lined up for a play.
He said it’s easy to support other players, even when competing at the same position, when you share the common goal of winning games. And he doesn’t need an extra motivator, like a player hot on his heels on the depth chart, to want to get better.
“My expectations for myself are always higher than everybody else,” Murphy said. “So they’re telling me “good job today,” and I’m telling myself, “that was a crappy job, you need to fix these things,” so I’m just going to keep working and keep pushing myself.”
Some of the work is showing, though it’s hard to tell for sure in early June without pads. He may be pressed by new talent on the depth chart, but with a bit more brawn and experience, Murphy seems ready to show the difference a year makes.