ASHBURN — Back in March, a month before the Washington Redskins were scheduled to report for the start of offseason workouts on April 18, outside linebacker Preston Smith was already at Redskins Park preparing for his second season.
Veteran defensive end Ricky Jean Francois, who often worked out with Smith, had a simple message for the young pass rusher.
“I was just telling him, ‘You have no other choice, you did a hell of a job last year and you’ve got to be that guy,’” Jean Francois said. “I said, ‘You have to be that All-Pro guy. After the coaches and the players see you beat on two of the best left tackles in the game, you have no other choice. Anything else, you a bust if you can’t be that best.’”
Jean Francois is referring to Smith’s surge at the end of his rookie season. The former Mississippi State star thrived in the final three games of 2015 and recorded five sacks, which brought his regular-season total to eight — the most among rookies.
In the Redskins’ NFC East-clinching victory against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16, Smith had three sacks, including two against Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters. The next week against the Dallas Cowboys, Smith beat All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith for a sack. Smith also had a sack for a safety in Washington’s loss to the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Smith, who stands at 6-foot-5, weighs 268 pounds and is equipped with 34-inch arms, relied heavily on his athleticism in his rookie season. The challenge now is pairing those physical skills with a stronger understanding of the game, something coaches and teammates have seen during organized team activities and minicamp.
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“Just overall, coaching guys in the National Football League from a linebacker’s perspective, the first year is always hard,” said outside linebackers coach Greg Manusky, who was hired in the offseason after the position was vacant in 2015.
“From the standpoint of what he did at the end of last season to improve each and every week to get the sacks he did is tremendous. His progression is learning how the offense is attacking him and that’s what he’s doing now. The length you see in a young guy like that, he’s very talented. Now, he’s got to understand his profession, how different tackles get set up and react to him and when it’s an empty set, knowing the ball is going to be coming out quick and get your hands up.”
During Tuesday’s practice, Smith made two smart plays in consecutive drills that showed he’s absorbing what Manusky and other coaches are teaching him. On a play-action screen pass to Jamison Crowder, Smith stayed with the play and swarmed to the wide receiver for what would have been a minimal gain. The next play, he deflected Kirk Cousins’ screen pass at the line of scrimmage.
At times, Smith was hesitant to make plays at the beginning of last season, something he improved toward the end as he got more comfortable.
“He’s doing a really good job,” inside linebacker Will Compton said. “He understands things a lot more coming into this year. He’s playing faster. We used to get on him about oozing, feeling things out. We always said, ‘Stop oozing, why are you oozing? You’re a big strong guy.’ We’ve got to get him moving and he’s moving well this year.”
When the Redskins took the field for their first session of OTAs three weeks ago, Smith was noticeably in better shape. He is only three pounds lighter than he was last season, but one Redskins assistant said all of his numbers have improved in the weight room and he has increased his lean body mass.
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For Smith, the hardest part was changing his diet and cutting out fast food, something he began doing at the end of last season and carried into the offseason.
“I’m feeling good, my body is more prepared for the season than it was last year,” Smith said. “I’m a lot more fit and in shape than I was coming into the offseason program last season. Just changed my diet, did a lot more cardio, made sure I stayed active and in shape, kept it moving so I could be in shape for this season.
“You don’t want to slow down, take any steps back. I had more time this offseason than I had in my life to focus on getting better, in shape with my body ahead of the upcoming season to make sure I was doing the best I could to get ready for this season.”
As Smith sharpens his knowledge of the game, his athleticism is going to become an even greater asset. Manusky, who has coached other physically gifted linebackers such as Shawne Merriman and Manny Lawson, said he has never coached a player that can maximize his length and speed like Smith can.
“Something you can’t coach, the one thing, he’s got length and what he’s been working on is his get-off,” Manusky said. “He’s got great hands, and then he’s got that burst at the end to get around the corner and that’s what you see in most good pass rushers. For him, putting it all together is hard work but he’s doing it.”