Taking a look at the Washington Redskins' rookies and their progress throughout the season. I'll watch at least three of their games to get a feel for how they improved over the course of the year.
Player: Preston Smith
When drafted: Second round
Stats: Appeared in all 16 games and finished second on the team with eight sacks. Smith played more as the season unfolded, with 60 percent of his snaps occurring in the final eight games, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Games watched: New York Giants (first game), New Orleans, Philadelphia (second game)
The good: Smith has excellent size and length, which is what attracted Washington to the Mississippi State product in the first place. I like that he improved throughout the season and it was evident in the way he rushed the passer. Early in the season, Smith was a lot more hesitant, thinking a bit too much. As the season progressed, he was more decisive with his moves (except for early in the regular-season finale; more on that below). Smith learned to close the gap between himself and the tackle, allowing him to better use his strength. He started to rush more inside later in the season, and while I didn’t see any sacks that way, I did see Eagles tackle Jason Peters alter how he played Smith because of this, allowing the rookie to get around him for a sack. When Smith played with leverage versus the run, he was much better, but it wasn’t always evident. Still, he progressed in this area. I liked how he improved in his effort. Early on he did not always sprint to the ball if he thought the play was over, and teammates got on him because of it (one time in particular, versus New Orleans, on Mark Ingram's big run). But after the Saints game Smith was much better. He’s coachable. Smith’s get-off was better later in the season, especially against the Eagles, when he often was the first defender off the snap.
The bad: Smith still needs to become a consistent player, which is true of any rookie. That was evident in practice to the coaches and other players, and it was true in games. His rushes will improve when this occurs -- they definitely got better, but he has more room to grow. Against Dallas tackle Tyron Smith in the regular-season finale, Preston Smith hurt himself on his rushes early in the game because he was trying too many things. Smith will need to work on setting the edge a little better against the run, playing with more leverage. When he does this, he’s much harder to move. It wasn’t as if he was getting pushed around at all, but it’s that he can play it better and be more effective. And when Smith did get blocked, it often stemmed from what he wasn’t doing. When he cut down on his moves, he was more effective as well.
Summing it up: There’s no reason to believe Smith won’t continue to improve; he showed good progress. The question will be do the Redskins want to keep him at outside linebacker or have him add more weight and move him inside. He has the strength and the frame to go in either direction. His best rushes occurred with his hand on the ground. As the season went on, Smith was able to get his upper and lower body in synch on his rushes. Early in the year at times he might try stepping inside but would be off balance. His rushes were inconsistent; there’s more to learn about leverage, and how he turns the corner. But his hands are strong and that’s a good place to start for a rusher. Smith's progress plus the expected return of Junior Galette should result in some solid rushes when paired together, some good possible stunts. I’d like to see Smith be more effective rushing inside just because his length would be more of an issue. He started doing this better later in the season, but his most effective pressures remained to the outside.