ASHBURN, Va. -- It's not as if Washington Redskins linebacker Preston Smith flashes with a big-time play during each spring practice session. The first time the media could watch, it was the Preston Smith show: big plays, good coverage and lots of reporters surrounding him afterward.
By now, though, it's more about wondering how he'll look in August. Can he take what we've seen thus far and push forward in training camp? I've talked about Smith a couple of times this offseason, but I'll do so again because he'll be a key player to watch this season. If he develops as a rusher, it would provide a big boost. But it's also his versatility -- a buzzword for the defense this season -- that can help.
As a rookie last season, Smith showed he can play outside linebacker. But he also can line up at end with his hand on the ground. And because he's 270 pounds, he can line up at tackle, too. This offseason, the team considered switching him to the defensive line, a la Trent Murphy.
Smith doesn't have to start to make an impact. As of now, the plan is to start Junior Galette and Ryan Kerrigan at outside linebacker, but with Smith playing a majority of the defensive snaps. The Redskins can have a strong rotation at OLB, with Smith adding a unique element on rush downs.
That's why the pass-rush formation I'm eager to see most this summer involves Smith rushing as a down lineman inside and Galette on the outside. It makes for potentially strong stunts. Smith's length (6-foot-5) and size provide a chance for creative usage. Smith has the power to stunt with Galette, taking out -- they hope -- two defenders and freeing a path for the speedy Galette. Smith can stunt through the middle from end. We saw this in camp last year, but he didn't have great success during the season. However, with his length, it'll always be something they need to keep trying.
"I feel more fluid in my movements and feel more comfortable moving around," Smith said. "I feel it's natural now, and last year I was forcing things and it wasn't feeling natural. Now it's feeling natural."
He's not alone in making that statement. Last year, the Redskins had a number of young players in their first full year starting or playing big minutes who are expected to do the same in 2016: Smith, linebacker Will Compton, safety Kyshoen Jarrett (who remains sidelined with nerve damage and is visiting multiple specialists), cornerback Quinton Dunbar, guard Brandon Scherff, guard Spencer Long, tackle Morgan Moses, running back Matt Jones and receiver Jamison Crowder. And, yes, quarterback Kirk Cousins, who had experience in his first three years (nine starts), but 2015 was his first full season as the main guy.
Not everyone develops at the same pace, and not every player improves. But in Smith's case, there was room for improvement because he was a bit lax in his preparation and work habits before the veterans "prodded" him to change. He listened.
It helped down the stretch last season. If it continues, it'll help throughout the entire 2016 season.