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Preston Smith, Trent Murphy will battle for Redskins OLB job

Taking a look at each position for the Washington Redskins heading into training camp. Today: Linebackers.

Returning starters: Ryan Kerrigan, Perry Riley, Keenan Robinson

Key additions: Preston Smith, Martrell Spaight

Key losses: Brian Orakpo

Up for grabs: The other outside linebacker position opposite Ryan Kerrigan. It will come down to Trent Murphy and the rookie Smith. During the spring, Murphy looked further ahead and more comfortable. He should; he’s been in the NFL for a year already. But the sense I’ve gotten is that Smith will ultimately be the starter. The Redskins really like Smith’s hands, which will help him as a rusher. Murphy struggled as a rusher last season, even late in the year: rounded rushes, getting bumped off stride too often. He rarely threatened the quarterback. It was a definite learning year for Murphy. But he added weight, so let’s see the impact before writing him off. Fans tired of Orakpo, who signed with Tennessee, but he was a solid NFL rusher -- he threatened the passer and could set up others -- and both Murphy and Smith have a long way to go to prove they can do the same. Murphy was fine vs. the run, so that helps; Smith has to prove he can set the edge in the NFL. We'll learn a lot more about where both players are at next week, compared to what we couldn't see in the spring when there was no physical contact.

What they still need: More depth. The Redskins will look at other outside linebackers, but it’s uncertain if they will add anyone before the final cuts after the preseason. Tough to just find these players. But it will be a minor priority for them.

Pivotal year: Well, it’s a key year for each starter. Kerrigan is a free agent after the season (unless an extension is reached before camp); Riley is signed through 2016, but he can be cut after the season for a $4 million cap savings (a year ago, one coach felt Will Compton was close to being ready to challenge for a starting job, but not sure that will happen this summer); Robinson must take that so-called next step. He was effective at times, and made some nice plays because of instincts and athleticism, but still had plenty to learn.

The other rookie: Spaight likely will be a special teamer this season as he learns to play in coverage. It was a weakness at Arkansas and it’s why I wouldn’t expect him to make an instant impact from scrimmage. But he has a strong desire and is smart. He’ll eventually max out his ability in the NFL. For now, Spaight should provide a boost on special teams. That unit will be helped, too, by the return of Adam Hayward and a quality guy in Compton.

Outlook: The inside linebackers should be helped by the addition of nose tackle Terrance Knighton. When Barry Cofield was at his best, so, too, were the inside linebackers. As for the guys on the outside, Kerrigan should be helped by having Stephen Paea and a healthy Jason Hatcher on third downs -- players who can collapse the middle. But they’ll need the Murphy/Smith combination to provide pressure. Pass-rushers typically take time to develop, but they at least need to be a threat. Both will get opportunities as the Redskins will use all three outside linebackers in many nickel packages (and take advantage of both their ability to rush inside).