An in-Depth Look at Washington Redskins Most Intriguing Selection, Preston Smith

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2015

Mississippi State defensive lineman Preston Smith (91) readies for a tackle against UAB in the second half of an NCAA college football game at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. Mississippi State won 47-34. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

It wasn't just the offensive front that got bigger for the Washington Redskins during the 2015 NFL draft. General manager Scot McCloughan also added a big body to the defense, in the form of 6'5", 271-pounder Preston Smith.

The former Mississippi State star is easily the most intriguing player from this year's class. He's so intriguing principally because few can agree on exactly what he is.

Let's take a look at the possibilities for Washington's second pick:

Smith the Rush Linebacker

At face value, Smith appears to have been drafted to bolster the rotation at outside linebacker. Since Brian Orakpo walked during free agency, the Redskins needed another option at the edge of their hybrid 3-4 scheme.

Smith can fill the void, at least in the view of B/R analysts Matt Miller and Chris Simms:

It's Simms' comparison with ex-New England Patriots' rush end Willie McGinest that's particularly interesting. McGinest is a very apt comparison as one of the quintessential hybrid edge defenders of his generation.

Drafted by then-Pats boss Bill Parcells in 1994, McGinest never became Lawrence Taylor Mark II. But he also never lost the talent for adopting a host of guises and attacking offenses from multiple positions.

McGinest may have logged 86 sacks in 15 seasons, but he was never an elite athlete off the edge, only posting double-digit quarterback takedowns once. He didn't possess top-notch speed around the corner.

Smith reminds some of McGinest, a highly flexible, hybrid defensive weapon.
Smith reminds some of McGinest, a highly flexible, hybrid defensive weapon.STEPHEN SAVOIA/Associated Press/Associated Press

By a similar token, neither does Smith. In fact, the absence of dynamic quickness and athletic range is likely what condemned the one-time Bulldogs ace to the second round.

CBS Sports' Dane Brugler focused on those limitations in his game: "Not a loose mover and lacks ideal closing burst...doesn't own the edge speed to consistently win with athleticism alone...has some joint tightness and lacks the start/stop momentum to consistently turn the corner."

Meanwhile, NFL.com's Lance Zierlein adopted a similar tone: "More of an edge-rounder than corner-turner. Pedestrian inside pass-rush moves. Scouts say he 'sees it' but doesn't have the quick-twitch athleticism to react quickly enough to make plays."

Yet McCloughan believes Smith can make the transition to playing on the edge, per Tom Schad of The Washington Times:

You could see the athleticism on tape, no doubt about it. Flexibility in his lower body, length in his arms. But at the pro day, they worked him as a linebacker. Dropped him, flipped his hips, made him catch the ball.

Some of Smith's best film helps make sense of what McCloughan sees in him. In this pre-Senior Bowl breakdown by Phil Savage, Smith lined up outside the right tackle in a four-point stance:

This is the classic edge-rusher's alignment. Many 3-4 outside 'backers adopt this stance in nickel situations.

In this example, Smith crashed the edge after using a subtle and swift dip move to get underneath the right tackle's attempts to press him to the outside. He was able to quickly flush the quarterback out of the pocket and force him into throwing the ball away.

Perhaps a more naturally dynamic pass-rusher would've beaten the tackle and closed on the passer quicker. But just like McGinest, Smith is a pass-rusher who's more disruptive than destructive.

One thing he does have, though, is the versatility to play in space. He proved those qualities as part of a third-down blitz scheme against Kentucky, beginning at the 1:26 mark:

At the snap, Smith dropped back off the line and bailed into coverage as the Bulldogs sent pressure. From the replay angle, you can see how he took the out-breaking route and rotated underneath, expertly filling the passing lane between quarterback and receiver.

Having a player who can stand up and survive space, as well as put his hand down and win at the line, is the key to successfully playing the type of hybrid defense Washington wants for 2015.

However, not everybody is convinced Smith will make the grade out on the edge.

Smith the 5-technique End

Chief among the naysayers regarding Smith's chances of transitioning to outside linebacker is B/R's Michael Felder. He quite literally stresses Smith is no standup rusher but instead a potential classic 5-technique defensive end:

Felder contends Smith can grow into the traditional double-team-absorbing 3-4 end. Looking at how Smith's plays the run adds some weight to these claims.

Against LSU, Savage highlighted Smith stacking up the tight end to set the edge at the goal line, starting at the 1:15 mark:

Smith aligned head-up over his man, meaning he was responsible for the gaps on either side of the tight end. Smith stood up his man and turned him into the inside C-gap. As he did, Bulldogs defenders flowed over his shoulder to fill the outside D-gap and stuff the runner for no gain.

Of course, some will say a tight end against a lineman should always be a matchup win for a defense. But it's important to note the tight end in this case was Dillon Gordon, all 6'4", 295 pounds of him.

Smith was ostensibly competing against a third offensive tackle or guard. Yet he still showed the strength to rock his man backward and create attack lanes for second-level defenders.

He displayed similar traits on this early stop against Kentucky, beginning at the 0:36 mark:

Notice how well Smith clamped onto his man and strung the play out. He'd stretched the offensive front and forced the runner sideways, the ultimate goal of every spill-and-contain rush defense.

Because he held up his blocker, Smith could play each of the gaps on either side of him. In this case, he pressed the C-gap outside the tackle and slid off his block.

The runner had no choice but to turn into traffic. Smith's two-gap clinic had kept linebackers clean and free to flow to the ball. Once again, he'd done the dirty work to let others make the play.

These two examples make it easy to see why Felder believes Smith's best fit may be as a 5-technique end. In fact, it's not unreasonable to suppose Washington will soon need help at that position.

After all, Jason Hatcher is 33, and the need to replace him is no doubt looming large for a GM who generally prefers a young roster.

Perhaps Smith will become the eventual replacement for Hatcher.
Perhaps Smith will become the eventual replacement for Hatcher.Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

But ultimately, trying to assign a specific role for Smith may just be an exercise in futility.

The Many Faces of Preston Smith

What the Redskins really have in Smith is a personified Swiss Army Knife of defensive flexibility. He's a chameleon-like, roving agent of destruction who can line up everywhere along the front.

McCloughan highlighted how often Smith moves around, per Schad:

He has the ability to play, on certain downs, stand up in a two-point stance, and on certain [downs], pass rush in a three-point stance. He played down at Mississippi State a majority of the time. What was unique about him, when they go to the three-man front, he’d move to nose tackle and play over the center and had success rushing the passer from inside there.

Smith the outside linebacker and Smith the end can easily become Smith the 3-technique or Smith the 0-technique. In this play from 2:58 of Savage's breakdown against LSU, Smith slid down late between the tackle-guard B-gap:

He quickly slanted directly across the guard's face and used his hands with skill and aggression to get into the backfield and flush the quarterback from the pocket.

What's so easy to love about this play is the late move Smith made to challenge the guard. A sudden shift like that can cause havoc with blocking schemes.

So can Smith's power and ability to split double-teams from the interior. He did it as a 0-technique lined up directly over the center against Kentucky, starting at 2:27:

Notice how Smith used his long arms, often a pass-rusher's best friend, to execute a violent swim move to bypass the center. He got a good piece of the quarterback to end the play on 3rd-and-10.

Later, Smith was back over at guard at 2:52:

He slanted into the A-gap between center and guard before using another swim move to split the double-team and collapse the pocket. Unable to step up because of Smith's presence, the quarterback was soon decked by edge-rushers.

Versatility will be the key to Smith's impact in Washington, at least during his rookie year. What the Redskins have got is a player who could trim down to play outside linebacker and split time with 2014 second-rounder Trent Murphy. Or perhaps Smith bulks up and becomes the 5-tech Felder believes he is.

What is certain is that Smith will line up inside in the sub-package defenses and create pressure from various angles. he should be a massive boost for the ways new coordinator Joe Barry's defense attacks offenses on football's money down.

The possibilities for the nickel package should be particularly intriguing. Imagine a speed-based front with Murphy and Ryan Kerrigan at end while Hatcher and Smith align inside. That's just one riff on the theme.

Ultimately, the decision to pick Smith will be judged on how successfully he transitions to the edge, or if he ends up as an end. If it's the latter, many may feel McCloughan didn't do a good enough job of using such a prominent pick to meet an obvious need.

But as another big body able to do a lot, Smith's arrival has increased the flexibility of a more physically imposing front seven.

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