Preston Smith: 2015’s Best Rookie Pass Rusher

One season in and the highly touted 2015 draft class of edge rushers has been a disappointment.  The supposed best thing since Von Miller, Vic Beasley, was a massive disappointment in his first season, although he came on strong towards the end of the season.  Perhaps the most explosive player to enter the league since the installation of the combine, Bud Dupree, could manage nothing but coverage sacks.  Randy Gregory looked impressive in Week 1 until an injury threw off his season.  Preston Smith is one of the only, if not the only, early round edge rushers that scraped together a good rookie season.

Edge rushers have one of the toughest transitions to the next level in today’s NFL, so it is by no means time to write off any of these players, more-so it is encouraging that Smith was able to transition so smoothly.  Most players are either able to consistently create pressure and struggle at converting sacks or struggle creating pressure in the first place.  In Preston Smith’s rookie season he was an effective pressure creator, but his conversion ability is what made it special.

Although Smith’s versatility to line up in various different spots along the defensive line was viewed as on of his biggest strengths, Washington did not use him as such.  He took pretty much all of his pass rush attempts lining up at outside linebacker in Washington’s 3-4 scheme.  He was effective enough when used this way to be the team’s second best pass rusher, but you have to wonder how much more effective he would have been if used in various different alignments.  After all, although it is too limited of a sample to draw any conclusions from, Pressure Production showed that Smith had more success rushing on the interior than he did on the edge.

As you can see, Smith spent 84.8% of his pass rush attempts on the edge, as opposed to 15.2% on the interior.  On those 95 attempts that Smith took on the edge, he had a success rate of 32.6%.  On the 17 attempts that he took on the interior, he had a success rate of 35.3%.  Now, statistically speaking, the sampling size here isn’t anywhere near large enough to draw a conclusion on if all of Smith’s snaps would look this way.  In fact, across the whole season Smith may have had more success on the edge than on the interior.  There is at least enough information here, thought, to justify that Washington using Smith in a more versatile way would have opened up more opportunities for both him and teammates.

In terms of how Smith fared against single blockers vs. multiple blockers, there isn’t much of a conversation to be had.  He only took 9 of his 112 attempts facing more than one blocker and he didn’t have a success on any of them, something that you would probably expect from a rookie.  All of his 37 successes came against a single blocker, which translates to a 35.3% success rate.  Overall, Smith sported a 33% success rate on his 112 attempts, which isn’t anything special, but it’s something a rookie can hang his hat on.

In terms of how Smith wins, it’s all pretty expected.  Coming out of Mississippi State, Smith was viewed as someone who could rush the passer with power and speed, as well as a good jump off the snap.  He was able to transition all of those skills to the NFL level in his first season.  Smith did flash some ability to mix in alternate rush moves, but for the most part he relied on his three college strengths to power him through his rookie year.  70.3% of his pressures came from bull rush (37.8%), shoulder dip (18.9%), and initial jump (13.5%), while 18.9% came off of other pass rush moves, and 10.8% came on plays when he was unblocked.

One plays where Smith had success creating pressure, he converted that pressure into sacks at a very high rate.  Especially for a rookie.  On the 37 plays where he created pressure in the 8 games that I charted, Smith converted 6 of those into sacks, which converts to 16.2%.  So far, Ziggy Ansah has the highest conversion rate of any of the players charted with 22%, followed by Khalil Mack with 20%.  16.2% is not a special number by any means, but when most rookies struggles to get the quarterback on the ground, it’s promising for Smith’s future.

There wasn’t anything special about Smith’s rookie season.  He didn’t do anything that most people wouldn’t have expected out of him and he wasn’t a force that could throw off an offenses whole game plan.  What he did do was provide a consistent pass rushing presence in a season where most other rookies wilted with the change of scenery.  Most pass rushers take a massive step in their second and third seasons, which for Smith would mean being among the elites.  Now, I don’t necessarily think Smith will be able to take that massive step since he started on higher ground, but I’m excited to see how he will grow in his next few seasons in the league.

Anthony Chiado

Anthony Chiado

Senior in high school. Written and video content for Playmaker Mentality. Analyst for Optimum Scouting. Kevin Colbert hates me.
Anthony Chiado