After turning a corner during his rookie season and finding more success, linebacker Preston Smith is determined to improve in 2016, and make sure others do, too.
Midway through the second day of OTAs, tight end Jordan Reed ran a wheel route down the sideline during unit drills. He believed there would be a mismatch due to the fact that linebacker Preston Smith had switched to cover him, sprinting 30 yards downfield. But Smith stayed with him stride for stride, throwing up his long wingspan to block Reed's view and force an incompletion.
"Man, he was running," Reed said after practice. "I didn't think he was going to run like that, but I have to be ready for that now though."
So will many NFL defenses.
That Smith can keep up with the likes of Reed is a testament to his work ethic this offseason, and more importantly, the shift he took midway through last season. Like most rookies, Smith had an adjustment period entering the league, and learned that the work ethic required to be a strong pass rusher wasn't the same one he got away with at Mississippi State.
"I think he kind of realized that he had to change how he practiced, changed how he ate, changed how he approached life away from football if he wanted to be a dominant player," linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. "As a result you saw him down the stretch making a lot of plays for us and [he] looks really good this offseason so far."
Six of Smith's eight sacks in 2015 came after Week 10, not including his safety sack in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, and this offseason he's lost two pounds, dropping from 270 to 268.
"I am just trying to get in shape, make sure I stay in shape and make sure I'm at the top of my game for the upcoming season," Smith told reporters last week.
Now, he says, his moves are feeling more natural and fluent, as opposed to last year, when he was still learning the nuances of switching between two and three point stances. He's focused on more core and conditioning exercises, too, building up his stamina and even working out on some off days.
"I want to make sure I have wind for when I go out here and practice," he said. "I want to feel fresh out here and keep up and run plays. Make sure my longevity on the field is better than last year."
The other aspect to all of this self-improvement is that he's ready to share it with his teammates. It's just his second year in the league, but in the short amount of time he was able to figure out the right program and routine for his body, Smith knows he can help this year's rookies find theirs.
Check out the top 10 photos of Preston Smith from the 2015 season.
He's already reached out to safety Su'a Cravens, who is spending his first snaps in the offseason with the linebacker group, and has a strong grasp of defensive coordinator Joe Barry's defense.
"Incredible. Not just from the standpoint of vocal, but being more aggressive and feeling confident and he belongs now," general manager Scot McCloughan said. "We got him as a young guy and it's tough for these rookies to come in here, then all of a sudden the press is like 'Wow, he's in the NFL, look at that.' His offseason has been incredible, and for him to go to Su'a and do that is excellent. Shows his leadership and maturity as an NFL football player."
"Who better to lead than someone who saw that one way wasn't working and found a way that was working?" Kerrigan said.
By Smith's logic, the decision is only natural. He knows what his rookie year was like, and knows how quickly it accelerated once he received the playbook and helmet.
"I wanted to help because I felt that pressure last year and you got to kind of have people to tell you to 'Calm down and just play,'" Smith said. "I feel I am in a position now to help somebody and I want to. If I see a need to help him, then I'll help him. I am going to help calm their nerves and tell them to 'be comfortable.'"
As he continues his second week of OTAs, Smith knows that the additions on defense – specifically a lockdown corner in Josh Norman and a pass-rusher in Junior Galette eager to cause havoc – will only help his opportunities to improve upon last year.
"I'll have a lot more playing time," Smith said. "I feel I am just going to play hard and hopefully things fall into place and make sure I am in position to make plays. I am going to have a lot more opportunities to make plays."