James Smith-Williams, Edge Rusher
Washington’s 2020 seventh-round draft pick Kamren Curl deserved a lot of the praise he got during his rookie season, But another seventh-rounder, Smith-Williams, also acquitted himself pretty well.
First of all, he made the team. That is no small feat, considering that about one-third of late-round draft picks traditionally accomplish it.
Smith-Williams began the season as the fifth edge players, behind starters Young and Montez Sweat, and back-ups Ryan Kerrigan and Ryan Anderson. He made the team primarily as a special teamer.
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And indeed, he was good on teams, logging the third-most snaps on the roster. With his size and speed, you might just see a new Dexter Manley tearing down the field on kick coverage. If you squint.
But more importantly, by the end of the season, Smith-Williams had surpassed Anderson on the edge. He was on the field for almost 100 snaps on defense. Over the final seven games, when the Washington Football Team made its playoff push, Smith-Williams figured in at least 10 percent of the defensive plays in five of the games.
That may not seem like a big number, but when you consider how rarely Sweat and Young come off the field, it is significant.
In 2020, when either young edge starter did need a break, the venerable Ryan Kerrigan was the obvious replacement. Kerrigan is not here in 2021. (Neither is Anderson, though that barely matters.)
The point is, someone is going to have to pick up the slack that Kerrigan’s departure leaves. Washington has done a very good job of stockpiling young, athletic edge players. Smith-Williams will be competing with three other seventh-round draft picks – Casey Toohill, an Eagles draftee in 2020, as well as William Bradley-King and Shaka Toney, the 2021 selections of the Washington Football Team.
Out of all these players, Smith-Williams has the best shot at taking a big leap forward. He has been here the longest. He has the long wingspan you want in an edge rusher. Not Montez Sweat length, but still above average. He has very good speed and strength. We got to see him on the field along with Toohill last season, and despite Toohill’s athletic gifts, Smith-Williams simply looked more comfortable.
Both Bradley-King and Toney will get long looks. Bradley-King is not as explosive as the other three players, but he plays with excellent technique. His college tape shows a player who uses a variety of moves to get into the backfield, and who diagnoses plays very well.
Toney, on the other hand, has outstanding speed. In college, he was able to consistently run around edge blockers and make plays. But whether either rookie’s skills will translate in the pros is open to debate.
You could still say the same about Smith-Williams, but we have more to go on with him. I think he will win the role as primary edge backup, and I suspect he can produce five sacks and cause at least one turnover, while allowing Young and Sweat to remain fresh. If he does that, he will play a key role for the Washington Football Team in 2021.