In his first year as Washington Redskins defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams took a cast of relatively unknown players and transformed them into the third-ranked rank unit in the NFL last season. With no splashy free agent signings during the offseason, Williams has a similar project this year, and he'll have to proceed without a pair of significant contributors.

The most notable vacancy is at cornerback, where Fred Smoot left via free agency to join the Minnesota Vikings. Also missing is middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who signed with the New York Giants.

"Every year is a new year," Williams said. "People ask me right now, 'Are you going to be as good on defense as you were last year?' I had more fun coaching that group of guys than I had in about 10 or 12 years in the league. I can't predict that. Our opponents are different. We play the same teams in the division, but you know their teams are drastically different, too."

Perhaps Williams's most telling achievement was directing a defensive line that sent no players to the Pro Bowl yet helped hold opponents to an average of 81.5 yards rushing per game (second in the league). The best of the bunch was defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, who must occupy blockers this season to allow Lemar Marshall to thrive as Pierce's replacement.

The Redskins will use either first-round pick Carlos Rogers (ninth overall) or veteran Walt Harris to replace Smoot.