There was a lot of buzz for a few minutes about Eagles coach Chip Kelly and Manziel, since Kelly recruited Manziel to Oregon, and Kelly described himself recently as heartbroken when Manziel decommitted, but Kelly is not coaching in the Pac-12 anymore, and Kelly has a quarterback named Nick Foles, who threw 27 touchdown passes and two interceptions last season.
Kelly said last night that while he loves Manziel’s dynamic game, he also really likes the Eagles’ QB situation, with Foles, Matt Barkley and Mark Sanchez.
So 26th it was, and with a bevy of strong receivers still on the board, the Birds took Smith (6-3, 251), projected as a second- to fourth-round prospect by most draft experts, who questioned Smith’s strength, though not his speed -- he ran a 4.68 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine.
He’ll be a 3-4 linebacker for the Eagles, so we’ll leave it up to you as to whether he’s officially the first linebacker taken by the Birds in the first round since Jerry Robinson in 1979.
“We think he’s an outstanding athlete. He actually got recruited to Louisville as a quarterback,” Kelly told reporters afterward. “He’s got speed coming off the edge. We thought adding a pass rusher was a big thing for us … His ceiling is very, very high.”
Kelly said Smith was the Birds’ top-rated prospect when the 26th pick arrived – he could hardly say otherwise – but fans will probably wonder, after all the talk about taking the best available player regardless of position, how their team ended up with an unheralded prospect at a definite position of need. Most of the time, when you take a guy a round or two ahead of where most people had him ranked – Smith was 53rd in NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock’s assessment -- it isn’t because he’s so darned high on your board, it’s because you think you have to get some help at that position, regardless.
At least the Eagles have three picks tonight to try to come up with a successor to DeSean Jackson.
“He’s a tough, hard-nosed football player. A little bit new to the position,” Kelly said. “Maybe similar to Lane [Johnson, the offensive tackle who also is a former quarterback], a guy that has a huge upside because he hasn’t played the position that long. They play multiple defenses there; he’s played with his hand on the ground, he’s played standing up. He can drop into coverage, he can rush the quarterback.”
Later, on a conference call, Smith told reporters he’d hoped to go in the first round, but was expecting the second or maybe even the third. He was hardly in the Radio City green room when the call arrived – Smith said he was watching the draft from a Louisville sports bar with his family. He didn’t tell them the news when he hung up. He waited for the TV announcement, to not ruin the surprise.
“I’m just so happy that the Eagles took a chance on me … I’m just so overjoyed right now … I had no idea until I got that phone call,” he said.
Smith, 22, who has graduated from Louisville, said he made a predraft visit to NovaCare and met with the defensive staff.
“They put me on the board [to work with the scheme]. It’s pretty straightforward. Either I’m going to be the rush guy or I’m going to be the drop guy ... I know for a fact that they want me to rush and go get the quarterback.”
Trent Cole made a smooth transition to that spot last season, after 8 years as a 4-3 defensive end, but Cole turns 32 in October, and Bill Davis’ defense rarely got strong pressure without blitzing.
Smith said he figures he is as talented as the edge rushers who went earlier in the first round. He said he thinks his grade from analysts was lower because he hasn’t played defense that long, that last season’s 14.5 sacks might have been seen as a fluke, after a much less impressive junior season.
“This year, I had an outbreak. I feel like I can carry everything I did this year to the NFL, make an impact right away,” Smith said.
The night started with predictability – South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney went first overall to Houston, Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson went second to the Rams. But the surprises started with Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles going third to Jacksonville – which had been considered a prime possible Manziel landing spot. And the draft veered all over the place after that.
We got to pick No. 12 before anybody took a player mentioned as a serious Eagles target. It was the NFC East-rival New York Giants who took LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr., a smooth, versatile wideout. Mike Evans, the 6-5, 231-pound beastly wideout from Texas A&M, had already gone seventh overall to the Buccaneers, but the Eagles never really had any kind of shot at him.
If you had any thoughts of such a moveup to Evans for the Birds, you probably cast them aside when you saw that the Bills gave up next year’s No. 1 pick plus a 2015 fourth-rounder to move up five slots, from ninth to fourth, to take the draft’s top wide receiver, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins. That’s a lot, in a wideout-rich draft.
When the Rams took Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald 13th, that left eight slots remaining before the Eagles’ selection, with both the top safeties – Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor – still on the board, along with Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, cornerbacks Kyle Fuller (from Virginia Tech) and Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State), and a gaggle of receivers, including USC’s Marqise Lee, Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin and Oklahoma State’s Brandin Cooks, all widely mocked to the Birds.
Fuller went with pick 14, to the Bears. The Steelers, who tend to know their linebackers, mildly surprised a lot of us with Ryan Shazier from Ohio State at 15. The scene was set for Dallas to take Manziel at 16, but the Cowboys went with Notre Dame guard-tackle Zack Martin. Then the Ravens grabbed Mosley.
At 18, the Jets took Pryor, who probably didn’t fit the Eagles’ system. So, three slots left, Clinton-Dix, Dennard, Lee and Cooks all on the board – along with, of course, Manziel.
Miami then surprised us with offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James from Tennessee. Two slots left before 22. New Orleans traded up from 27 to 20 and nabbed Cooks. Only Green Bay left. Most people had Clinton-Dix as the top-rated safety in the draft, particularly in coverage, pretty much exactly what the Eagles’ defense needs. He joked with reporters in New York Wednesday about wanting the Birds to trade up to draft him. Could he really be sitting there at 22?
Nope. The Packers took Clinton-Dix. And the Eagles traded down with Cleveland.
Kelly said there were about six players the Birds had in mind at 22, and all were gone by the time the pick arrived. He dodged a question about whether Cooks was one of the six, which probably means he was. One might think, if you really wanted one of those six, maybe you could have traded up a spot or two, but Kelly pointed out the Eagles’ small cache of picks and said giving up a third-rounder to swap with New Orleans, which was what the Saints wanted, was too rich. Green Bay presumably was not going to give up a chance to draft Clinton-Dix.
“Unfortunately for us, there were other people in the league who liked the same six guys we did,” Kelly said.
Kelly said there was a lot of interest in the 22nd pick because of “the quarterback situation.”
Andy Reid and the Chiefs took Auburn edge rusher Dee Ford at 23, then the Bengals plucked Dennard 24th. San Diego took another corner, TCU’s Justin Verrett, who lacks the length the Eagles covet.
Most fans probably thought then they were getting Lee, who went undrafted last night, or Benjamin, who went 28th to Carolina. Instead, they listened to the announcement of Smith, and to analysts calling their team’s pick a reach. Of course, the same people thought defensive end/linebacker Bruce Irvin was a reach at 15th overall for Seattle in 2012, and Irvin is a star for the team that just won the Super Bowl. But Eagles fans are more familiar with Jon Harris, the 1997 Eagles’ first-round selection, 25th overall, who was considered a third-round prospect by everyone except then-coach Ray Rhodes, and turned out to be not even that good.
Smith is scheduled to meet the media in person at NovaCare at 4 p.m.today. The Eagles’ three picks tonight are 54th overall in the second round, then 83rd and 86th in the third. The draft concludes with the final four rounds tomorrow.
On Twitter: @LesBowen