Eagles' top pick on the surprising side

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Marcus Smith is practicing at Connor Barwin's position, not Trent Cole's.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Marcus Smith is practicing at Connor Barwin's position, not Trent Cole's.
Posted: May 30, 2014

UNTIL YESTERDAY, reporters hadn't seen the 2014 Eagles on the practice field, though we'd been able to talk to players here and there. Watching them actually line up in formation, it turns out, has its advantages.

First-round linebacker Marcus Smith was taking third-team reps, not unexpected for a rookie who is considered a bit of a project. But Smith was taking those reps on the left side, where Connor Barwin plays, not on the right side, where Smith was widely projected to add pass-rush depth behind Trent Cole, after notching 14 1/2 sacks last season at Louisville.

Last season, defensive coordinator Bill Davis called the Barwin spot the "jack," for "jack of all trades." It generally was more of a set-the-edge and pass-coverage role in the Eagles' defense, the Cole spot the pass-rush role.

"I'm just working on the one side for now, the weakside," Smith (6-3, 251) said after yesterday's session of organized team activities on an unseasonably cool and gray South Philly day. Smith said he was unaware of any plans for him to learn the other side.

Davis will not be available to speak with reporters until a scheduled session June 16, the Eagles said yesterday. Head coach Chip Kelly spoke before yesterday's session, before anyone knew to ask about his plans for Smith.

Smith said he dropped into coverage "probably 50 percent" of the time at Louisville, and he didn't seem tentative doing so yesterday. "I like dropping a lot. It kind of expands my vision of what's going on in the backfield," he said.

But Smith dropped into coverage in college after taking a three-point stance, not as a standup linebacker.

"Standing up, it's a little bit awkward right now," he acknowledged. "I think my speed [4.68 40] is good enough to run with anybody. In football, you have to have the right angles and the right positioning to run with people."

Like many players new to the Eagles, Smith said getting adjusted to Kelly's practice pace has been a bigger challenge than learning Davis' defense.

"That first practice [Monday], it was just run-and-gun, and I was just really, really tired," Smith said. "After that, I got some good recovery - coach Kelly, he talks about recovery."

Smith knows he's under scrutiny as a surprise first-round pick, taken 26th overall. He was projected to go anywhere from the very end of the first round to the third round. Kelly talked of his long-range potential when the Eagles drafted him. It isn't clear Smith will play enough to make an impact as a rookie, with Barwin and Cole established as starters. There would seem to be more snaps to be had on Cole's side, as the team's top pass rusher prepares to turn 32 in October. Cole played 73 percent of the defensive snaps in 2013, while Barwin played 94 percent. Cole led the Eagles with eight sacks, Barwin was second with five.

If Smith makes progress - yesterday he was running with the third team, as free-agent special-teams signee Bryan Braman took second-team snaps - that might free Davis to use Barwin more in relief of Cole as a pass-rush specialist here and there.

Smith seemed to speak with Barwin repeatedly during yesterday's practice.

"I know those guys have produced in the NFL," Smith said of Cole and Barwin. "I try to mirror the stuff [Barwin] does . . . Connor knows a lot, he's very knowledgeable."

"I told him the biggest challenge is just, you have to be able to do a little bit of everything," Barwin said yesterday. "That's essentially what the position is, but that's why he was drafted in the first round - you have to have that kind of athleticism, which he does. You have to be able to set the edge on the run, you have to pass rush, and you have to be able to cover tight ends and running backs at times, even slow down wide receivers sometimes."

Barwin called Smith "a smart kid, a pretty humble kid - he's eager to learn."

Barwin said he didn't closely follow the draft drama, of fans wanting a higher-profile player, something the Eagles tried to trade up to get but could not. Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the top prospect at a longtime position of need for the Eagles, went to the Packers with the 21st pick, one slot ahead of where the Birds were supposed to draft. They then traded back and selected Smith.

"I asked him if he thought he was a first-round pick. He said, 'Yeah.' That was good enough for me," Barwin said.

Feeling Chipper

Chip Kelly said the Eagles are "light years" ahead of where they were during OTAs a year ago, when everything was new to every player. "There's a lot more just better understanding of what we're doing," he said.

Kelly said that better understanding means practice can go at a faster pace.

Birdseed

Linebacker Mychal Kendricks sat out part of yesterday's session with what seemed to be a minor knee problem. Najee Goode filled in . . . Second-round wideout Jordan Matthews was absent, attending an NFL rookie event in Los Angeles, to which the league invites one draftee from each team . . .

Chip Kelly confirmed that veteran Nate Allen is "the first guy up" for the starting safety position opposite Malcolm Jenkins . . . Mark Sanchez took second-team quarterbacking reps ahead of Matt Barkley. Kelly said Sanchez, who underwent shoulder surgery in October, is "not limited at all." Sanchez, the former Jets starter, attracted a gaggle of New York-area media to his first media session since he signed 2 months ago . . .

Kelly was asked about Tuesday's apparent season-ending ACL injury to Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee. Kelly called Lee "one of the top linebackers in the league" and discussed how hard but necessary it is to get the offensive and defensive lines to adhere to noncontact spring rules. Though Lee's knee might have buckled before he was hit, the former Penn State star then was plowed over by a two-hand shove from rookie guard Zack Martin. Kelly said OTA work is "not as competitive as training camp will be, nor should it be."


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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