Eagles show patience with Marcus Smith

Posted: July 25, 2014

When the Eagles host the Jaguars in this season's opener, it will be the first time that Marcus Smith has ever been to an NFL game.

Will the top draft pick be more than a spectator? The Eagles have been tempering expectations, knowing full well that rookie edge rushers rarely make an immediate impact in their first seasons. But will Smith even dress from Day 1?

"We're excited to have Marcus," Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said last month. "But he's a rookie like the rest of them, and their heads are swimming right now because we got the whole defense in."

Smith is also relatively new to playing outside linebacker. A high school quarterback, he switched sides as a freshman at Louisville. But he didn't play primarily as a stand-up edge rusher who could drop into coverage until his senior year.

As a result, Davis and other Eagles coaches have focused on Smith's ceiling, his athleticism, his intelligence, and his work ethic. He's raw. That doesn't mean he won't contribute right away.

But a year after coach Chip Kelly drafted another raw "athlete" who was new to his position in tackle Lane Johnson and started him immediately, the Eagles don't have to rush the 22-year-old Smith.

Trent Cole and Connor Barwin are entrenched as the starting outside linebackers. Brandon Graham seemed expendable after Smith was selected, but he's still here and has upside. Bryan Braman was signed in March to aid special teams, and he should take up a game-day roster spot. And Travis Long, per Kelly, is pushing to make the team.

If Smith is ready by Week 1, he'll play. If not, the Eagles will bide their time.

"He hasn't played the position much," Davis said. "So one of the things we did see about Marcus was you have a good man that works hard at it, loves football, and has a good football IQ. He's got the athleticism."

Smith was a standout youth basketball player growing up in Columbus, Ga., but he excelled in football and was the quarterback at Hardaway High School, even if he wasn't very accurate. He grew up idolizing Michael Vick, who played an hour and a half away for the Atlanta Falcons.

Smith just never got to the Georgia Dome to see Vick or the Falcons in person.

"We just could never get to a game," Smith said. "I always watched the Falcons on TV, but I never got to sit there and just watch Michael Vick do his thing, Matt Ryan do his work."

His dreams of playing quarterback beyond high school ended after two practices.

"He had a strong arm," Louisville coach Charlie Strong told reporters last year, "but you didn't know where the pass was going."

He played linebacker and special teams in nine games as a freshman, picked up 51/2 sacks as a part-time defensive end his sophomore year, and led Louisville defensive linemen with 29 tackles and was second in sacks with four as a junior.

But Smith broke out his senior season, recording a second-best-in-the-nation 141/2 sacks. The Eagles were just as enamored of his intangibles, having met with him several times throughout the predraft process. Davis, a close friend of Strong's, said he knew the Louisville coach would give him the straight scoop on Smith, and he was effusive in his praise.

The Eagles didn't draft a 3-4 edge rusher in 2013, but in Smith, according to assistant coach Bill McGovern, they had a prospect who had done the things they ask of their outside linebackers.

"I think the advantage was this year we saw a guy [who could] stand up," McGovern said. "We saw him do some of the things in college where we hadn't seen maybe some of the other guys a year ago do it."

Dion Jordan, Barkevious Mingo, and Jarvis Jones were the only 3-4 outside linebackers drafted in the first round in 2013. Jordan recorded two sacks for the Dolphins, Mingo 51/2 for the Browns, and Jones one for the Steelers. On average, 32 edge rushers - 4-3 ends included - taken in the first round of the previous seven drafts averaged 509 snaps (about 50 percent of plays), 3.7 sacks, and 20.2 tackles in their rookie season.

The Eagles will be patient with Smith, but they have acknowledged the need to improve their pass rush. Sacks don't tell the entire story, but they finished second-to-last in the league in sacks per pass play.

"Our demand for the position will always be to have pass rushers there," McGovern said. "I think Trent did a great job in the second half of the season [eight sacks]. Connor, when asked, delivered at times. [Graham] came in and delivered at times. It's more on a consistent basis."

Many had expected Smith to start spring workouts behind Cole at the "predator" spot, but the Eagles had him behind Barwin at the "jack." Ideally, both outside linebacker positions are interchangeable. Smith, who said he dropped into coverage about 50 percent of the time in college, should give the Eagles that flexibility.

"Our outside backers can be mirrored, or we could change their role, so to speak, to predator and jack," Davis said. "We can move that as the players change or as the players have different skill-sets. So we can move within a series."

The Eagles, though, took Smith with the 26th overall pick mainly because of his pass-rushing abilities. He's quick for a 6-foot-3, 251-pound man (a 4.68-second 40-yard dash at the combine), and even longer because of his arm length (34 inches).

He didn't have the opportunity to get after the quarterback during noncontact drills in the spring. But once the pads go on, starting with Saturday's first training camp practice, Smith said he should have the chance to showcase his skills.

"That's the one area I do feel comfortable in," he said. "I still have a lot of work to do, but when we start pass rushing, I think I'll be OK."

The Eagles will accept OK - for now.


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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