Eagles enlist Tra Thomas in Marcus Smith project

Outside linebacker Marcus Smith, deemed a project, had his share of problems against the New England Patriots. YONG KIM / Staff
Outside linebacker Marcus Smith, deemed a project, had his share of problems against the New England Patriots. YONG KIM / Staff
Posted: August 20, 2014

The Eagles had been handling Marcus Smith with first-round draft pick gloves - the type of cradling a team gives a No. 1 selection who isn't expected to start right away.

But the team had surely hoped Smith would contribute and play a part-time role this season. However, after Friday night's preseason loss to the Patriots, the Eagles have taken the gloves off.

Chip Kelly was critical of Smith, saying, "If you're going to play that many plays [the second-highest total on defense], we're going to need more production out of you."

Smith, who played quarterback in high school and didn't play 3-4 outside linebacker until his senior season at Louisville, was always deemed a project. But the Eagles, judging from their recent comments, are surely looking at the possibility of their top pick's being inactive once the regular season starts.

"The game is moving too fast in his brain right now in my opinion," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "As soon as it slows down for him and he can settle down and play with a little more confidence, I think he'll continue to grow. He's got the skill set."

To aid his development, the Eagles have enlisted Tra Thomas to work with Smith after practices. The former Pro Bowl tackle primarily helps the offensive line, but the Eagles are utilizing Thomas' unique perspective to also coach their edge rushers.

Thomas faced an assortment of edge rushers in 12 NFL seasons, but part of his responsibilities as an offensive assistant has been to study the rushers that Eagles tackles will face. He knows all the moves and his job with Smith has been to work on the ones that will help the rookie beat NFL tackles.

"You could tell that in college he was just used to always being able to run around everybody," Thomas said. "On this level, it's not going to be that easy. You're going to have a lot of tackles that are athletic and extremely quick on their feet."

While there are many moves, the Eagles have tried to simplify the technique for all of their pass rushers. Kevin Greene, a likely future Hall of Famer, was recently brought in as a guest coach and his lesson was straightforward: Violence is the best way to beat tackles.

Thomas has delivered the same message. To get to NFL quarterbacks, edge rushers must make aggressive contact with linemen.

"I have to be able to stab, let go and be able to go get the quarterbacks," Smith said. "Sometimes when I run up field and I think I have the guy beat, all the tackle does is run me past the quarterback and the quarterback steps up.

"Tra's teaching me to get him on his right leg and be able to turn back and go get the quarterback."

Proper technique can offset what an edge rusher may lack in size. Travis Long is similarly sized (6-foot-4, 255 pounds to Smith's 6-3, 251), but he has been able to physically overpower linemen in the preseason.

Undrafted as a rookie, Long spent last season on the practice squad as he recovered from a college knee injury and built up his strength. But he worked diligently on his technique and is now a virtual shoo-in to make the roster.

"Technique is probably the most important thing in football," Smith said. "Athleticism - that goes out the window."

Unlike Long, Smith doesn't have the advantage of spending his rookie season under the radar. He will be on the 53-man roster no matter what because of his draft status. But he may not dress for games initially and Long could take his place in the outside linebacker rotation.

Smith struggled with his technique against the Patriots and let it affect him mentally. He carried his mistakes over into the next play and sometimes was in the wrong alignment, which allowed big plays.

"They want to see me do better. It's plain and simple," Smith said. "The bad plays that I had - I've just got to let them go and be able to go on to the next one."

Not many edge rushers come in on Day 1 and are productive, let alone dominant. Connor Barwin said his head was swimming in his first preseason game. But he was part of the Texans' nickel package by the start of the season.

Thomas said he could only recall Derrick Burgess and Trent Cole as two Eagles edge rushers who contributed as rookies. The Eagles don't want to destroy Smith's confidence, but they want to see improvement.

"One of the first things I told him was there's a lesson to be learned in every battle. Whether you win or you get your [butt] kicked. Take it and keep rolling from it," Thomas said. "Everybody out here from Trent Cole on up has been punched in the mouth. But one of the great things about them, that has made them last so long, is they continue to push and grind."


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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