Eagles

Eagles

It's a new year for the Eagles, but the same lowered expectations for Marcus Smith. The 2014 first-round pick recorded only seven tackles and 1½ sacks over his first two NFL seasons, so at this point you can forgive people for being pessimistic about his development.

Smith doesn't blame Eagles fans for being disappointed with his career up to this point. The 24-year-old isn't content with the way things have panned out thus far, either, but sounds as though he's ready to turn the page in a new scheme.

"I understand they want their first-round draft pick to play," Smith said of fan criticism. "I wanted to be on the field, but I wasn't. I learned a lot of things from my first to my second year and I think I've grown and matured a lot, and this third year you'll see a lot different Marcus."

That won't do much to sway public opinion that he's a draft bust. The Eagles, however, are hoping a position change will unlock the potential that led the club to take Smith with the 26th overall selection in the draft.

Smith came to the league a raw prospect to begin with, and was immediately asked to take on the many responsibilities of an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. In a 4-3 alignment under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the third-year pro will line up at defensive end, where he'll primarily be used to create disruptions in opposing backfields.

 

"This is a scheme that greatly limits what he's asked to do," Schwartz said. "Difficult in execution, but easy in theory. Should allow him to play fast, attack spots, give him a little bit less responsibility but hopefully allow him to make a greater impact.

"He's very athletic. He's got great size. He's done very well so far, but let's reserve judgment on any of these guys until we get pads on them."

Smith admits it's a role he was more accustomed to playing in college.

"I never really dropped into coverage before," Smith said, reminiscing of his time at Louisville. "I dropped into coverage in some spurts, I knew how to do it, I was athletic enough to do it, but their thing was they wanted me to go rush the passer and be able to make plays. That's what I'm doing now."

This could be an opportunity for Smith to hit the reset button, in a manner of speaking. He was overwhelmed and couldn't get on the field in a complex 3-4. Schwartz's 4-3, on the other hand, is much more streamlined, letting linemen pin their ears back and do one thing well rather than force them to be jacks of all trades.

"I feel like with Jim Schwartz, we have a great relationship to where I can just go make plays and not think about anything," Smith said. "He always talks about that with me. He says, 'Just go make plays, I don't want you to think.'

"Scheme is definitely more simplified. It's really just go get the ball. His philosophy is hit the ball on the way to the quarterback because we know sacks change games, so if you get a sack fumble and you're able to scoop and score, that's what changes a game. That's what Schwartz's philosophy is."

Believe it or not, there might still be hope for Smith. His 1½ sacks were registered in the final two games of the 2015 season, a late surge that could've been seen as a sign of progress, yet wound up flying under the radar at the conclusion of a lost year. After all, it's not at all uncommon for some players to need a year or two to adjust to life in the NFL.

If Smith has any chance of shedding the dreaded bust label, he certainly has a perfect mentor in teammate Brandon Graham. The 13th pick in 2010, Graham experienced similar hardships when his Eagles career didn't get off to a brilliant start, but has since proven to be a capable starter.

Graham's situation wasn't identical, as his progress and opportunities were derailed in large part because of injury. Regardless, he understands as well anybody the lack of playing time and criticism that comes with failing to live up to high expectations.

 

"We talk pretty much every day," Smith says of his relationship with Graham. "He actually went through something worse than I did because he went through a couple of years with not playing. He talks to me about it all the time, and told me to keep my head down and keep working and everything will fall into place."

As of now, Smith is currently lining up opposite Graham with the second-team defense, behind Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry. The Eagles also used a seventh-round pick on Alex McAllister.

Still, despite the competition, despite his lack of production to date, Smith is keeping a positive outlook and feels as though he has every opportunity to be productive as part of a rotation.

"The way we play and how fast we play, [Schwartz] wants an eight-man rotation," Smith said. "He wants us to be able to be fresh. All of us can play 25-30 snaps a game. He wants us to be well-rested and ready to go because we're gonna be going.

"Whoever is starting, whoever's not starting, I think when you get in the game, just go get it. Once the coaches put you in the ballgame, you've just gotta be able to make plays."

There's no question Smith is running out of chances with the Eagles, that his reclamation story is already beginning to wear thin. The truth is his roster spot might even be in jeopardy if the roster was much deeper, and any contribution in 2016 will be viewed as a pleasant surprise.

There's also no question the physical ability is there. Smith is 6-foot-3 with sub-4.7 speed and told reporters he weighs close to 260 pounds. Point him in one direction with a singular goal — get into the backfield — and the Eagles may squeeze some production out of him yet.