Say what you want about whether the Philadelphia Eagles reached for Marcus Smith at No. 26 overall in the draft. He’s a member of the Birds now, so let’s examine how he fits in head coach Chip Kelly’s plan.
It’s difficult to argue pass-rusher was anything less than the team’s biggest need heading into the draft. Last season, Philadelphia ranked 20th in the NFL with 37 sacks—just six more than last place, as opposed to 23 back of first.
Smith was named AAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 largely based on his ability to disrupt plays in the backfield. The Eagles’ newly minted first-round pick recorded 18.5 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks and four forced fumbles during his senior season at Louisville.
He’ll be expected to carry that momentum over into the NFL and provide situational pass-rush relief as a rookie. Of the defense’s 37 sacks, only 16 came from outside linebackers last season. Plain and simple, the Eagles must get more pressure than that off the edge.
Theoretically, getting opposing passers moving their feet should aid a secondary that ranked 32nd in the league against the pass last season—dead last.
The draft is primarily about building for the future, though. Eventually, Smith is going to have some awfully big shoes to fill, as he’s officially become the front-runner to take over for Trent Cole as the starting outside linebacker next season.
Cole turns 32 in October and not surprisingly has shown some signs of slowing down. The two-time Pro Bowler has registered just 11.0 sacks combined in the past two years after producing at least that many in three of the previous five campaigns.
Granted, some of his struggles in ’13 can be traced to him having to learn a new position. After playing defensive end in 4-3 alignments for the first eight years of his NFL career, he was challenged with a move to linebacker in defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ version of the 3-4.
Cole caught on gradually and didn’t look out of place at all by the end of the season, racking up 8.0 sacks over the Eagles’ final eight regular-season games.
Smith won’t have to be taught how to rush the passer from an upright position or how to drop into coverage, for that matter. The Cardinals used him in a variety of roles all over the defense—versatility that Kelly and the Eagles no doubt found appealing.
However, this is about more than Cole’s declining ability or fit in the scheme. His salary-cap figure is set to balloon from a manageable $6.6 million this year to $11.6 million in ’15, according to Spotrac, which is flat-out unreasonable.
At that point, his release could be inevitable, even if it does wind up costing the team $3.2 million in dead money against the cap.
There’s a chance that Cole, who has played his entire career in Philly, will be willing to restructure his contract. Regardless, the Eagles can’t count on him forever.
At 6’3”, 251 pounds, Smith has the prototypical frame for the position and will likely put on 10-15 pounds in Kelly’s famous conditioning program. His 4.68 in the 40-yard dash was among the top five times of defensive ends at the scouting combine, per NFL.com, so he has some burst.
The only question is how he will fare at the next level when he’s pressed into a starting role. Smith’s 14.5 sacks last season were more than the rest of his collegiate career combined and in a relatively weak conference to boot.
He’s in the nest now though, becoming the heir apparent to the franchise’s top pass-rusher from the last decade. Cole is second all time in franchise history with 79.0 career sacks and counting.
Kelly and the Eagles’ gamble will pay off if Smith one day surpasses Cole.