The buzz surrounding first-round pick Marcus Smith leading up to the Philadelphia Eagles preseason opener could be described as tepid, at best. The outside linebacker’s name didn’t appear on the vast majority of mock drafts that circulated during the offseason, so naturally, the selection was labeled a reach, if not written off entirely.
Smith has flown under the radar pretty much ever since, but last Friday, the 22-year-old began the arduous task of changing hearts and minds everywhere.
If his NFL premiere serves as any indication, the Louisville product is indeed a little rough around the edges. For the most part, though, the debut was a glimpse into why the Eagles felt he was worth the 26th overall choice.
According to the game charters at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Smith was on the field for 47 defensive snaps against the Chicago Bears, registering two tackles—one solo—and a pass deflection. However, he was far more active than the numbers suggest.
Smith ran with the second- and third-team defenses, lining up at left outside linebacker the bulk of the game, or the “Jack” position, as it’s known in the Eagles defense. That’s Connor Barwin’s spot, so not surprisingly, there was a lot on the kid’s plate. Via PFF, the final tally was 11 plays dropping into coverage, 16 on run defense and 20 pass-rush attempts.
His performance was largely encouraging—in two of three phases, anyway.
Where Smith looked perhaps the most natural was in coverage. NFL.com reports a sub-4.7 40-yard dash at the combine, and that speed was evident. Smith backpedals with ease, so much so that even after a false step toward the line of scrimmage, he can be 10 yards deep in the blink of an eye.
It’s not just pure athleticism, either. Smith demonstrates excellent recognition—maybe because he is a converted quarterback, after all. In the frame above, Smith floats into the passing lane of the wide receiver at the top, aiding the cornerback by taking away the potential for a quick slant after the ball is snapped. No. 19 at the bottom is veteran Josh Morgan, who will be coming over the middle on a shallow crossing route.
Smith doesn’t take the outside receiver’s bait and runs himself out of the play. Instead, he sees Morgan coming, so by the time the quarterback is ready to unload the football, the linebacker is already breaking on the route. Morgan makes the catch, but actually loses a yard as Smith wraps him up immediately and makes a nice tackle alone in space.
A defensive penalty away from the play bails Chicago out. Great stuff, nonetheless.
Smith flashed in run defense, as well. He wasn’t as consistent in this aspect, although there weren’t as many carries to his side.
That being said, it was nice to see veteran tight end Zach Miller was not going to be the guy to keep Smith at bay. The rookie linebacker was able to set the edge on a few occasions, one of which allowed him to get in on a tackle, as we’re about to show.
Above, Smith is lined up over a receiver at play’s start. He’ll get the chip, then quickly recognizes it’s a run, and attacks the line of scrimmage.
By engaging with Miller and holding his ground, Smith prevents the back from bouncing this play to the outside. That provides enough time for the backside pursuit of No. 93 (defensive end Brandon Bair) to clog the hole before the ball-carrier can get there. Smith even fights through Miller’s block to record an assist on the tackle.
As Smith develops and teams get more tape on him, opponents will be less and less inclined to use a tight end to try to block him one-on-one if he continues to display this type of success.
For those of you who had actually heard of Marcus Smith before his name was called on draft day, you might be somewhat surprised to learn where he struggled when rushing the passer. In 20 attempts, Smith was named 2013 AAC Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, in large part due to his 14.5 sacks, which were second in the nation.
On the contrary, he was almost completely ineffective in his pass-rush efforts. PFF has him down for one hurry in 20 those attempts, an assessment I would have to agree with. You can see how wide Smith is getting in his attack, which allows the left tackle to fend him off with ease.
Those plays featured Smith at right outside linebacker. That’s Trent Cole’s side. The instant reaction to Smith’s selection was he might replace Cole next year, when the two-time Pro Bowler will be a potential cap casualty.
Then again, Smith’s pass-rush ability is a huge question mark at the next level. He only posted one productive season rushing the passer at Louisville, and racking up double-digit sacks versus the likes of Temple, Rutgers, Connecticut and that ilk is not that impressive when you think about it.
What I’m saying is, he won’t be able to simply run around the protection for sacks in the NFL most of the time, the way he does in a sizable portion of his highlight reel.
The fact that Smith is a work in progress doesn’t come as a surprise, though. Scouting reports such as Rob Rang’s for CBSSports.com indicated raw technique for a pass-rusher at the next level. Other than a speed rush, which was not very effective against the Bears, we didn’t really see very many moves from Smith.
That being said, he impressed in other aspects. It looks like Smith might be able to contribute immediately with strong coverage while holding his own versus the run. Hopefully, that pass-rush ability comes later.