Mychal Kendricks returned to practice for the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday, the good news coming directly from Chip Kelly at the head coach’s press conference carried on the team website. It’s a positive sign the defense’s most versatile linebacker is on track to play against the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday, his first action since sustaining a heel injury in Week 2.
An unfortunate side effect of Kendricks’ return, however, is we may have seen the last of Marcus Smith for a while. The Eagles’ first-round pick out of Louisville was selected with outside linebacker in mind, but he was having trouble getting on the field there. Only a series of injuries along the interior finally created limited playing time for Smith, albeit at an entirely new position.
All the same, the experience has been valuable for the 22-year-old, and with the exception of one play, the experiment was far from a disaster. At least, the body of work is enough to question which position Smith will play from this point on. Not just this week, not just for the remainder of the season—perhaps permanently.
|Marcus Smith 2014 Stats|
|Wk 3 vs. WAS||18||0||0.0/0||0/0|
|Wk 4 @ SF||8||0||0.0/0||0/0|
|Wk 5 vs. STL||8||0||0.0/0||0/0|
|Wk 6 vs. NYG||16||0||0.0/0||0/0|
|Pro Football Focus (subscription required)|
Coach Kelly was noncommittal in the press conference. “I don't know. I mean, it's all based on depth, where we are. Two more inside linebackers get hurt, he stays. Everybody is healthy and an outside linebacker gets hurt—that's why hypotheticals I don't really deal with. We just go day by day with the whole situation.”
Kelly did clarify Smith will remain on the inside for now, which seems like the right call.
The week of Kendricks’ injury, Smith was inactive. That’s right. The 26th overall pick in the draft didn’t even dress, in part because he was buried behind outside linebackers Trent Cole, Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham on the depth chart, but largely because rushing the passer was proving far more difficult in the NFL than in the American Athletic Conference.
Since then, Smith actually turned out to be serviceable at interior linebacker. There was the matter of the blown assignment against the San Francisco 49ers that turned a desperation pass across the field into an improbable 55-yard catch-and-run to paydirt. Other than that one play, though, I defy anybody to recall another instance when Smith was so completely out of his depth.
To the contrary, Smith’s physical attributes match up quite well to his new role. Instead of taking on offensive tackles at 251 pounds, he’s using his sub-4.7 speed to split gaps in the quarterback’s protection. And at 6’3” with those long, 34-inch arms, according to NFL.com, he looks like a natural in coverage.
|Marcus Smith College Stats|
Kelly doesn’t disagree. When pressed about Smith’s performance this season, while not effusive in his praise, the head coach had to recognize the rookie’s contributions—particularly in Kendricks’ absence, particularly while learning on the job.
“He's done a good job,” he said. “He hasn't played the position before, but I think the transition in terms of never playing a position, to get in there, added some value for us in some nickel snaps, so he's done a nice job in there.”
Unlike outside linebacker, it’s an area where Smith could conceivably continue to see some action even with Kendricks’ return.
Reserves Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho were surprisingly effective as well while pitching in, but neither one possesses Smith’s size and athleticism. Furthermore, Bill Davis previously vowed to limit DeMeco Ryans’ snaps, something the defensive coordinator has been unable to do in the midst of an injury crisis at the position.
As it turns out, passing downs are specifically when the Eagles would prefer to get the 30-year-old Ryans off the field. Who knows, maybe Smith could become a mainstay in Philadelphia’s nickel package.
As coach Kelly himself said, there’s no real reason to get tied to any one idea at this moment in time. Right now, the defense could use the help in the middle. With Ryans getting up there in years and a contract set to expire after 2015, Smith could certainly become a candidate to take over.
Of course, outside linebacker isn’t out of the question yet, either. Cole recently turned 32 and is a likely cap casualty unless he renegotiates his current deal this upcoming offseason. Graham’s days with the club could be numbered as well.
Smith should probably remain at interior linebacker for the long term, if long term means until the end of the season, if for no other reason than he made zero impact on the outside. Where he will ultimately wind up, however, is a decision that stills requires quite a bit of evaluation.