Marcus Smith II Will Step Up In 2015

Marcus Smith II Will Step Up In 2015

The road in the NFL has not been easy for outside linebacker Marcus Smith II.   He was drafted in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014, despite projecting into a day two round.   He was uniformly categorized as a "project", a young man who could be stashed on the roster and groomed to achieve the size, strength, and skill set of an NFL outside linebacker.

Why were the Eagles so desperate?  Heading into the 2014 season, they believed that they needed help to generate a pass rush.  Despite the roster filled with talent in the likes of Connor Barwin, Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, Smith was brought in to sit, learn, and then reproduce what he learned.   He fell short when he landed on an NFL field of play.

Still, there is something about the NFL that seldom is discussed.  Going from college to the NFL, every rookie starts over.  Going from top of the pile back to the bottom in terms of knowledge, trust and repertoire with coaches, familiarity – can be a tremendous burden to some young men.   Some positions, and some players, seem to benefit from the sophomore season – when they know all the ropes and can focus inwardly.    Smith is likely that type of player.

Where do I get my confidence? 

Signs Of A Well Coached Team

I've seen this before.   The Eagles are a well coached team.  Despite the occasional outburst about firing somebody, this coaching staff has systemically repaired areas of both the offense and defense.
When the team needed receivers to catch and block, the receivers who caught the ball only were shown the door.    When the team needed a pass rush, they brought in the elite Kevin Greene to coach up veterans  and rookies, to give them a far better comprehension of what being a pass rushing outside linebacker requires.   The result?  The Eagles jumped to second in the NFL in pass rushes in 2014. 

The Eagles are using a number of factors to manage this team.   We have all heard about the sports science piece – about the nutrition, sleep, and number of snaps monitoring to optimize player talents.  But they are also using economics as well.

Kelly's team is not opposed to any race or background.  But he's opposed to "stars" in the sense that all players are expected to earn playing time, contribute on each and every play in moving the ball forward, blocking opposing players, or defending and tackling.  Kelly tries to manage the economics of the game as well – keeping the team from pouring all of it's salary into the hands of a few players.   Sometimes the contracts did not fit the team's budget, and the player became vulnerable to a trade, or outright being cut.   As a loyal fan, that is hard to watch.  As a NFL blogger, it's simply the reality.

All Their Exes Are In Texas

The Philadelphia Eagles starting linebackers are 50% of the former Houston Texans.   When you factor in special teams ace Bryan Braman, you get a sense that the Eagles love former Texans.  You wouldn't be far from the truth.

The thing about having so many players from an NFL team is the synergy that developed there sometimes carries over to the new team, or in this case from the Texans defense into the Eagles defense.  How good was that Texans 2011 defense?  Just second in the NFL in yards allowed, fourth in the NFL in points allowed per game.  That 2011 Texan defense was good at both the run and the pass.  In fact, the Texans simply played great team style defense.   That appears to be the plan with the Eagles defense.  With both DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin from that defense, they have established the type of leadership for the team that not only keeps players motivated, but reaches out to young players and encourages them to use all of their talents in their quest for an NFL career.

Did… did Marcus Smith turn… green?

"Don't make me angry… you won't like me when I'm angry." – is a recognizable quote of Bruce Banner from a popular 1970's television show entitled the Incredible Hulk.    In many ways,  outside linebacker has much in common with Bruce Banner from that show – mild manner, inadvertantly gets himself into trouble, and can't seem to resolve the issue without getting angry enough to do something extreme.

Trouble happened all season that first year.  With a roster that was both impressive on paper and productive on the field, Smith had difficulty cracking the lineup.  It certainly didn't help that his few snaps showed a young man with stage fright – as though he was a deer caught in the headlights.   Blown assignments coupled with a smaller than desired frame put the young man on the bench all season.

The struggles of Smith culminated when former linebacker assistant coach Tra Thomas was interviewed on Comcast SportsNet's Friday edition of Philly Sports Talk regarding the status of the linebackers and he shared this:

"He's definitely going to have to get a little stronger out there because when you look at even his body type, he has the build of like a high school athlete still — a young college athlete. He needs to put on probably about a good 15 to 20 more pounds so he can really execute and be a effective out there. He has the same movement pattern as Connor [Barwin], where you can teach him how to work and throw his different moves in and how to help him with his timing."

But what was quoted over and over was a small part of that discussion: "he has the build of like a high school athlete"

So Marcus Smith got angry.   He hit the gym.   He worked out.  Heads have turned.  Teammates have noticed the results.

"At outside linebacker, we lost Trent and we haven't really gained anyone yet, so someone in our room needs to step up. Whether it's Marcus Smith, Travis Long, Jordan DeWalt[-Ondijo], someone needs to step up and be the third guy in that rotation. (could it be Smith?) "Physically, he looks different. He gained 15 pounds, he put on a lot of muscle. He's one of the stronger guys on our defense now. He took the off-season and did what he needed to do, which was get bigger, stronger. Now we're just excited to see what happens when we put the pads on." – Connor Barwin interview on The Comcast Network's Breakfast on Broad

So there it is.   Barwin acknowledged Smith has done what he needed to do in the off-season, and laid down the gauntlet of translating that into on field production. 

I Am Confident Because…

Now to answer why I think Smith will show up this season.   I was one of the few who believed that Brandon Graham would show up in a big way.  His snaps were productive, he simply never got much work behind Trent Cole.   Now I see a similar opportunity.  Smith has played behind some NFL great talent.   He's been labeled as a bust already.   Instead of cowering or talking about what he's "going to do", he is all business and showed up ripped and ready.

I've discussed why patience is sometimes needed as a fan.  I had written a story once about how Derrick Burgess was hoped to be a pass rush solution for the Philadelphia Eagles, but injuries delayed that.   Meanwhile, the Eagles tired of waiting, and traded Burgess to the Oakland Raiders – where he set a pass rush record.

Sometimes the best thing to give a young prospect is time and patience.  If he emerges as a contributor this season, will we truly believe that we wasted a pick in 2014?    The loss of Trent Cole to this Eagles defense has not been filled yet.  But it creates an opportunity, a vacuum, for someone to rise to the occasion.  Smith is ready.  He's ready to fly.

Turning green is a good thing for Marcus Smith.   Not only does that mean he's stronger, and fiercer.  It means his blood has turned green too.   And that goes with the uniform.

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