The Eagles moved to a 3-4 defense in 2013 and the unit overachieved in Billy Davis' first year as defensive coordinator. That moderate success came despite a lack of pass rushing stability from the Eagles front seven. While veteran Trent Cole closed well on the season, he could be upgraded in both pass rushing performance and in coverage. 2013 free agent signing Connor Barwin is a solid jack-of-all-trades but the Philadelphia defense needs a dependable pass rusher opposite the former Houston Texans linebacker.
This year's draft is loaded with pass rushers, but the major talents are obviously in the first two rounds. While South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, UCLA's Anthony Barr, Auburn's Dee Ford and BYU's Kevin Van Noy have gained the most press, Louisville's Marcus Smith is a talented player that could likely be had in the second round.
Recruited as a three-star quarterback out of high school, Smith chose to play for Louisville. Smith immediately converted to linebacker for the Cardinals and played right away as a freshman. Appearing in nine games, Smith played mostly special teams but collected three tackles (one for loss) with limited snaps on defense. As a sophomore, Smith lined up at linebacker and defensive end. He started 5-of-10 games for the Cardinals and led the team with 5.5 sacks, including three against North Carolina. Along with the 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles (seven for loss), two forced fumbles and a batted passes.
In 13 games as a junior, Smith collected 29 tackles (eight for loss), four sacks, two forced fumbles, two passes defensed and an interception. He was first on the defensive line in tackles and second on the team in sacks. As a senior, Smith absolutely blew up. In 2013, Smith collected career highs with 42 tackles (18.5 for loss), 14.5 sacks (second in the nation), four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and three batted balls. He was a third-team AP All-American, AAC Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-AAC.
He worked as a 4-3 outside linebacker at the Senior Bowl to show how he could play in space. He finished with one tackle in the game. Yahoo! Sports contributor Rob Hoff said the following about Smith's performance at the Senior Bowl practices:
None of the potential tweeners of 4-3 college defensive ends at the Senior Bowl was more convincing in their ability to drop back into pass coverage than Marcus Smith of Louisville. Whether he was step-for-step down the seam 20 yards downfield with a tight end or sliding out into the flats to cover a running back on a swing pass, Smith showed the best agility among outside LB converts in his change of direction and play recognition.
SB Nation's own Dan Kadar also noted Smith's ability in coverage at the all-star game:
Switching from defensive end to outside linebacker at the Senior Bowl, Smith looked natural in coverage. He was fluid in man situations during team drills when he covered Wisconsin tight end Jake Pedersen in the flat. He looked a little lost dropping in space, but Smith didn't look lost at linebacker.
Smith is a natural athlete with solid size at over 6-foot-3 (measured in at the Senior Bowl at 6'3 1/2) and 258-pounds. He has an NFL body with long arms (80 1/4 inch wingspan) and a 4.7 forty-time speed (according to Scout.com). On tape, he shows a good ability to wrap up on tackles and clear speed off the edge. He is the type of player that can line up pretty much anywhere in the front seven (outside of nose tackle in a 3-4) and be successful. He has experience blitzing from the inside linebacker position as well as rushing from the outside with his hand down or in a two-point stance. He literally can rush from anywhere.
Smith constantly gets pressure and if he gets his hands on a quarterback, the play will almost definitely end with a sack. Much like Ford, Smith uses his speed to run around defenders which allows him to get away with not being much of a technician. He ranges from average to above average in coverage for a player that has pretty limited experience playing in space. He has no issue with the physical part of playing coverage.
As mentioned above, Smith's speed is likely what helped him excel the most in college. He is not much of a hand technician yet and lacks obvious strength. That does not mean he can't win with either at this moment, it is just that he doesn't consistently win with those approaches. He prefers to run by guys as oppose to engage and shed. In coverage, Smith seems to lose his man at times. He is not great in coverage on tape, but he can do it.
Another issue for Smith is that while he played four seasons, his only major year came as a senior. In 2013, he had five games of multiple sacks and five without any quarterback take downs. He got his sacks in bunches which may have been due to lining up against a poor player at left tackle or a bad offensive line. For instance, he had three sacks against Rutgers and 2.5 against Connecticut. He had another two against Miami in a game that saw Hurricanes quarterback Stephen Morris hold onto the ball like it was his child (i.e. he held the ball way too long and his offensive line under-performed). Smith does have the one-hit wonder feel, but luckily has experience as well.
He would probably more comfortable initially as a 4-3 defensive end, but his talent really fits a 3-4 outside linebacker, which means he will have to learn a new position in the NFL. That may mean that teams have to slowly ease him into the position as a rookie.
Smith is more-than-likely a mid-to-late second round pick, which means the Eagles could focus on another position on Day 1 before selecting him. He is about a half of an inch taller than Cole and is as fast as the veteran was in his prime. The Eagles will likely be interested in Smith, Ford and Attaochu if they last up until pick No. 54. That trio is the 1A-tier of the 3-4 outside linebackers in the class. Smith fits as a player that can cover and rush the passer in the 3-4 defense for Billy Davis.
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