When the Philadelphia Eagles drafted outside linebacker Marcus Smith with the No. 26 in the 2014 NFL Draft, many were quick to assume Smith would be Trent Cole's eventual replacement. While this still may be the case, Smith isn't currently learning the PREDATOR position, which is what Cole plays. Instead, he's learning the JACK position, which is currently the role of starting outside linebacker Connor Barwin. Smith admitted as much after the Eagles' Thursday OTA practice.
"My coach just wants me to learn JACK right now," explained Smith. "Once I master [JACK] I could start learning the PREDATOR."
Smith downplayed any major difference in the positions, however.
"They're pretty much identical. Sometimes if I'm [rushing the passer], the other guy is dropping. It's either way it goes."
But the numbers tell a different story. In 2013, Barwin (JACK) rushed 58% of his snaps and dropped into coverage the other 42% of the time. Trent Cole (PREDATOR) rushed at a much higher rate of 78.3% and only dropped into coverage 21.7% of his snaps.
Smith was noticeably seen speaking with Barwin at times during Thursday's OTA practice. The rookie admitted he isn't shy to reach out to the veteran.
"I try to go to [Connor Barwin] for any advice or any help, try to mirror the stuff he does, try to do the same things he does, because I know he's successful. [...] Connor knows a lot. He's very knowledgeable."
Smith is appreciative of the extra assistance. He admitted there is some adjustment playing as a stand up linebacker.
"In college, I was [lining up] with my hand in the dirt, so standing up is kind of a little bit awkward right now but I just have to listen to my coaches and take it hand in hand."
That doesn't mean Smith isn't uncomfortable dropping into coverage, however. He said that's something he actually has experience doing.
"I like [dropping into coverage] lot. I probably did 50% of that in college. I like dropping a lot. It kind of expands my vision of what's going on in the backfield. [...] I'm comfortable [dropping]. I feel like I can run with smaller fast guys. I feel like my speed is good enough to run with anybody. In football you just have to have the right position and right angles to be able to run with people.
So how often does Smith anticipate dropping into coverage with the Eagles?
"I think it's 50/50. I think you rush and drop at the same time. I think JACK is playing 50/50."
Those estimated numbers roughly match up with how Barwin was used in Philadelphia last season, as previously mentioned. This is interesting because, as Mike Kaye noted earlier, Brandon Graham's spot on the Eagles roster becomes more clear. With Smith learning Barwin's role, Graham figures to once again be the backup to Cole's PREDATOR position.
There's still plenty of time for all of this to be sorted out (it's only OTAs!) before the season and we won't truly know how the Eagles plan to use their linebackers until the games actually start. For now, it's something to keep an eye on.