When the Eagles used their first round pick on Marcus Smith, the Louisville OLB who had 14.5 sacks last year, a lot of reporters made the obvious connection. Starting right OLB Trent Cole is a 32-year-old converted 4-3 DE, and his salary cap number jumps from $6.6 million this year to $11.6 million in 2015. The Eagles must be planning to train Smith for a year behind Cole at the right OLB position and have him take over next year.
But nothing is that obvious with this Eagles team.
The biggest surprise in the first week of OTAs was that Smith has been training exclusively for Connor Barwin's position at the left OLB, which Bill Davis calls the "Jack" [of all trades] position as opposed to Coles' "Predator" slot on the right. BLG quoted Smith on Thursday as saying "My coach just wants me to learn JACK right now. Once I master [JACK] I could start learning the PREDATOR."
And really, this shouldn't even be a surprise.
When Smith was drafted, both he and the coaches were careful to keep their options open. The "replacing Trent Cole" idea came purely from writers. Chip Kelly described Smith as "a young kid to bring in behind Trent [Cole] and Connor [Barwin] and those guys can teach him the ropes and bring him along and show him what we can do."
Smith was even more direct at his draft day press conference:
"I met with the defensive coaching staff. Their scheme, it's pretty straightforward. I'm either going to be the rush guy or I'm going to be the drop guy. That's what they told me I would be playing in their defense."
Kelly said he wanted Marcus Smith because he's a converted quarterback -- i.e. he reads formations well and understands the big picture -- and has a lot of potential for growth.
He's a tough, hard‑nosed football player. A little bit new to the position. Maybe a similar situation to Lane [Johnson] in terms of you're getting a guy that is a huge upside because he hasn't played the position that long. They played multiple defenses there.
So Smith has the same flexibility Connor Barwin has shown, and he should be able to play either OLB position. This is as it should be.
Billy Davis' scheme is based on unpredictability, with linemen and -backers who might rush or might drop into coverage, and DBs who can play safety, corner or slot, and blitz. As Chip Kelly said in March,
"We need some versatility. .... In our scheme, when you play against a guy like Peyton Manning [who can read your formation pre-snap and adjust], you better not have the same guy doing the same thing."
The problem is that Trent Cole is pretty much that same guy doing that same thing. He came on strong as a pass rusher with 8 sacks in the second half of the season (compared to zero in the first half), but scared no one with his pass coverage.
For the year, Cole had 8 sacks and 3 forced fumbles, but no interceptions and only 3 passes defensed. He rushed more than 78% of the time, which kills Davis' hope for unpredictability. Barwin, who dropped about half the time, had 5 sacks and a FF of his own, plus 10 PDs and an interception.
So does this development mean that Cole stays at the Predator slot, and Brandon Graham remains with Philly as his backup? It's not that predictable, either. Barwin has been forced into the Jack position by Cole's one-dimensionality, but he was a pass-rushing animal in 2011 at Houston, with 11.5 sacks (along with 7 passes defended).
It's just as likely that Barwin moves over to the Predator slot, where he can get more sacks without tipping the defense's hand, since he could also drop on any given down. Smith and Barwin together are Billy Davis' dream, two potent pass rushers with solid coverage skills. Cole would then become more of a situational pass rusher, like DE Vinny Curry, and Graham could be the odd man out (if he isn't traded during the summer).
In this scenario, Barwin would not only get more sacks, but he would likely boost his already impressive tally of 10 batted passes -- none more important than in game 17, with the season on the line, when the ex-basketball player deflected the Dallas Cowboy's throw on 4th and 1. As Jimmy Kempski noted, Barwin already had more batted passes by early December than the entire Eagles' team did in all of 2012.
The Eagles might even play all 3 OLBs together at times in their dime package. Who knows? They're crazy like that.
It's too early to predict with confidence what position Barwin, Smith or Cole will play next year, and ideally, Billy Davis would be able to shuffle them around interchangeably to confuse defenses. For now, Smith needs to learn from both starters, and how well he picks these skills up will determine where he can play.
One of the remarkable things about this Eagles team is the generosity of veterans, willing to train younger players they are directly competing with for snaps and the role of starter. That's part of Chip Kelly's approach, building a team-first mentality among players (and getting rid of those who don't agree). Michael Vick showed a ton of class and grace last year, tutoring Nick Foles even after he lost his starting job to him, and it may have encouraged the Jets to bring him in to compete with (and help) Geno Smith.
Connor Barwin discussed this generosity on Philly Sports Talk recently:
"You know you're on a good team when the best players teach the young guys how to take their job, and I heard that my rookie year and it really kind of resonated with me. And I will try to teach [Smith] tricks of the trade that I've learned in my six years. It'll make him a better player, but in my last five years it'll make me a better player. He's gonna inspire me or challenge me to be better."
Of course, it's easier for Barwin to be generous about giving away his position when he might be taking Trent Cole's at the same time.