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Marcus Smith: DeMeco Ryans' Replacement

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Marcus Smith's move to inside linebacker now appears to be more than just an emergency contingency plan. Good.

Jonathan Daniel

Injuries in sports open doors for other players all the time. For Philadelphia Eagles rookie and first-round draft pick Marcus Smith, it's possible that an injury at a different position could prove to be a stroke of serendipity that changes the course of his NFL career, which has barely even started.

While the team has been reluctant to label Smith a "project," it's been acknowledged that he would be a work in progress. The Eagles drafted Smith, it appeared at first, to be Connor Barwin's long-term successor. Then minicamp came along and he practiced at Trent Cole's spot, as the team trumpeted his pass rush ability. Even Kevin Greene came by during training camp and gave his ringing endorsement that Smith reminded him of Clay Matthews. Here's the thing about Marcus Smith, however: He's not a natural, dynamic pass rusher. I simply didn't see that on his college tape when evaluating him, and his subpar workout numbers in the short-area quickness drills backed it up. I don't care what the Eagles or anyone else says. I don't care that he led the nation in sacks with 14.5 as a senior at Louisville. More than half of those sacks came on unblocked, free runs at the quarterback. Context matters. Smith does have pass rush ability, he is just not a first-step explosion guy nor natural bender and has trouble running the loop and dipping under offensive tackles. That's okay, as long as you don't try to make him something he's not.

Paradoxical as it may sound, Smith should still be viewed as a versatile jack-of-all-trades linebacker but needs a steady position. He was an extremely effective interior blitzer in college -- Charlie Strong loved using him to rush the A gap -- who had a keen sense for run fits and showed the ability to hang with tight ends in coverage down the field. At a shade over 6-3, 251 pounds, with the strength to hold up at the point of attack, sub-4.7 speed, a 35" vertical and 10'01" broad jump, he presents a rare combination of size, strength and athleticism for the inside linebacker position. He struggled to adapt to outside linebacker in the preseason and hardly flashed at all. He looked hesitant, unnatural. The growing chorus of doubters and naysayers who bashed his selection from the beginning only intensified after he was active but didn't play against Jacksonville and then inactive altogether against Indianapolis. The Eagles would never admit it, but it was starting to feel like they might have outsmarted themselves by taking a player who fit their defensive philosophy in theory, but for whom they could not nail down a regular role. In an ironic twist, Mychal Kendricks' injury, a huge blow to the defense, might have changed all that.

Kendricks is the Eagles' most athletically gifted player on defense. He is imperative to the unit's ability to shoot gaps, control the middle of the field, cover ground from sideline to sideline and pick up tight ends and backs when they release for pass patterns. Kendricks has also emerged as the defense's top playmaker. When he went down with a "calf spasm" against the Colts, everyone assumed it was a minor boo-boo and he'd be back for the game against Washington. Wrong. Kendricks was held out of the first practice of that week, and as a result Marcus Smith got his first reps inside. It was a numbers game that precipitated the decision, according to Chip Kelly, who also noted Smith's change-of-direction ability.

Early return is that it might play out favorably. Najee Goode is out for the season, and no offense to Casey Matthews or Emmanuel Acho, but neither is a long-term solution inside. DeMeco Ryans is on the downside of his career and, most likely, in his last season with the franchise. Finding his successor to pair with Kendricks for the future is just as important as finding Cole's successor on the edge. The Eagles drafted Smith with the intent that he'd be the latter, but perhaps instead they've fallen ass backwards into a solution for the former. As soon as word came out during the week of practice leading up to the Washington game that Smith was practicing at inside linebacker, a light bulb went off in my head: Hey, you know something, that actually makes a lot of sense. I wasn't the only one who thought that way.

Apparently @OhWowHmm (Matt), of BGN Radio guest spot fame, made the prediction in the past that Smith would steal reps from Ryans this season. This is according to Brandon Gowton, who Matt needled a bit on the topic. If Matt did indeed tweet that specific prediction (and how could he not?), I can't find it, but I'm bad at the Advanced Twitter Search thing.

*Edit: See, told you those tweets from Matt existed and I just suck at finding stuff:

Of course, there were those who scoffed at the idea of Smith at inside linebacker.

After a few days of practice reps inside, Smith dressed for the Washington game. Though he played just 16 snaps, he was immediately recognizable and made an impact by -- hey, what do you know -- getting pressure up the middle on an A gap blitz in the third quarter that forced Kirk Cousins off his spot and into hurrying his throw for an incompletion. Geoff Mosher missed it -- "(Smith) was mainly used in blitz schemes against Washington but didn't generate any pressure" -- but people on Twitter didn't. Hell, a couple other times that guy wearing the #90 jersey flashed on screen and was around the ball. The post-game reaction to Smith's performance was encouraging, and it didn't take much for me to fully hop on board with trending towards a permanent position switch. I also get the sense he made it clear to the coaching staff how much more comfortable he felt inside, to the point where the idea morphed from one born out of desperation to a well-maybe-we-have-something-here sentiment. Kelly was sure to praise Smith's debut the day after watching the game film.

From Mosher's article linked above:

"We're open to whoever makes the most plays at the positions, and if it grows into where he's dominating in there and really looking good, then absolutely [he can stay]," (Bill) Davis said, "and if not we'll go back outside with him."

One thing you have to love about the Eagles coaching staff under Kelly: It's not afraid to make tweaks and adjustments. Kelly has a healthy amount of hubris and steadfastly believes in his way of doing things, but he's not above trying other methods if he feels they'll be conducive to success. Davis could have very easily treated Smith's transition to inside linebacker as a token move and given him the scrap reps. Instead, he made sure Smith got an honest shot in practice and saw enough from the rookie to insert him into the game in nickel and dime packages.

He can do it, just keep giving him a chance. The picture of what to do moving forward has started to come into focus.

A few days later, Kelly declared Smith would be sticking at inside linebacker -- at least until Kendricks returns, at which time they'll make an "evaluation," according to Kelly.

I'll blame ol' Grotzy's transcription mistake on what I'm certain are the frequent acid flashbacks he has on a daily basis. Jones and Smith are both generic surnames. It happens. What's important here, of course, is the quote, and Kelly's justification for the move by saying that inside linebacker "sort of fits into (Smith's) wheelhouse." Whether this revelation about Smith's "wheelhouse" would have ever happened if not for Kendricks' injury, I don't know -- but I have to imagine the potential for Smith to fit at inside linebacker has always at least been a consideration in the back of the minds of everyone involved in personnel decisions.

I happen to think Kendricks and Smith's skill sets complement each other very nicely, and that they could make for a devastating tandem inside (it will also help make clearer the Eagles' priorities in the offseason). With Kendricks likely on the shelf again Sunday against the 49ers, I sincerely hope we see a spike in Smith's snaps. Maybe he'll even start the game inside and, among other responsibilities, be the designated spy on Colin Kaepernick. Either way, Smith needs to get on the field in some capacity. The switch to inside linebacker is a lot to put on a rookie's plate after making him learn outside linebacker for the first four months of his career, but he's smart and if that glimpse against Washington was any indication, Smith took to the position switch naturally. This is not to declare that Smith will be a star at inside linebacker, or that the conundrum of where he fits in this defense has been solved. Instead, it's a hypothesis that maybe, just maybe, he's better suited for a position where his strengths will be maximized and his weaknesses minimized. Even if it took the Eagles four months and an injury to realize that, well, better late than never. Let's see what the rookie's got.