This time last year, linebacker Marcus Smith II had just completed his first preseason game. And though there was a sense that he had a ways to go in his development, few people expected that he would have perhaps the most anonymous rookie campaign of all the 2014 first round picks.
But after a solid showing Sunday against the Colts, in which Smith was active and around the ball for much of the game, his role appears to be coming into clearer focus.
"I understand what my role is on this team and I know I’m going to have to play special teams and play on defense as well," Smith said. "That’s what these preseason games are for. I played on special teams [today] and I think I did an okay job on defense, but I definitely want to get better."
Despite being the 26th overall pick in last year's draft, Smith barely saw the field in 2014. Unable to find the ideal place for him, defensive coordinator Bill Davis put Smith at both inside and outside linebacker over the course of the year. But with the departure of Trent Cole for Indianapolis in the offseason, and with injuries to several linebackers during training camp, Smith finds himself in position to earn significant playing time.
At this juncture, it looks like Smith's career arc could follow that of Brandon Graham - the defender who will need to wait his turn longer than most first round picks. But even if that proves to be the case, Smith will be able to fill a valuable role for the Eagles. That all starts with pass rush, something Smith acknowledges he'll need to improve.
"I think when it comes to pass rush, just getting off of the [tackle]," Smith explained. "Even though it was a three-step drop, I feel like my expectations are to still get there. I really want to get there. I know in preseason, a lot of teams, they do three-step drops because they want to protect the quarterback. If I can make him hold the ball just one more second, then that’s what I want to do."
But the strides Smith has made haven't been in vain. Head coach Chip Kelly saw a different player Sunday than he saw this time last year.
"I think there's just a different--he's carrying himself in a different manner," Kelly said. "He was excited about going out and playing in a football game today. We are excited to see where this goes."
Moving forward Smith will play mostly at outside linebacker, where he's listed behind Graham on the depth chart released by the team last week. It's a change from last season, where disappointing play and positional uncertainly forced Smith down to the back of the roster.
And while that uncertainty may have prevented Smith from seeing the field in 2014, it will likely end up being a positive for him this year. According to Kelly, his experience - both positionally and as a player in the NFL - will help Smith improve in year two.
"He's a year older. I think it's not all new for him. I think he's been there, done that. This isn't his first preseason game and this isn’t his first training camp. I just think there's kind of a calming sense around him. He's got a better grasp of what we are trying to do and he's really showed up in our training sessions and he showed up today. We are encouraged with his growth."