During Thursday’s practice at the NovaCare Complex, Eagles rookie Marcus Smith had to wait his turn.
First he watched veteran Connor Barwin run with the first team. And then he kept his eye on free agent addition Bryan Braman, who ran with the twos.
This is the way Chip Kelly has done things since he arrived, and there are a couple reasons for his philosophy. One is relatively straightforward: Make rookies earn their standing. Let them know that nothing will be handed to them.
And the other is more practical. To maximize efficiency and practice fast, guys have to know what they’re doing and where they’re supposed to be on every rep. If one player is confused, the pace slows down, and as far as Kelly is concerned, that’s unacceptable.
“I’m a patient learner,” Smith said. “I try to take everything in that my coaches tell me and I try to integrate [it] every day in practice. If I mess up on something, I try to ask my coaches exactly what I messed up on so I can look at in on film and be able to correct myself.”
As a rookie in the NFL, there is change around just about every corner for Smith. The pace of practice is new. He now wears a monitor that lets him know how much weight he’s losing (Smith fluctuates between 255 and 261) during each session. And he’s learning a new position: the Jack.
In Billy Davis’ 3-4 defense, the two outside linebackers are the Jack and the Predator. Last year, Connor Barwin was the Jack, while Trent Cole and Brandon Graham filled the Predator role. Barwin was asked to fill one of the most versatile roles of any 3-4 OLB in the NFL.
“Connor makes the scheme go,” Davis said in December. “I move him around multiple spots. He’s inside on the outside on the right, outside on the left, he’s inside, he’s over the guard. We move him around ‑ the position is called the Jack, the Jack of all trades, is what it was originally named. We move him around and we have different techniques we use with him and he’s great with picking them up. If I need an edge set on one side or a certain reroute or chip, Connor is the guy we go to.”
Smith right now is focusing solely on the Jack role. His strength as a prospect was his versatility. He’s long, athletic and was used in a variety of ways at Louisville: rushing the passer standing up, rushing the passer with his hand on the ground, dropping back into coverage, lining up across the slot, etc. One of the major reasons the Eagles signed Smith was because he’s already shown he can be multi-dimensional.
What’s unclear (and it’s only June) is how all the pieces will fit in 2014. Barwin, for example, rushed the QB 58 percent of the time last year and dropped 42 percent of the time on passing downs, per Pro Football Focus. Only two 3-4 outside linebackers dropped more frequently than Barwin.
On the other side, Cole dropped 21.7 percent of the time and rushed 78.3 percent. In other words, the stronger pass-rusher fills the Predator role, while the more versatile player is the Jack.
“I’m not sure,” Smith said when asked if he would learn the Predator role as well. “But my coach, he just wants me to learn Jack right now, and once I master that, maybe I can start learning Predator.”
The Eagles have a few different options in Smith’s rookie year. Most likely is that Barwin will start at the Jack and Cole will be the Predator – just like last season. Smith will start off as a rotational player. That might mean coming in and replacing Cole at Predator. Or perhaps more likely, it could mean Barwin sliding over to replace Cole at Predator in certain packages and Smith replacing him at the Jack.
“With Connor, one of the reasons we were so excited about getting him was his ability to play both those roles in a 3-4,” GM Howie Roseman said in March. “His ability to play in space and set the edge and be a primary space player and also his ability to be a rusher, where he had 10 (plus) sacks in one year. So he certainly has the versatility. In Year 1 in a 3-4, transitioning from a 4-3 Wide-9, I think that Coach Davis will have an opportunity to get a lot more concepts in and to do more things with our outside backers.”
Last year, in our pass-rusher rankings, Barwin and Cole finished with similar ratings. Cole finished strong with eight sacks and eight hurries in the team’s final seven games. Barwin did a fantastic job of batting down passes even when he didn’t hit the QB. Overall, though, the defense needed more of a pass-rush from the outside linebackers.
Long-term, the guess here is Davis would love for the two outside linebackers to be interchangeable. Cole turns 32 in October and carries an $11.6M cap number in 2015. If he has a strong 2014 season, maybe he comes back at a reduced price. But the more likely scenario is that Smith and Barwin are the team’s two outside linebackers in 2015.
For now, Smith is content waiting his turn and picking the brains of Barwin and Cole.
“It’s very comforting just because I know those guys have produced in the NFL and I know they have had success in their careers,” he said. “Learning from them, being able to come in [to] a great situation with a great coach and a great organization is just a big deal for me.”