Billy Davis wants a mirrored defense.
The Eagles’ defensive coordinator spoke Monday for the first time since the team used a first-round pick on outside linebacker Marcus Smith. Smith has been practicing at the Jack spot this spring – the position occupied last year by Connor Barwin. Davis provided insight on what the plan is for the Birds’ rookie.
“Marcus is a young guy that we had to start at a position to learn it,” he said. “The positions can be mirrored or they can take on little different variations depending on who’s out there – who’s out there at that time or even in a series. So it’s very flexible what I can do with the Jack and the Predator. But Marcus, we started at the Jack. There’s probably a little bit more versatility and movement. More of what he did in college was the Jack so we started him there. But I’m willing to bet once he settles down a little bit he can go either side.”
Trent Cole manned the Predator spot last year. As we explained previously, that position had more pass-rushing opportunities and was asked to drop less into coverage. The opposite was true for the Jack spot.
Davis likes that he now has options. Smith (once he gets up to speed) provides a more versatile option than Cole, who did an admirable job of switching from 4-3 DE to 3-4 OLB last season.
“We can do more position-swapping,” Davis explained. “Last year the goal was to get everybody on the same page, and some of that is putting him in one role and one spot and get that down first. And as we see that you completely understand it, now we can start moving you a little bit when you understand the concepts of the defense. So I think in Year 2, a lot of players, not just in the outside linebacker role, but I think there are a lot of areas where we can switch.”
The Eagles are advocates of evidence-based drafting. When they project prospects to their scheme, they lean heavily towards guys who have already shown they’ll fit. That’s one of the reasons they were drawn to Smith in the first place.
Last year, when Cole came off the field, Brandon Graham spelled him and Barwin stayed at his usual spot.
This year, Barwin could slide over and replace Cole, while Smith could come in and play the Jack role.
“Marcus has shown [he could] do it in college,” Davis said. “That’s one of the biggest things that attracted us to Marcus. The defense he ran at Louisville is very, very similar… Charlie Strong ran very similar to what we asked him to do here. So that was why it made such a nice fit for us.”
Davis has flexibility with the outside linebacker spots. If one guy is better in coverage, they can have him drop more. If another guy’s strength is rushing the passer, he can focus on getting to the quarterback more often.
But ultimately, the more versatile the two players can be, the better. That allows Davis to disguise where the pass-rush is coming from.
“Always mirrored,” he said, when asked what his preference is. “Ideally, everything’s mirrored. Corners are mirrored. Safeties are mirrored. Outside ‘backers are mirrored. Ends. In a pure 3-4, the more mirrors you get, the harder it is for them to decide on the offensive side what roles are.”
As for Smith, his exact role as a rookie is to be determined. During the spring, he has been practicing mostly with the third team. But in 2013, Lane Johnson wasn’t a starter in the spring either. He moved into that role eventually and started all 16 games.
The guess here is that Barwin and Cole will go into the season as the starters. But Smith will be counted on to contribute in a rotational role.
“He’s a rookie like the rest of ‘em, and heads are swimming right now because we’ve got the whole defense in,” Davis said. “We had to pick a position to start at. Our outside ‘backers can be mirrored or we can change their roles so to speak. And Predator and Jack, we can move that as the players change or as the players have different skill sets.
“The goal right now for the young guys is to learn the system and what’s expected. And it’s early on in the process. And we threw the whole defense at ‘em so right now they’re a little confused and it’s not quite where it’ll be in training camp when the lights kind of start going on and they say, ‘OK, I know what I’m supposed to do. Now I can play fast.”