Eagles coaches have been clear about what they want from their outside linebackers: rush the passer, set the edge against the run and drop in coverage.
For first-round pick Marcus Smith II, one of those aspects will be more challenging than the other two.
“It’s very fair to say that,” said defensive coordinator Billy Davis when asked if the pass-rush will be the last thing to come.
“I think you saw his athleticism. Those guys are thinking a lot. The very first preseason game is always their hardest. They have the most nerves. They have the wow factor. They’re in the NFL. That settles after a couple plays, couple quarters. Now you typically see the second, third and fourth preseason games with young guys, you see big growth.”
Smith had some nice moments in his preseason opener. He made a nice tackle in space and batted a pass down at the line of scrimmage. According to the rookie, coaches said he made no mental errors.
While the Eagles ask their outside linebackers to be more versatile than some other 3-4 teams, Smith knows that over the course of his career, he’ll be judged by his pass-rush.
So earlier this week, when he was watching practice film on his iPad, he fired up his iPhone also and looked at cut-ups of Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews.
“He’s just awesome,” Smith said. “He has a continuous motor and he doesn’t stop. If I can get my motor like that and get my hands as fast as his, then I think I can be a great football player.
“He has great hands. He doesn’t let anybody get into his body. His hands are so fast. And I think that’s one of the biggest things. You’ve gotta have great hands.”
In college, Smith used a speed rush around the edge almost exclusively to get to the quarterback. In the NFL, against higher-quality tackles, he’s finding he needs to add to his repertoire.
“That’s probably the hardest thing right now to get adjusted to because everybody has great technique,” he said. “And I want to get my technique up to the standards of everyone else.”
Outside linebackers Connor Barwin and Trent Cole have helped Smith every step of the way. The rookie appears to have no sense of entitlement. He wants to play, but has made it clear that a rotational role suits him just fine until he earns more snaps.
Smith is also getting help from another player on the offensive side of the ball: Jason Peters.
“He comes over and tells me what I did wrong on a pass-rush or what he may see so that I can win,” Smith said. “He always comes over and says a little something so I can do better.”
Preseason game reps are another part of the process for the rookies. Davis will be hesitant to blitz and show exotic looks because he wants to see if players like Smith are capable of winning their one-on-one battles.
The rookie will likely rotate in with the second team and take another shot at getting to the quarterback this week.
“Me practicing against the Patriots helped me out a lot,” Smith said. “Going up against really big guys, the guys that protect Tom Brady is a big deal for me.”