Tra Thomas wasn’t wearing pads or a uniform. Instead, he was dressed in a black Eagles t-shirt and black shorts.
With his hat cocked to the side and dark sunglasses covering his eyes, Thomas settled into his stance at left tackle just as he’d done thousands of times throughout the course of his 12-year career.
Lined up across from him, angled to the left, was rookie Marcus Smith II. Thomas, now an assistant on Chip Kelly’s staff, started 174 games in the NFL and made the Pro Bowl three times. He’s seen 4-3 fronts, 3-4 fronts and everything in between. On some weeks, he faced the game’s best pass-rushers. On other occasions, guys that had no chance of getting past him.
In 1998, the Eagles took Thomas in the first round. In 2014, they took Smith. And on Monday after practice, the two were working together.
“Just working on how to set up different moves, outside spin, one-hand stab, bull-rush, speed rush, just getting off the ball a little quicker,” Thomas said. “So we just try to work on a lot of different things and see what sticks with him.”
Added Smith: “We were working on different pass-rush moves cause I only have a certain few. Tra was just giving me pointers on what tackles do and what they see. So if I can switch my feet up or mess with their mind, I can be a good pass-rusher. He was just helping me out cause he was in it for 12 years. He’s seen it all.”
It’s been an eventful few days for Smith. On Friday, he played 73 snaps against the Patriots, second-most on the team. On Sunday, Kelly said the Eagles needed more production from the rookie. And yesterday, defensive coordinator Billy Davis echoed those sentiments.
“Marcus played a lot of reps the other night and had his share of mistakes and struggled a little bit,” Davis said. “Going forward, he’s going to get a lot of reps. The game is moving too fast in his brain right now in my opinion. As soon as it slows down for him and he can settle down and play with a little more confidence, I think he’ll continue to grow.
“He’s got the skill set. It is part of growing pains that you have with young guys. I think Marcus is fine. He’s going to be fine. He’s got to relax, settle down and trust his technique… instead of going and trying to make plays, which I think he’s in that mode. He needs to just do his job and let the plays come to him.”
By all accounts, Smith is putting in the work, not making any excuses and seeking guidance from a variety of resources. He’s fully aware of the expectations that come with being a first-round pick, and he knows the Eagles could benefit from him making an impact as a rookie.
When Kelly was asked about the team’s third-down woes, he pointed directly to the pass-rush. Smith is expected to help in that area eventually. It’s just unclear when that impact will be felt.
“When you look at young ends, I think a lot of times they just think they can run around everybody,” Thomas said. “And they don’t understand, look, you’ve got to take the fight to us [tackles]. You’ve got to initiate it. So the quicker you can take an offensive lineman out of [his] timing, then the more chance of success you’ll have. I think that he’s starting to figure that out, and that’s one of the things that we keep working on. Just trying to help get him a little bit better.”
The dynamic surrounding Smith’s development is fascinating. The coaches obviously have no issue offering their honest assessments, even if it comes off as critical.
Smith insists he can take it and has leaned on his teammates for support.
“Sometimes you just need somebody to kind of pick you up,” said Malcolm Jenkins, one of the players who’s helping Smith along. “But I also give him a little tough love too. I’m not gonna feel sorry for him. Like I told him in the game, this is a man’s league and men get beat all the time. You’ve gotta have that short memory and be able to stop the bad string of plays when they come and make something good happen for yourself. So he’s gonna go through that learning process, and I think every player goes through it, and he’ll be fine.
“Since I’ve met him, since he got here, he hasn’t made an excuse for anything. And a lot of times, you’ve got young players that’ll try to blame whatever it is. He hasn’t done that. That’s a good quality to have. He owns up to his mistakes and recognizes he needs to play better. And he actually asks questions and is locked in at meetings so he can make those adjustments to get better.”
For rookies, especially, each day is a test. The Eagles have a short week, and Smith will get another chance Thursday night against the Steelers to show what he’s learning.
“I want to get out there and contribute as soon as I can,” he said. “These preseason games have been very helpful to me. When we go out there and go play the Steelers, I’m gonna get after the quarterback. That’s what I’m gonna do. Coaches are gonna let me loose, and I’m gonna go do that.”
WHAT YOU MISSED
Game review: My position-by-position look at the Eagles’ defensive performance vs. New England.
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T-Mac on why it’s working for Mark Sanchez so far.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Paul Domowitch of the Daily News on Allen Barbre:
NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger, a former offensive lineman who is the television analyst for the Eagles’ preseason games, has reservations about Barbre. Thinks the Eagles’ other top backup offensive lineman, 6-6, 290-pound second-year man Matt Tobin, is a better athletic fit for this unit than Barbre.
“He’s not nearly as athletic as Lane or the rest of the line,” Baldinger said. “He just isn’t. They don’t even look the same. This guy doesn’t run like everyone else.
Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com has a kicker name to keep an eye on:
That would leave second year kicker Dustin Hopkins on the outside looking in. Hopkins was drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, and he beat out Rian Lindell for the starting job after a perfect (six for six) preseason. Unfortunately, Hopkins injured his groin, the Bills signed Carpenter, Hopkins was placed on IR, and has still yet to kick in the regular season.
In terms of leg strength, Hopkins is everything Henery is not. In his final season at Florida State, Hopkins hit five of six field goal attempts from outside 50 yards. For his college career, he was nine of 15.
The Eagles have a walk-through today, and then we’ll talk to players and coaches.