The Marcus Smith Dilemma: Keep Or Cut?

Is the 2014 first-round pick's preseason performance too little too late?

Marcus Smith. (Jeff Fusco)

Marcus Smith. (Jeff Fusco)

After two years of little production and play that only strengthened the “bust” label that surrounded him, Marcus Smith has finally given the Eagles a glimpse of why some once thought he could be a dangerous threat off the edge.

The defensive end has only played in two preseason games, one of which was against a weak Colts offensive line, but he still showed something. His performance in Pittsburgh, when he recorded four tackles, including two tackles-for-loss and one sack, earned him praise from Jim Schwartz, who doesn’t hand out compliments lightly.

“Marcus was doing really well. He just had a setback with the concussion and missed time. But he sort of picked up right where he left off. The thing I’m most proud about with Marcus is that he’s done a good job in the run game,” Schwartz said. “He’s a very skilled athlete. He’s fast and he’s smooth. I think he was a quarterback when he first went to Louisville. I mean, that stuff shows. Where he’s really making good improvement is setting the edge of our defense [and] attacking tackles. He did that against a physical group from Pittsburgh. That was a great sign.”

Smith attributes the success he’s had to his shift from a 3-4 outside linebacker under Billy Davis to a 4-3 defensive end under Schwartz. Virtually every Eagles defensive linemen — including Smith — said in the spring that Schwartz’s scheme would be perfect for them, and early returns suggest they’re right.

“This scheme just allows us to play in the backfield. In the 3-4 scheme as outside linebackers and defensive linemen, we had to stay at the line of scrimmage and wait for the ball to come to us,” Smith said. “What I did best in college was rush the passer. We ran a similar defense — not all the way the same, but definitely similar — and so we just got off the ball and we had little responsibilities. Our coaches didn’t want us dropping into coverage much, they just wanted us to go get the ball. I think that’s the same thing with Jim Schwartz. He doesn’t want us thinking much out there, which helps us have success and make more plays.”

The problem? Schwartz’s scheme is also a significant reason Steven Means, who is possibly Smith’s biggest obstacle to making the 53-man roster, has been even better throughout training camp and the preseason. Means has twice pressured quarterbacks into throwing interceptions, and he’s also recorded a strip-sack.

If Schwartz and Howie Roseman truly are selecting defenders on a “merit-based” approach, as Schwartz suggested, Means will make the roster over Smith. But it’d be naive to think, whether the philosophy is right or wrong, that Smith’s status as the Eagles’ 2014 first-round pick will have no bearing on the decision.

The Eagles still have one preseason game to go, so perhaps Smith can create some momentum Thursday night against the Jets. The Means vs. Smith debate could also become moot if the Eagles don’t want to keep Bryan Braman, who contributes nothing as a defensive end but has been singled out by Doug Pederson as a “top special teams performer.” Maybe the Birds keep all three, but carrying six defensive ends — Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham don’t appear to be going anywhere — seems to be at least one person too many.

Pederson was asked this week about winning now versus building for the future, a debate which could factor into whether the team wants to keep Smith around while hoping he takes significant steps forward in the future, but the Eagles’ head coach didn’t exactly pull back the curtain as to which ideology he subscribes to more.

“There’s a fine line. As coaches, we fully expect to win right now and it’s my job to instill that into the players that we have a good football team here and we’re very capable of winning now. But at the same time, you’re looking down the road and you’re trying to put pieces together for the future,” Pederson said. “I can’t get caught up in the speculation game. I’ve got to worry about this team. Obviously, [first] Thursday night, but [then also] just going into Week 1. And we just take it one game at a time and one day at a time. And we’re going to coach our players up that we have.”