There's a story about Danny Watkins and the Eagles, and it bears mentioning because the team's current top draft pick is struggling as much as the fireman did in his first NFL season.
The Eagles knew from almost the first practice that Watkins didn't have what it took to perform in the pros, and certainly not at a level expected for a first-round offensive lineman.
Before the Eagles had even donned pads in the lockout-delayed 2011 training camp, Andy Reid believed he had seen enough and confided to some in the organization that Watkins was a mental novice when it came to football.
Coaches can get down on draft picks in the early going, just like fans, and Reid was counseled to be patient and wait until preseason games were actually played. But his instincts were right, and three years later, after two inglorious seasons with the Eagles and a brief stint with the Dolphins, Watkins is fighting fires in Dallas instead of NFL defensive linemen.
Marcus Smith is not Watkins in many ways. The Eagles' No. 1 pick doesn't appear to have any interests outside of wanting to be a great linebacker. He's played football since he was a lad. He's handled the pressure of being a top pick with grace.
But there is an ominous feeling coming from the NovaCare Complex that the Eagles already know what Reid knew after watching Watkins block the wrong guy for a couple of practices. Smith, who has played only 54 snaps in 10 games, may never be ready.
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has preached a philosophy of sticking to the draft board since the Watkins pick was so obviously based on need. The 2012 and '13 classes have seemingly been a reflection of that thinking, but the Smith selection suggests the Eagles repeated past mistakes.
They had targeted six prospects with the No. 22 pick - linebacker Anthony Barr, receiver Odell Beckham, cornerback Kyle Fuller, linebacker C.J. Mosley, receiver Brandin Cooks, and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix - by most estimates. But when they couldn't trade up and those players were off the board, they traded back to 26 and selected Smith, a former high school quarterback whom some teams had given a third-round grade.
Roseman said in May that Smith was the best available player on the Eagles' board.
The Eagles, meanwhile, aren't publicly panicking about Smith's slow progress. Coach Chip Kelly has said that Smith needs to prove in practice that he's better than the alternative before he can play significant snaps. Kelly also said that he doesn't get caught up in which round a player was drafted.
Roseman, who certainly understands the salary-cap value of a first-round pick over, say, an undrafted rookie, has preached patience. The Eagles, it should be noted, are 7-3 with the 2-8 Tennessee Titans coming to Lincoln Financial Field for Sunday's game.
"We're in the mode of trying to win every game," Roseman said last week. "The coaches are going to put the guys who perform best in practice out there, which is a great thing."
It would have been nice if Smith could have contributed in his first season, but the Eagles had said since the day they drafted Smith with the 26th overall pick that he wouldn't be rushed and would have the opportunity to learn behind Connor Barwin and Trent Cole at outside linebacker.
But he couldn't get on the field ahead of third outside linebacker Brandon Graham and not even as a fourth option. The Eagles used four outside linebackers last season. If Smith was ready, they would have found a role.
Complicating matters for Smith has been a move to inside linebacker early in the season after Najee Goode was lost for the year and Mychal Kendricks suffered a calf injury. The Eagles said he was there because of numbers, but when Kendricks returned Smith stayed inside. He's likely there for the rest of the season after DeMeco Ryans ruptured his Achilles tendon three weeks ago.
Smith played 10 snaps late in the Eagles' blowout win over the Panthers two weeks ago, but despite being active for the Packers game last Sunday and a large second-half deficit, he never saw the field. His coaches have told him that transitioning to the NFL takes longer for some, but he doesn't want to hear it anymore.
"They reassured me, but I told them: 'I don't want to use that as an excuse at all. I want to be out there. I want to play,' " Smith said. "One of our best players went down in DeMeco, and I want to be out there helping Mychal."
Smith isn't the only Eagles rookie to not have a positive impact. Second-round wide receiver Jordan Matthews is the only meaningful contributor. Third-round receiver Josh Huff, who has four drops, one fumble, one interception assist when a pass clanged off his hands, and a missed tackle on a punt return touchdown has been more of a detriment than a help.
Fourth-round cornerback Jaylen Watkins has been active in only three games and played sparingly on special teams. Fifth-round defensive end Taylor Hart has yet to dress. Sixth-round safety Ed Reynolds is on the practice squad. And seventh-round nose tackle Beau Allen has played 19 percent of defensive snaps and has 12 tackles and a half-sack.
The Eagles consider Darren Sproles a quasi-draft pick since they dealt a fifth rounder to the Saints for the running back in a March trade. They've also gotten significant contributions from undrafted kicker Cody Parkey, who was acquired in a late-August trade, and undrafted tight end Trey Burton, who has stood out on special teams.
It takes about three years or more to effectively judge a draft class, but the 2014 version isn't off to a hot start. The first full offseason is traditionally the most important for an NFL player. Smith said that he doesn't know which position he'll start at but that the "offseason will be real critical for me."
The Eagles have hyped his athleticism, but it hasn't yet translated to the field. He struggled to get pressure as an edge rusher in the preseason. Since the move inside, he's had problems with the new line of vision, particularly when it comes to the run game.
"You have to see pulling guards, you have to see a lot of things," Smith said. "I'm still a little shaky. I'm trying to get better at it each and every day, and I am getting better at it. They just want to feel comfortable putting me out there. They don't want and I don't want to hurt the team."
Do the Eagles already know more than they're letting on?