More than seven months after the Eagles invested a first-round pick in Marcus Smith, the team still does not know what position he will play in the future.
"I'm not positive right now," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said Tuesday. "I would say outside [linebacker] first, but I still think the jury's out on him."
A defensive end at Louisville, Smith was drafted as an outside linebacker, where he played during training camp and the preseason. The Eagles moved Smith to inside linebacker after Mychal Kendricks was injured in Week 2. They kept him there throughout the season before he returned to the outside on Tuesday because of Trent Cole's broken hand.
Cole, whose left hand was in a brace, declined to discuss the specifics of his injury but did not rule out playing Saturday against the Washington Redskins. Brandon Graham would start if Cole does not play, and the Eagles would use less of a rotation. Backups Smith and Bryan Braman could see playing time.
The Eagles made the initial move with Smith out of necessity and Davis admitted that it stunted the rookie's development. Necessity was also the reason Smith moved back to outside linebacker. The question for Smith is not just where he can provide depth on Saturday, but also where he will spend his career in Philadelphia.
Davis said Smith has shown "some flashes" at inside linebacker, but Smith is still raw. It still sounds as if Smith's future will be as an outside linebacker who can shift inside, but the ambiguity is uncommon for a first-round pick.
"Right now as you judge Marcus, you have to slow down the judgment a little bit and say, 'We moved him, so where is his understanding?' " Davis said. "Let's see how good he can be at this."
Smith has willfully jumped between positions. He said he'll play wherever the coaches want and believes he benefited from playing inside linebacker, seeing versatility as an asset.
He learned the outside role by playing with Connor Barwin and Cole, then benefited from sharing meeting rooms with inside linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Kendricks. He also had daily meetings with inside linebackers coach Rick Minter.
"I've taken both positions as a positive," Smith said. "Going out there today, my vision playing OLB is totally different. It's so much easier. It's not as hard as playing inside. I thank them for putting me there because it lets me know playing inside will help me out a lot."
The Eagles selected Smith with the 26th overall pick, bypassing players who might have made a more immediate impact in the secondary or in the receiving corps. Smith's long-term development is crucial for the team because of the investment associated with a first-round pick.
Smith has been inactive for games twice this season and has not played in four games in which he dressed. He has played 68 defensive snaps this season and has recorded only one tackle.
Davis credited Smith for having the physical and mental wherewithal to switch positions, but the rookie's inexperience kept him from overtaking Casey Matthews or Emmanuel Acho on the depth chart.
"Out of necessity, we had to move him and that does not benefit him and his progress," Davis said. "As we grow and go forward, that is something he can use as a plus instead of the minus that it was this year. Now he goes back outside again and he's got to get the rust off. Again, from that aspect, we have stifled his development a little bit because of what we've had to do. I think in the long run and in the future, he'll benefit from this move."
Matthews swung between outside and inside linebacker last season. He did not think the position switch would hurt Smith and vouched for the experience in playing both spots. Matthews said playing outside linebacker made him better on the inside.
The question for Smith on the outside is how effective he can be as a pass rusher. He struggled to get to the quarterback during the preseason, and his pass coverage was more advanced than his rushing. Davis has seemed intrigued by the idea of honing Smith's athleticism on the inside, although he also must understand the defensive scheme and be able to make calls to play that spot.
So the experiment continues. And the player whom the Eagles spent a first-round pick on still does not know where he will play during his Eagles career.
"I really couldn't tell you," Smith said. "I'll probably be playing both. . . . I wish I could tell you which one it would be. But it's up in the air right now. I'm still learning, and hopefully on Saturday I'll go out there and make some plays."
Marcus Smith's Movement
May 8: Eagles make Marcus Smith a surprise first-round selection with the No. 26 overall pick in the draft.
April 21-June 19: Smith is introduced to outside linebacker during the Eagles' offseason program.
Aug. 8: Smith plays his first preseason game against the Chicago Bears and records two tackles. He finished the preseason with eight tackles and no sacks.
Sept. 7: Smith is active for the Eagles' opener against Jacksonville. He does not play.
Sept. 15: Smith is inactive for a game against Indianapolis. Mychal Kendricks suffers a calf injury.
Sept. 16-21: Smith starts practicing at inside linebacker. He plays 16 snaps against the Redskins.
Sept. 28: Smith struggles in pass coverage and makes an error that leads to a 55-yard touchdown catch by Frank Gore in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Nov. 2: Smith is inactive vs. the Houston Texans.
Dec. 7: Smith plays on special teams against Seattle. When the Seahawks' punter fumbles a snap, Smith helps knock the ball away.
Dec. 14: Smith does not play against the Dallas Cowboys. Trent Cole breaks his hand.
Dec. 16: Smith starts practicing at outside linebacker again with Cole's status in doubt.
- Zach Berman