Marcus Smith has a plan for his first offseason as an NFL linebacker, which is more than can be said about his first regular season as an NFL linebacker. He wants to get bigger, stronger, harder. He weighs 260 pounds now, but "I don't look it," he said. "I want to be able to look it, be faster and more explosive than I was coming into it."
Smith sat at his locker for a while Tuesday, talking about his rookie year with the Eagles. It would be kind to say he has not made much of an impact. Drafted in the first round with the 26th overall pick in May, he has played just 74 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. After recording 141/2 sacks for Louisville in 2013, he had none for the Eagles. He hit one quarterback and hurried two others. He had a tendency to fall down when he ran after a quarterback, as if he were trying to ice-skate for the first time.
Because of injuries to other Eagles' linebackers, he started outside and moved inside and went back outside again, and he impressed his coaches at neither spot. It would be a surprise even to see him play Sunday against the Giants, in a game that has no ramifications other than the opportunity for the Eagles to put a 10-win sheen on a season stained by their recent collapse.
The Eagles had drafted Smith because he was 6-foot-3 and had arms like tentacles and had been a productive pass rusher in college. Now, in an offseason full of questions for them, he's one of the biggest and most challenging.
"I know how people feel," Smith said. "You have a first-rounder taken at 26th overall, you expect him to play right away. Well, when I came in, I had actual guys who have played the position and guys I can learn from, not essentially get thrown into the fire. . . . I just feel like it benefited me because I didn't have to play right away."
This was a rather generous way for Smith to evaluate himself. How could you expect me to crack a lineup with Connor Barwin, DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks, Trent Cole, and Brandon Graham? It has a morsel of truth. Barwin and Cole are important and productive veteran players, and Graham is a former first-round pick, too. But there are many factors that have hindered the Eagles' defense this season, and "too many good players" is not one of them. If Smith had been close to competent, defensive coordinator Bill Davis would have found a place for him. Davis has made some questionable decisions this season, but he's not that daft.
Still, Smith framed his entire year as the best thing for him and his future. "The problem with that, and the problem with the NFL, is that you don't have that opportunity," linebacker Emmanuel Acho said. "You don't have the luxury to go through a redshirt year and all that other stuff, especially when you're a high draft pick. You're expected to perform well and perform well right now."
Davis said Tuesday he didn't have any expectations for Smith, that he never has any expectations for any NFL rookie, whether the kid was drafted in the first round or wasn't drafted at all. "We evaluate you on what you do in our building, in our meeting room, in our weight room, in our training," he said, "and Marcus is where he's proven to be throughout the year by his actions and his play on the practice field."
Davis was trying to soft-pedal his criticism of Smith, but read that sentence again. It's the sort of subtle, knifing line that its subject doesn't realize has cut him until he sees the pool of blood at his feet.
Davis has insisted throughout the season, and he insisted it again Tuesday, that changing positions stunted Smith's development. The most experienced and respected of the team's linebackers viewed that excuse with skepticism.
"A lot of guys change positions," Ryans said. "If you can get it, you can get it. You know what I'm saying? I wouldn't say that's an issue. At the end of the day, you're an athlete and a competitor. I'm speaking for myself, but being a competitor, I feel like if you give me long enough, I can line up and do whatever I'm asked to do."
Maybe Smith just needs a really long time to get to that point, though the Eagles don't have too much time to wait. Cole is 32, and his salary-cap number next season is scheduled to be a healthy $11.6 million. Will the Eagles be able to renegotiate his contract to a lower cap hit? Graham will be a free agent this offseason. Will they have to overpay to re-sign him? These are the questions that Smith's empty year will force them to contemplate. These are the questions that Smith said will drive him to improve.
"There's too much at stake," he said. "I want to be the player they picked me for, and I know that there's a lot of scrutiny about me not playing this year. But that kind of just fuels me to become the player I know I can become."
The Eagles' official offseason schedule will begin in April. The clock ticks for Marcus Smith.