THE MYSTERY of who exactly decided it was a swell idea to draft Marcus Smith last spring remains unsolved.
Chip Kelly pleaded innocent last week. Insisted he didn't have final say in the draft and thinks he was in Munich or Cancun or Phil Knight's living room when Roger Goodell announced, "With the 26th pick in the 2014 draft, the Eagles select Louisville linebacker . . . "
Common sense says that then-general manager Howie Roseman never would have reached for Smith unless his head coach had given the move his blessing. But that's Chip's story and he's sticking to it, and really, at this point, does it really matter whose fingerprints are on the pick?
Smith ended up being the biggest underachiever in the first round. Played in just eight games and had 74 defensive snaps. Didn't register a single solo tackle (he had one assist) on defense or special teams.
The only first-round pick who played fewer snaps than Smith was Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who played 61. But Dennard played in 14 games and at least made a dent as a special-teamer, notching nine special-teams tackles.
The Eagles haven't given up on Smith, who signed a 4-year, $7.8 million deal last year, with $6.3 million guaranteed. But he's going to have to prove to them in the spring OTAs and the summer training camp and preseason that he deserves more playing time than he got as a rookie.
Since Kelly says he had little to do with the decision to draft Smith, it stands to reason that he feels no obligation to him.
When asked the day after the season what Smith had to do to get on the field next season, Kelly stated the obvious. "He has to beat out the guys in front of him," he said. "If anybody realizes one thing about this place, it's that nothing is handed to you. You've got to be better than the guys in front of you if you're going to get playing time."
At this point, at least, Smith clearly isn't better than the guys in front of him. Not even close. Connor Barwin has a lock on one of the starting outside linebacker spots, and the Eagles just gave Brandon Graham a 4-year, $26 million deal with $14 million in guarantees, which trumps Smith's $6.3 million. Graham also had 5 1/2 sacks and 18 hurries in 240 pass-rush opportunities last season.
There's also promising 2014 undrafted free agent Travis Long, who is recovering from his second torn ACL, and there's a good chance the Eagles will draft another pass rusher at some point. Billy Davis might even toy with the idea of occasionally lining up newcomer Kiko Alonso or Mychal Kendricks on the outside if DeMeco Ryans fully recovers from his torn Achilles'.
To make a long story short, Smith had better show up at OTAs ready to prove he's better than he looked last year.
Kelly made no apologies last week at the league meetings for not giving Smith more playing time as a rookie. And he shouldn't. He's trying to win football games, not run a charity for deer-in-headlights edge rushers.
"We do a real good job because our guys get more [practice] reps than anybody else," Kelly said, referring to the high tempo at which he runs his practices, er - sorry, Chip - training sessions. "But the bottom line is you have to earn your position. We don't have time, when we're competing for a division title, to throw a guy out there and say, 'Hey, let's see how he develops right now.'
"When the game is on the line, the game is on the line. And the way it broke down for us, we were one game away from making the playoffs. So shame on us if we were just trying to, well, we didn't win that game because we were trying to develop some younger players.
"Maybe if you're on a different team, maybe if it's a rebuilding project, it's a different mindset. But when we got here, that wasn't the case. We won the division in our first year and were right in the heat of the battle last year. If you just put a guy out there who doesn't deserve to be out there, then you lose the rest of your team. What do you stand for? We're about competition.
"There's not one guy on our team who can say he didn't get enough [practice] reps. They get a ton of reps. They get evaluated every day. If you show us you can contribute, we're going to get you on the field because you're going to help us win games."
Sending a message
In the last couple of weeks, Kelly has been sending some not-so-subtle messages to his talented young inside linebacker, Mychal Kendricks. That message: Sometimes, ya gotta play hurt.
Two years ago, Kendricks played 1,022 snaps and missed just one game. Last year, his snap count dropped to 787. He missed four games and played just 23 snaps of a fifth with a lingering calf strain.
The Eagles lost one of the four games he sat out (26-21, to the 49ers) and were beaten by four points by the Cardinals in the game he played just 23 snaps.
Kelly never said in so many words that Kendricks should have been able to return quicker. But the organizational frustration over his slow recovery was clearly evident last year.
When asked about Kendricks, Kelly has been sure to mention the time he missed last season.
"I thought when he was healthy he played really well for us," Kelly said last week during a breakfast Q & A with reporters at the NFL meetings in Phoenix. "But we missed him for four games. The health aspect was a difficult thing. And we were a different team when he wasn't out there. But when he played, he played really well for us."
Throwing more to Sproles
Darren Sproles has long been one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league. He has 418 career receptions, fourth among active running backs behind Reggie Bush (466), Steven Jackson (460) and Matt Forte (443).
But even though Kelly has described Sproles as a "Swiss Army Knife," he was underused in that role with the Eagles last season. He was targeted just 62 times, which was the fewest since 2009. His 40 receptions were his fewest since '08. He failed to catch a touchdown pass for the first time since '07.
Sproles, who Kelly has said was the only Eagles receiver that defenses ever double-teamed last season, seldom lined up anywhere but in the backfield. But the Eagles coach said he hopes to be more creative in his use of the 32-year-old running back in the passing game this season.
"It's just acclimation," Kelly said. "But also for us, especially early in the year, he was our only other running back. So if you move him around and put him in a lot of different spots, you're kind of holding your breath, because when Chris [Polk] was injured, our third running back was [rookie tight end] Trey Burton.
"That's why our goal this offseason, if we lost LeSean [McCoy], we wanted to bring two guys in. We wanted to have depth at the running-back spot and possibly carry four guys during the season. Obviously, in Year 2, Darren's got a lot more familiarity in what we're doing, and getting acclimated with what we're doing. And we need to get him on the field more."
Sproles played just 343 offensive snaps last season. That was his fewest since 2008, when he played 192.
This and that
- Other teams are starting to use some of the training and conditioning methods employed by Chip Kelly. Last season, both the Cowboys and Packers switched their Saturday walk-thru to Friday before Sunday games and held a longer practice on Saturday. "Principles aren't written in stone," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You're always learning. You're always growing. One method that applies one year doesn't always apply the next year. You try to chase science. We do a good job of that. We don't self-promote it like some people do. But we chase it. I think we're cutting-edge with everything we do. Sleep studies, everything you can think of. Training, conditioning, injury-prevention, food, nutrition, practice schedules, workload."
- Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said his team hasn't decided what it's going to do with the second overall pick in the draft. He said it still is evaluating both of the draft's top two quarterbacks, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, as well as its own young quarterback, 2014 sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger. "We're still more than a month out from the draft," Whisenhunt said. "We're going to look at all of our options. We're evaluating both of the quarterbacks. We're evaluating Zach. We're going to compare all of that and make a decision that we think is best for us."
- Many of the league's coaches are frustrated by the fact that they can't say much more than hello to any of their players, including the ones they just signed or traded for, until April 20, per the rules of the league's collective bargaining agreement. "Here we are, we've traded quarterbacks (with the Eagles), both of us are excited about getting our quarterbacks into our new systems, and we can't talk to them until April 20," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. Said Ravens coach John Harbaugh: "Guys are allowed to come over (to the training facility) on their own. You can have a conversation with them about life. But there's no football conversation. There's no conditioning or training conversations. It's just conversation. Human interaction."
- Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said his team will remain committed to the run next season, even though they have lost their workhorse running back, DeMarco Murray. Murray had 392 carries last season, the seventh most in NFL history. The Cowboys averaged 31.7 rushing attempts per game, third behind Houston (34.4) and Seattle (32.8). "We spent a lot of time and attention and resources on developing our offensive line," Garrett said. "We drafted three offensive linemen in the first round over the last four years. We believed we had to do that. We had to build the infrastructure of our football team, and that was going to allow us to play a physical style of football and be able to run the football. The offensive line is the key to that whole thing, but the runner was the key to it too. DeMarco made a big contribution to the success that we had running the football. But that's the business of the NFL. Players move on, and now it's our job to make our next best decision and move forward."