Eagles sing Smith's praises
Eagles say Louisville pass-rusher has plenty of upside, but other NFL personnel execs had him rated much lower.
MAYBE MARCUS Smith will be everything the Eagles hope he will be. Maybe he will become the difference-making pass-rusher of their dreams and put the fear of God into opposing offensive tackles and be a perennial double-digit sack guy.
Right now, though, he's just a late-first-round project who put up great college sack numbers last season (14 1/2) in an inferior conference (American Athletic Conference) and went a lot higher in the draft than a good many personnel people around the NFL thought he would.
A reach? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The Eagles, who took Smith with the 26th overall pick in the first round Thursday, obviously don't think it's a reach.
But others around the league disagree. I spoke with three personnel executives about Smith yesterday. One said his team had a late second-round grade on the 6-3, 251-pound rush linebacker out of Louisville. The other two had him graded as a late third- or early fourth-rounder.
"We had him as a late third-[rounder]," said one of the scouts, whose team plays a 3-4 defensive scheme like the Eagles. "We couldn't figure out a position for him. It wasn't so much that we didn't think he was a good player. We just didn't see a fit for him.
"If they were still playing the wide-nine, maybe he could be effective. But we play our rush end in a five- [over the offensive tackle] and seven-technique [between the tackle and the tight end]. We never play him in a nine-technique. He couldn't play linebacker for us."
Said one of the other personnel execs: "I watched him and couldn't fall in love with him. You can't put him over a mauling tackle. You've got to get him wide. [Defensive coordinator Billy] Davis is going to have to be very creative in the way he uses him if he's going to be productive."
After two successful drafts that have produced eight starters, general manager Howie Roseman has talked a lot about the Eagles' new and improved draft process, which has emphasized taking the best player available rather than the best player available at a position of need.
Roseman insists that's what they did Thursday when they selected Smith with the 26th pick. That's his story, and he's sticking to it.
"We had him graded as the next player on the board," he said. "At the end of the day, we have to take the value of what we think the player is. We have a lot of people here [in the personnel department] who have done this for a long time. We speak to a lot of people in this league and understand that it's going to be different values for different people.
"We did a lot of work on this player. We feel really good about this player and his fit for us. What we're looking for is not the same thing everyone else is looking for. If we bring in a guy who's a square peg in a round hole, that's not going to look very good for us, either. The things that we're looking for in an outside linebacker, [Smith] does very well."
Because he played in a 3-4 scheme at Louisville, the Eagles didn't have to project him as a standup linebacker in their defense as they had to do with the 4-3 defensive ends they evaluated.
"This is a high-upside guy," he said. "He's got a lot of tools in his body athletically. His production [at Louisville] was really good. Seeing him in coach [Charlie] Strong's system, seeing his ability to play in space and rush the passer and set the edge, it makes us feel a lot more certain than guys you're transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4."
The Eagles went into the draft with a list of a half-dozen players whom they felt had a chance of slipping to them at 22. That list is believed to have included cornerback Kyle Fuller, safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor, wide receivers Odell Beckham and Brandin Cooks and linebacker Ryan Shazier. None made it.
Beckham went to the Giants at 12, Fuller to the Bears at 14, Shazier to the Steelers at 15 and Pryor to the Jets at 18.
The Saints, suspecting that the Eagles were going to take Cooks, traded up from 27 to 20 and grabbed the Oregon State wideout. Then the Packers made it a clean sweep when they selected Clinton-Dix at 21, just ahead of the Eagles.
After Clinton-Dix went, the Eagles traded down with the Browns to 26, picking up a third-round pick in the process and selecting Smith.
Both Roseman and head coach Chip Kelly said they weighed other trade-down offers, but were worried Smith would be gone if they moved down much further than 26.
"When we were at 26, we weighed [the possibility of] going back," Roseman said. "We had a very short list of players we'd take at that spot, and we were afraid of going back too far. Just in the last 24 hours, now I'm certain about that. Just talking to people [about] where Marcus was going. And he was going in that range."
Two of the three personnel executives I spoke with believed that Smith still would have been on the board at 54, which is where the Eagles were supposed to draft in the second round yesterday before they traded up 12 spots and selected Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock had Smith as the 53rd player on his draft board.
In yesterday's second round, there was an early run on edge rushers. Four of them - Boise State's Demarcus Lawrence, Brigham Young's Kyle Van Noy, Stanford's Trent Murphy and Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attachou - went in the first 17 selections. Two of the personnel men had all four players rated above Smith. The other had all but Murphy ahead of him.
Kelly took the criticism of his first-round pick in stride.
"It's what makes sports great; everybody has an opinion," he said. "But let him step on the field and play a snap first before anybody makes a decision.
"You don't know how it's going to pan out. Just go through the analytics of it. Fifty percent of all first-round picks don't make it. It'll work itself out. We saw enough of him. I think he's a quality person. I think he's got the tangibles to go along with the intangibles.
"You look at his numbers from an athletic standpoint, they compare very favorably. Take a look at what he ran at the combine - his height, weight, speed - compared to Khalil Mack [who went fifth to the Raiders]. Not to take anything away from Khalil Mack. We would've taken him too, if we had the opportunity.
"But why one's here and one's here, you don't know. Why were the 25 teams that passed on Clay Matthews not smart enough to see how good he was? Why did Aaron Rodgers go where Aaron Rodgers [went]? I don't know. We could be right [on Smith], we could be wrong. You have to let the whole thing play itself out."
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