As Marcus Smith walked toward the locker room after practice, he paused and smiled at the assembly. A semicircle of reporters gathered at the edge of the field. Smith knew why. Not much of a mystery to solve.
“It feels great for me to sign my rookie contract, get everything out of the way and be officially an Eagle,” Smith said. “I don’t have to worry about any of [the contract] things anymore. I can just come out here and come play.”
On Monday, Smith signed a four-year deal. That’s standard operating procedure league wide. Smith – who was taken with the 26th overall pick in the 2014 draft – was the 19th first-rounder to sign this year. According to the NFL’s rookie wage scale, Smith’s contract should be worth about $7.8 million in fully guaranteed money and should include a $3.99 million signing bonus.
As Smith said, the money has been handled. The lone concern now is football. Since the Eagles took Smith, it has been mentioned quite often that he only recently became a defensive player. As a byproduct, you might expect that the rookie would have a greater learning curve. Not only is he new to that side of the ball, but he’ll also be a 3-4 outside linebacker in the Eagles' defensive scheme.
So far, during OTAs, Smith has served as the primary backup to Connor Barwin. To hear Barwin tell it, all rookies must make a physical adjustment upon entering the NFL – the speed of the game, the increased physicality, the overall price that your body must pay. Barwin said that part is universal. He also said learning the playbook and the scheme varies – and that Smith has come along well.
“He’s been impressive, so far,” Barwin said. “Mentally, he’s really been able to grasp the defense, which is a good sign for a young guy. He has a good understanding of football and coverage and those sorts of things.”
A year ago, Smith had 14½ sacks at Louisville. That was second among NCAA Division I-A players. Smith is 6-3, 251 pounds. The Eagles obviously like his physical ability and believe he has the athleticism to become a quality pass rusher in the NFL. And then there’s Barwin saying that Smith is coming right along, pressing his rookie nose into the playbook so much that it comes up covered in ink. All of that is fine, if expected. It’s only early June. They haven’t done any hitting or played any games. What Smith is or isn’t at this point is hard to forecast.
What you can do is watch how the Eagles bring Smith along and where they position him. Putting him behind Barwin has created two factions among the media members who watch practice. Some believe Smith was put on Barwin’s side because Barwin had a good year last season -- 45 solo tackles and five sacks a year ago – and he has a good understanding of the defense and can help the rookie grow. The other contingent thinks it might signal the beginning of the end for Trent Cole.
Cole will be 32 in October. He will reportedly make $5 million in base salary ($6.6M cap figure) this season. Next year, his base jumps to $10 million ($11.625M cap figure). It’s highly unlikely they keep him around for more than this year. At present, Cole’s backup is Brandon Graham, but he hasn’t done much to make anyone see him as the long-term solution on that side. The popular takeaway for those who like to read between the lines is that Smith gets up to speed, then they shift Barwin (who will be 28 in October) into Cole’s spot – either this year or next. That theory operates under the idea that Barwin would make a smooth transition to the other side.
If you don’t go in for that kind of forecasting, you aren’t alone. You have company. Before Tuesday’s practice at the NovaCare Complex, Chip Kelly was (kinda/sorta) asked about the team’s plans and its depth chart at outside linebacker. Not surprisingly, he stonewalled the attempt to uncover information.
“There is no plan,” Kelly said. “It’s trying to figure out what those guys can do, what their skill set is, what their strengths and weaknesses are and then we’ll go from there. But you’ve got to start them somewhere. You can’t just say ‘Hey, learn every single position.’ You’ve got to put them at one spot and figure what their strengths and weaknesses are as we evaluate them in OTAs.”
Undeterred, one reporter rephrased and asked why the Eagles put Smith behind Barwin and not behind Cole.
“We had Brandon backing up Trent and we had no one backing up Connor right now,” Kelly said.
It was a simple explanation. And it made sense. But that probably won’t stop the inquisition. Smith was the Eagles’ first pick. They will be asked about where he’ll play and how much until he actually does some playing – and that will only mark the beginning. This is mere prologue.