Football / Sports

Commentary: Eagles hoping Marcus Smith makes a quick splash

PHILADELPHIA -- As confident as the Eagles have been about selecting Marcus Smith with their top draft pick, it may take some time before they can point to the outside linebacker's production and say, "See, we were right."

The old adage is you need two to three years before you can properly evaluate a draft choice, but it may take an additional season for edge rushers because so few make an impact or even contribute in their rookie seasons.

The Eagles would love Smith to make a first-year splash. But they understand that the learning curve for edge rushers is greater than for most positions, and they have returning starters in Trent Cole and Connor Barwin, who should help ease the Louisville product into the NFL.

"We did a study of edge rushers since '08, actually, and looked at those guys and saw that it was a good situation, because we do have some veterans on this football team," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said recently. "And so there wasn't a situation where he had to come in and go in and play 1,000 snaps this year, but at the same time have an opportunity to go compete."

Smith's initial competition will be more Brandon Graham than Cole or Barwin. Graham, as the third outside linebacker and Cole's backup, played 27 percent of the snaps last season. Barwin hardly came off the field and was out there 94 percent of the time.

Graham, despite being new to the position, was productive when he played, recording three sacks and 17 hurries in only 167 pass-rush opportunities. But the former first-rounder is no longer the flavor of the draft, and the Eagles will want to see Smith eventually.

"My expectations are I definitely want to come in and be a first- and second-down guy," Smith said on Friday after the first day of Eagles rookie camp. "Being a third-down guy -- you can contribute to the team in that way, but it makes you more versatile when you can play on first and second down. And if that's my role for my first or second year, that's what I'll do."

Smith could join other 3-4 outside linebackers from recent drafts -- like Von Miller (111/2 sacks), Brian Orakpo (11), and Clay Matthews (10) -- to explode out of the gates as a rookie. But most first-round edge rushers make mild contributions, or almost none at all, in their first year.

On average, the 32 edge rushers taken in the first round of the previous seven drafts averaged 509 snaps (about 50 percent of plays), 3.7 sacks, and 20.2 tackles in their rookie season.

(Graham, who was chosen with the 13th overall pick in 2010, played 482 snaps and recorded three sacks and 12 tackles as a rookie.)

Sack and tackle numbers don't exactly give a full account of how an edge rusher performs, but the averages were low despite a fair number of snaps. In some cases, the rookies earned more playing time; in others they saw the field because of the first-round investment.

The numbers dipped dramatically when including all seven rounds. In 2013, 23 drafted edge rushers averaged 218 snaps, one sack, and nine tackles. In 2012, 21 averaged 247 snaps, 1.6 sacks, and 7.1 tackles.

Premium edge rushers are difficult to find, especially after the first round. For every Trent Cole (fifth round) or Greg Hardy (sixth), there are scores of drafted players who never make the transition to the pros -- even recent first- rounders like Aaron Maybin.

There are various factors, but many early-round edge rushers who have failed were either overmatched by NFL tackles or weren't committed enough to overcome the early struggles.

The Eagles know as much, but they targeted Smith as a late-first-round possibility. And when their first six targets went before their pick at No. 22, they traded back and selected Smith four spots later.

Many fans criticized the Eagles because many draft analysts had a second-to-third-round grade on the 6-foot-3, 251-pound linebacker. But Smith said he was told the Cardinals were poised to take him at No. 27, and there were reports that the Redskins (No. 34) and Falcons (No. 37) were ready to trade up.

"No, it doesn't bother me," Smith said of the criticism. "It just puts a chip on my shoulder and just makes me want to prove (to) people even more why they picked me."

While Roseman said that Smith's having played in a 3-4 in college took some of the guesswork out of projecting him to the Eagles scheme, the team isn't adding any extra pressure.

"They say just take every day here as a learning tool. Don't try to do too much," Smith said. "I do think they want me to be able to get it and be able to know what's going on in time for camp. But I also feel like they're taking the pressure off me because I have guys in front of me that can teach me."

Smith said that Cole told him early last week that his "hair's going to be on fire right now." Many expect the 22-year-old Smith to be the eventual heir. Cole turns 32 in October and his unguaranteed salary more than doubles next season.

"I don't have a problem with getting under his wing and just learning from (Cole and Barwin) first because I know their time is winding down," Smith said. "By the time they get out of here, I'll be ready to go."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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