The Eagles Defense was labelled as unit to watch after the arrival of Jim Schwartz. The aggressive 4-3 scheme was welcomed by those pining for the hard hits of Brian Dawkins and gritty nature that was so easy to resonate with. With Fletcher Cox playing his way to a huge extension, the stage was set. But after the 2016 season came to a close, many were wondering if the show was worth the price of admission.
The Eagles entered the year with an incredibly strong DE corps on paper. From Brandon Graham to the recently extended Vinny Curry, the team seemed destined to wreak havoc coming off the edge. However apart from Graham, the rest of the edge rushers failed to establish consistency in their first year under the former Detroit Lions Head Coach. But amidst the noise, the questions, the concerns and the confusion..lies an impressive season from the most unlikely of candidates, Marcus Smith.
It’s been a tough few years for Marcus Smith. After being drafted by the Eagles in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the former Louisville standout has felt the pressure of system changes, low snap-counts, a lack of consistency and the dreaded “bust” label. In 2015 he had just 7 tackles and a sack. That sack against the Giants would be the first of his career after a rookie season in which he failed to make a tackle in 8 games, playing just 72 snaps all year.
It was safe to say that the 2016 season was a pivotal one for Smith, but he had a hidden ace up his sleeve. He would be returning to familiar territory in the way of a 4-3 Defense after spending two years under Chip Kelly and a 3-4, playing as an OLB. The tenacious nature of the Jim Schwartz Defense played right into the strengths of Marcus Smith, but after an interesting Training Camp battle that saw him survive the roster cuts..many wondered if he would finally flash the potential many believed him to have.
Interestingly, Smith did exactly that..but through all the smoke and mirrors that seemed to blanket the Eagles Defense as the season progressed, with the spotlight being placed firmly on star DE, Brandon Graham, it’s simply been overlooked.
Smith played in all 16 games for the first time his career, registering a career high 16 tackles to go along with 2.5 sacks and one stuff tackle. Those numbers may not sound too impressive, but if you compare them to Vinny Curry’s stats, that’s where things get interesting. The newly extended Curry had 26 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 5 stuffs. Marcus Smith played in just 21.4% of Defensive snaps in 2016, Vinny Curry played in 42.6%.
The numbers won’t do Smith’s play any justice. Because where he really showed value was as a run defender. His lean frame has often been bought up when mentioning Smith’s lack of strength, but rarely as a strength in itself. Under Jim Schwartz, his athleticism has been nothing but a strength so far.
His speed coming off the edge enables him to fly into the backfield before locating the ball quickly and leaping after Ezekiel Elliott to bring him down for a minimal gain.
Against the Seahawks, Smith flashed the same potential. The hustle to push away from his block and plug the hole, forcing Rawls even further outside and out of harms way was impressive and was vital in finishing the play.
For those who doubt Smith’s strength and ability to consistently beat blocks, his instinct to locate the ball despite being completely mismatched by a much more physical Zac Kerin and then push back to seal the edge has to stand out as a sign of what could be.
One of his most impressive plays came on his lone stuff of the year against Zach Zenner. Smith bursts past his block and wraps himself over the back of the running back.
That skill set also helped Smith set the edge, as he showed here in this crucial stop against the Bears back in week two. This is something that the Eagles struggled with throughout 2016 but an aspect of play where the motor of Marcus Smith can really help the Eagles.
One of the most surprising criticisms of Vinny Curry during 2016 was his simplistic techniques. A lack of counter moves left the defensive end overwhelmed at times..but Smith showed against the Cowboys that he isn’t afraid to try the occasional spin move to beat his block. It just so happened that the graceful maneuver resulted in a sack on the soon to be NFL Rookie Of The Year.
So, “If Smith was so good, why didn’t he play more in 2016?” I hear you ask. It simply came down to money. The Eagles invested heavily in Vinny Curry and with Brandon Graham carrying the unit on his shoulders, it left just one vacancy on the opposite side. Connor Barwin was naturally next in line behind Curry, leaving Smith minimal opportunity to really make an impact.
The future of the position is uncertain. With reports of Connor Barwin being willing to take a pay cut emerging just a few weeks ago, there’s no guarantee that Marcus Smith will have the backing of the coaching staff and front office to act as a reliable threat on the outside. The Eagles may even consider cutting Smith, or putting him on the trade block due to depth at the position, in an attempt to acquire assets or talent in a more prominent area of need, instead deciding to bolster the trenches through the draft.
Smith is entering his contract year and will be fighting for his NFL future in his second season under Jim Schwartz. The pressure will be greater than ever, but there is no doubting that Smith took major strides in 2016. Was it simply a case of being drafted into the wrong system with the wrong coaches? Is he still in the wrong environment for us to fully see what he can do? All we can say conclusively is that Smith finally flashed the potential that fans had been pining to see since the moment he stepped onto the field in 2014.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports