When OTA’s kicked off at the NovaCare Complex nearly two weeks ago, many were excited to get their first glimpse of newly drafted defensive end, Derek Barnett. The Tennessee product brings plenty of explosiveness to the table at a position that simply demands it. The competition at the outside spots on the defensive line is set to be incredibly intense, especially with the addition of veteran Chris Long. It’s this level of uncertainty over just who will start alongside Brandon Graham in 2017, that makes Marcus Smith’s OTA absence even more puzzling.
When Doug Pederson addressed the media ahead of the first team practice of the year, Smith wasn’t among the players listed as absent. In fact, it wasn’t until practice had started that people began to wonder where the former first round pick actually was. That trend continued into the heart of that week’s practices. The team were left just as puzzled as members of the media, with people scrapping to try and find what’s actually happened to Marcus Smith.
Les Bowen would later shed some light on the strange situation, inferring that the lack of communication was anything but a mistake. A new number and an Agent that is reluctant to expand on the reasons behind the absence point toward a clear intent behind the holdout…but the question is, why?
Agent didn't respond to my email. Marcus has changed his number. Pretty sure Eagles know — he wants them to release him. https://t.co/B2Xiyg3w6w
— Les Bowen (@LesBowen) May 30, 2017
One-word email answer from Kennard McGuire, Marcus Smith's agent, on Marcus not being at #Eagles OTAs: "Voluntary."
— Les Bowen (@LesBowen) May 30, 2017
The logical explanation would be that the defensive end entering his final contracted year with the team is trying to force an early exit. The Eagles opted against picking up Smith’s fith-year option, which means it’s officially boom or bust this year if Smith is to resurrect his career. But it’s that sentiment that makes his absence even more confusing. If Marcus Smith is trying to force his way out of the City of Brotherly Love, what options does he have?
Smith would be leaving himself just two months before the start of Training Camp to find a new team. With practice squad eligibility now nullified, he would HAVE to make a final roster somewhere to keep his career from burning out. The problem is that while his cap-hit would be minimal, his impact would likely follow suit.
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.
In his three years with the Eagles, Smith has appeared in 37 games but is still yet to start. With just 12 tackles and 4 sacks to his name, it’s easy to throw the word bust around. However under Jim Schwartz, Smith did flash some of the potential that the Eagles believed him to have when selecting him in the first round back in 2014. Jim Schwartz alluded to that in his most recent press conference:
“Well, he’s like a lot of these other guys. He’s trying to work to improve, and trying to find ways to get better.” The Eagles Defensive Coordinator told reporters. “He flashed last year, also. He had a sack against [Cowboys T] Tyron Smith, one of the best left tackles in the NFL early in that Dallas game that we were on the road. So he’s obviously proven that he can do some things just like any of our other players. We came up with sort of an offseason checklist for him. Try to get him to use his athletic ability a little bit more. He is a really good athlete. Trying to get him to be able to speed rush the edge a little bit more.”
Under Schwartz, 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%.
It was clear that Smith took some big strides in 2016, both athletically and statistically. His impact was felt far more prominently than it had been in previous years, but whether or not he’s angry that the team have declined to pick up his fifth-year option, Smith simply has to make the most of every opportunity he has this year.
Maybe it was the addition of Chris Long, combined with the drafting of Derek Barnett that left Smith feeling displaced. But it was the Eagles Defensive Coordinator who put it so elegantly in his Tuesday press conference.
“I think there is great competition at our defensive end, not only drafting Derek [Barnett], adding a guy like Chris Long. Competition’s going to bring out the best in those guys, and for Marcus, competition’s going to have to bring out the best in him.”
Competition is going to HAVE to bring the best out of him. Because if it doesn’t, it may be the final nail in the coffin of a player who is simply struggling for air as the lid begins to close. Even with Barnett and Long out of the equation, there’s the resurgent Vinny Curry to worry about…but even the man looking to bounce back in 2017 shouldn’t be the primary concern of Smith. The Eagles have a raw talent in Steven Means, who flashed on more than a few occasions during his first season with the Eagles, and the ever intriguing Alex McCalister, who had his rookie season cut short by an injury.
Competition HAS to bring the most out of Smith, and that all starts at OTA’s. With so many undecided roster spots, one would assume that a player in Smith’s position would attack OTA’s and even potentially emerge as a breakout candidate should he dominate with a newly-found chip on his shoulder. Instead, Smith is deciding to place all his chips on one hand…and it’s a hand that doesn’t give him much in the way of leverage.
It’s not as if the Eagles are in a position of reliance anymore when it comes to Marcus Smith, and while his production may have soared under Schwartz…it’s not like they aren’t getting that elsewhere. The team don’t need to place all their chips on the shoulders of Marcus Smith this season…in fact, all of their chips have been placed in reducing a daunting salary cap impact in 2017. Something that parting ways with Smith would only contribute towards.
From the recent restructures of Rodney McLeod and Zach Ertz, to pay cuts of Brent Celek and Ron Brooks, the Eagles have been active in trying to limit the damage that the Salary Cap will create moving forward. Cutting Smith following yesterday’s date would save the Eagles $1.4M in cap space, as would a trade should they find a suitor.
It might be that Smith simply wants a change of scenery. But his best chance of saving his career, would logically be under the defensive coordinator who reverted him back to a defensive end and spotted his flashes against Dallas. It would be in a Defense that will utilize his athleticism and explosiveness better than most, and a situation where competition will get the most out of him.
Smith is simply walking a tightrope in the hope that he can better his situation…but there’s no Safety harness. Howie Roseman is a ruthless negotiator, and it wouldn’t take much to convince the GM to pull the trigger on parting ways with Smith. If Smith is to have any chance of making the final roster, the word “voluntary” shouldn’t be in his vocabulary at all, nor his agents. If he wants to force a future elsewhere, he’s hedging all his bets on the fact that he had some under-the-radar flashes three years into a career that was expected to be great.
Whatever happens. Smith needs to adapt that mindset that appears from an outside view to be missing. The mindset of a competitor, and one that will go above and beyond to prove his worth to the coaching staff. By not showing up to voluntary workouts while the likes of Steven Means and Alex McCalister are licking their lips, it’s only further hammering that nail into the coffin.
Smith HAS to make the most of every opportunity, but instead he’s been blinded by a mirage that he believes would see him succeed elsewhere. There are no more lifelines. There are no more “next snap, next game, next year” scenarios. It’s now or never for the defensive end…and if he believes his now belongs elsewhere, then his never has already arrived.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports