Eagles tout versatility as reason for intriguing position changes to start 2023 camp

Note: if you purchase something through one of our affiliate links, Schneps Media may earn a commission.
PHILADELPHIA, PA – DECEMBER 22: Philadelphia Eagles helmet sits on a cart during the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagle on December 22, 2019, at Lincoln Financial Filed in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

For the better part of the last decade, the Philadelphia Eagles have been a team that has looked for versatile football players. Players that can play multiple positions well, and have the ability to fit in different schemes. Sometimes, Landon Dickerson, versatility can help the team in the long run and lead to wins. Other times, the results have been less than satisfactory.

For the 2023 Eagles, versatility will be a key trait in many players that need to have major seasons. Whether it’s Cam Jurgens transitioning his undersized self to guard, or Zech McPhearson to his more natural position, Philadelphia is looking to find the right fit for players in both their offensive and defensive schemes.

Newly drafted Philadelphia Eagles’ Nolan Smith speaks during a news conference at the NFL football team’s training facility, Friday, April 28, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

One of the players whose versatility will be put to the test is the 30th overall selection, Nolan Smith. Smith fell to the Eagles in one of the last picks in the draft and has plenty of pass-rushing skills. But since camp, the Eagles and new defensive coordinator Sean Desai have tried out the rookie at an off-ball linebacker role: something he hasn’t done since before his college days after being a primary edge rusher for the National Championship Georgia Bulldogs.

“We’re just trying to get guys reps at different spots. In certain periods, like 7-on-7, we can get some of these OBs [off-ball linebackers] some work in coverage. We can do that, and try to strategically put them in some different spots to keep it same-as for them,” Desai said following Friday’s practice. “It’s just trying to keep testing out different combinations of guys in different spots.”

Pressure mounting for Eagles’ defense?

Desai enters his first season as the Eagles defensive coordinator with plenty of pressure. He inherits a defense that was a top-five unit in the league in 2022 but lost five starters. Because many players in key positions return, fans have demanded the new defensive staff be willing to not just win games, but show competency against top quarterbacks.

CHICAGO, IL – AUGUST 21: Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai looks on during a preseason game between the Chicago Bears and the Buffalo Bills on August 21, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

Part of being immersed in a new organizational culture is getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of young players to put them in a better position for their future. So far, Smith’s progress in a position the staff is trying him at has been encouraging.

“I think right now it’s just we’re still in the kind of formative evaluation phase to see our best combinations, and so we don’t know until we stack reps for it. We think he might have had two or three reps at it the other day or something like that, so we have to keep putting everybody in those different situations,” Desai explained.

Trying out Smith at a new position is interesting so long as the Eagles continue to undervalue the cost of off-ball linebackers. 2022 third-round pick Nakobe Dean is expected to be the starter at the MIKE, but who plays with him has been one of the key debates.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – AUGUST 02: Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Nakobe Dean (17) enters the field during training camp on August 2, 2022 at the Novacare Complex in Philadelphia, PA (Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire)

Some have already touted the linebacking core as among the weakest again in Philadelphia as they establish a more “pass defense” focus. There’s no guarantee that Smith will be able to succeed in a new role either. It’s a similar problem that plagued Haason Reddick in Arizona early in his career.

For Reddick, the Pro Bowler couldn’t find sustained NFL success until his teams allowed him to play more in the kind of style he likes. It should come as no surprise that pre-draft scouts found that Smith’s NFL comparison was to Haason Reddick too.

Smith’s combination of size, speed, and athleticism makes him an interesting player on any defensive scheme. He’s the kind of player that the Eagles have coveted for a very long time now.

With a new defensive play-caller at the helm, the last few weeks have been a learning experience for both the pass rusher and his coach. How he handles the potential change could also go a long way toward determining what the Eagles do later in the training camp period as well.

Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire