Were the Eagles right in selecting Nolan Smith over other potential picks in the NFL Draft?

Nolan Smith
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)

I remember Nolan Smith exploding off the edge in a red-zone drill at Eagles training camp and thinking, ‘this guy is going to be a problem.’ He was too quick. He was too athletic. He was the steal of the draft after somehow, amazingly, slipping to No. 30 in the first round and making Howie Roseman the most popular man in town.

Smith was supposed to be the next Haason Reddick, with enough snaps for everyone on the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive line to eat. Yet the rotation among the pass-rushing group hasn’t gone as expected. Smith has seen 56 total defensive snaps, compared to 251 snaps for fellow first-rounder Jalen Carter. (Other notable snaps: Josh Sweat, 434; Haason Reddick, 421; Brandon Graham, 164; Derek Barnett, 99; Fletcher Cox, 383; Milton Williams, 276; Jordan Davis, 232).

Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick celebrates after sacking Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

Positional depth has played a huge factor there, along with an injury to Cox, but it’s still a bit odd to see the Eagles giving Barnett more burn than Smith who has been a solid contributor on special teams.

“He’s getting good reps there on special teams and making some plays there on special teams,” head coach Nick Sirianni told reporters on November 1. “So again, not anything that Nolan has done where we’re really excited about Nolan and the possibilities that he has as a football player. He’s just in a very deep room and sometimes you get in the flow of the game, and you ride the hot hand. And [Josh] Sweat and Haason [Reddick] have really been playing really good football.”

Sure, that makes sense. Add Sirianni’s decision to make Barnett a healthy scratch in Week 9 and Smith’s role seems destined to increase in the second half of the year. His speed cannot be overstated. With the way Carter has seamlessly transitioned from college standout at Georgia to instant Rookie of the Year candidate in the NFL, it stands to reason a similar jump from Smith might be in store. Then again, did the Eagles make a mistake in choosing a speedy outside linebacker over a plug-and-play starter at safety? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s too early to draw any conclusions.

Brian Branch: Sitting on the Draft Board

The Eagles passed on Alabama star defensive back Brian Branch at No. 30 to select Smith. The move was overwhelmingly applauded and praised at the time. The 6-foot-2, 238-pounder who posted 4.39 seconds in the 40 fit the mold of the type of player the Philly front office has salivated over in recent years. All boxes checked.

Six months later, some are starting to question the pick. Branch has turned into a Pro Bowl-caliber player in his first professional season for the Lions. He was on the board when the Eagles decided to write Smith’s name on their card, 15 spots ahead of Branch. How good has Branch been? Well, Pro Football Focus named him second-team All-Pro through the first quarter of the 2023 season.

He’s been playing slot cornerback for Detroit, dominating in coverage and holding his own in the run game while making 17 defensive stops. Branch has been a difference-maker at what has been a position of need for the Eagles following an injury to Avonte Maddox. It’s been the team’s biggest weakness so far. Just something to ponder.

Other Players the Eagles Missed for Nolan Smith

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ARLINGTON, TX – DECEMBER 31: Cincinnati Bearcats wide receiver Tyler Scott (21) gets tackled by Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Brian Branch (14) after a catch during the CFP Goodyear Cotton Bowl between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Cincinnati Bearcats on December 31, 2021 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire)

Brian Branch wasn’t the only talented player the Eagles skipped to take Smith. Take a look:

TE Sam LaPorta: He’s arguably been the best tight end in football. He has 47 receptions for 474 yards with 4 touchdowns while serving as the focal point of the Lions’ passing offense (see: 522 offensive snaps). Considering Dallas Goedert’s alarming injury history, LaPorta would have been an intriguing pick for Philly.

CB Joey Porter Jr: It’s been strange to watch James Bradberry struggle in coverage through nine games. Maybe chalk it up to flip-flopping him inside and outside. Either way, the Eagles could have drafted one of the best cornerbacks in the draft at No. 30. Porter, who already had the pedigree, has excelled for the Steelers. He has given up 8 receptions on 25 targets for a 32% reception percentage.

G Steve Avila: The 332-pounder out of TCU went 36th overall and stepped right into a starting role with the Rams. Nine games (599 snaps), with only two penalties and two sacks allowed at left guard. He’s been getting a lot of hype. Then again, the Eagles weren’t going to address offensive line in the first round, not with Cam Jurgens locked in at right guard and Landon Dickerson at left guard. They grabbed Tyler Steen in Round 3 which looks like a huge value pick.

AP Photo/Matt Slocum