|Marcus Smith discusses his plight at OTAs|
After spending two days at the Eagles OTAs, you can't help but get the feeling that the team's 2014 first-round pick was used as a pawn by Chip Kelly in his power struggle with ex-general manager Howie Roseman.
Smith proved to be irrelevant to the Philadelphia coaching staff in his first NFL season, appearing in less than 70 defensive snaps and failing to make one single tackle, something you can bet Kelly and his camp brought up in an effort to downplay Roseman's personnel acumen to team owner Jeffrey Lurie.
And most draft observers did think the Eagles' selection of Smith was a bit of a reach because the University of Louisville product was considered a second-round talent at best by the vast majority of draftniks. He had the length and athleticism to be an impactful NFL edge player but lacked the functional football strength to hit the ground running.
Those thoughts proved to be on the mark as Smith couldn't push Philadelphia's group of outside rushers, which included Connor Barwin, who played a Pro-Bowl level last season, as well as veterans Trent Cole and Brandon Graham.
After a series of injuries at inside linebacker depleted that position, Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis even moved Smith inside to try to get him on the field.
Nothing worked, however, and Smith essentially redshirted his rookie year, maybe a workable scenario at the college level but certainly not in the pros.
In fact Smith was so overmatched in '14 that some have speculated Kelly may be ready to cut bait and move on if the now second-year player doesn't show marked improvement.
"I look at last year as a learning curve for me," Smith said on Monday. "All the things I learned, it made me stronger and made me a better football player. Definitely, it was tougher than I thought it was, but I got through it. My first year is over now. All that stuff that happened is over. It's a new year and I'm just ready to play."
A pesky groin strain has hampered Smith this spring, however.
"He kicked the air's tail for three weeks," Kelly quipped last week when Smith was working on both rehabilitation and conditioning as his teammates practiced.
That was a not-so subtle nod to get back in the mix by the head coach and Smith, who had been sidelined since the Birds' first OTA practice with the injury, returned Monday and Tuesday at the Novacare Complex in a limited fashion during 7-on-7 drills. His plan remains to be back as a full participant on Wednesday.
"It felt good to be out there," Smith said. "It definitely wasn't a setback. Wednesday will be the day. It's very important (to be able to practice). Right now I'm getting the mental reps, but I definitely want to get out there
so I can get all the work leading up to camp so I can be ready."
With Cole now in Indianapolis, and Graham jumping into a starting spot opposite Barwin after signing a big-money deal, Smith has an eye on filling Graham's part-time, pass-rushing role from a season ago.
"I just think my impact will be kind of like the role that Brandon Graham was last year," Smith said. "I want to be that guy that comes in and sparks a game. You have to start somewhere and I feel like (being a rotational rusher) is my way of getting into a starting role some day."
To do that Smith spent the majority of his offseason attempting to get stronger and put on 10-to-15 pounds of muscle, something that took well to his lanky frame.
"I added 15 pounds, but it's not bad weight," Smith explained. "I listened to all the nutritionists on what to eat and what not to eat. I wanted to be able to come out here and run still. I took pointers from Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham and those guys, so I could be ready to play."
It's difficult to part ways with a former first-round pick after just one season but Kelly has more than hinted he was not on board with the Smith pick and went out of his way to talk up Travis Long, a former undrafted free agent out of Washington State, who the coach claimed had the team made last season before tearing his ACL in August.
Kelly, though, needs to understand he already won the war with Roseman and pawns are no longer needed, especially ones who could develop into significant contributors down the line.
It's true Smith shouldn't have been a first-rounder but he certainly would have been on the table as an option for many teams as a second- or third-round selection.
And if Smith reaches his ceiling as a player now, it's on Kelly's watch and will only help the coach reach his ultimate goal.
"It's a very big leap from last year, just me knowing the system and knowing everything that's going on," Smith said. "I just want to be out there with my teammates."