Jim Schwartz hasn't been talking like a man who has seen enough of Marcus Smith. Granted, he wouldn't be the first NFL coach to lead reporters astray with his platitudes about a player whose roster spot is presumed to be in jeopardy, but I don't think it is unreasonable to think that the Eagles have yet to give up on their 2014 first-round draft pick.
Here's what Schwartz said yesterday when asked what he has seen out of Smith and fellow roster hopeful Steven Means:
"Same stuff we've seen from those guys in training camp just about every day. You guys were probably on Steven Means before anybody else because you saw the same things we saw. And Marcus was doing really well. He just had a setback with the concussion and missed time. But he sort of picked up right where he left off. The thing I'm most proud about with Marcus is that he's done a good job in the run game. It's a little bit like talking about Jaylen Watkins; [Smith is] a very skilled athlete. He's fast and he's smooth. I think he was a quarterback when he first went to Louisville. I mean, that stuff shows. Where he's really making good improvement is setting the edge of our defense [and] attacking tackles. He did that against a physical group from Pittsburgh. That was a great sign."
A lot of people seem to think that Smith is a sunk cost, but he has been on the field for only 195 snaps over 21 games since the Eagles drafted him. Even if you have searing memories of those 195 snaps, it's a small sample size. Me, I can't recall more than a couple of plays on which I even took notice of Smith on the field. That's not a good thing, but it also means we really haven't seen anything glaring that suggests Smith doesn't still have some of the potential he possessed when the Eagles drafted him in the first round.
And he has always had potential. He might not have been a wise pick in the first round, but he was widely projected to go in the first three or four rounds, so the Eagles weren't the only ones who thought he might have the makings of a quality NFL pass rusher.
I point that out not to excuse the decision to select him, but to underscore the fact that the question was always whether he could reach his physical potential rather than what physical potential he has. He's still 6-foot-3 with long arms and an impressive frame, which is what makes Schwartz's comments about Smith setting the edge interesting: It's not something we tend to notice, but it's something that fits with Smith's physical skill set. Maybe Schwartz wasn't just being nice.
The thing about Smith is he isn't one of those "high energy" players. I put that in scare quotes because I mean that he doesn't appear to carry himself with a whole lot of energy. He might just be one of those guys who looks a lot more detached than he is. Really, only his coaches and players can judge that kind of thing, given the lack of exposure the rest of us have had to him in actual game situations.
Maybe Schwartz was just being nice. But he might also be intrigued by Smith when he considers the career path of another defensive end with a similar profile who was written off as a first-round bust after a few NFL seasons. We heard the Jason Babin story ad nauseaum during his time here, so we all should know that the Wide 9 was the scheme that resurrected his career. Or maybe Schwartz sees some physical similarities between Smith and current Seahawks DE Cliff Avril, who blossomed under Schwartz in Detroit.
While the Eagles shouldn't waste a roster spot on a player who is truly a sunk cost, they also aren't in a position to be getting rid of young players who still have upside. It's the coaches' job to find a way to get through to a player and get him to reach that upside. Given the state of the Eagles roster, especially at defensive end, they shouldn't be erring on the side of a veteran special teams ace such as Bryan Braman, who has no shot at becoming a quality NFL edge player.
Anyway, that's the case for Marcus Smith.