In order for the Eagles to take the next step under head coach Chip Kelly the defense will need to make substantial improvements this season. While Sunday’s first preseason game against the Colts will not showcase the first team defense very much, there are a few guys to keep an eye on.
The first tackle that outside linebacker Marcus Smith records this season will be the first of his NFL career. Smith was the definition of disappointing in his rookie campaign as he never picked up the defense and was rarely active on Sunday’s. The departure of long time Eagle Trent Cole and insertion of Brandon Graham into the starting role makes Smith the next man up on the depth chart. As of right now he is the primary back up to Connor Barwin and Graham at the outside linebacker position. Behind him is special teams ace Bryan Braman and a cast of characters. The loss of Travis Long early in camp will put the position in doubt behind the starters. I expect Smith to see a lot of reps this preseason to make up for his lackluster 2014 showing. Quite frankly he needs as much work as he can get. There have been reports of Smith looking better this offseason while also adding some bulk to his frame, 15 pounds of muscle reportedly. Former Eagles coach Tra Thomas comments about Smith basically looking like a high school player may have lit a fire under the Louisville product. We can only hope so. The Eagles certainly reached on Smith with the 26th pick in the 2014 draft, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a valuable member of this defense going forward.
Watkins had a very similar rookie year to Smith as he only dressed in the regular season finale against the Giants. He was not going up against stiff competition with the likes of Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher in front of him. However, Watkins seemed to struggle in preseason and was an inactive for the lions share of 2014. I liked his versatility coming out of Florida and was high on him coming in as a 4th round pick selection. The Eagles took him with the first pick in that round. The injury to rookie corner Jacorey Shepherd this past Sunday ending his season thrusts Watkins into a competition for the slot nickel corner role. Chip said rookie Eric Rowe, veteran EJ Biggers who signed from the Redskins, and Watkins will be competing for that spot. Rowe’s name is interesting in this conversation because previously defensive coordinator Bill Davis said Rowe would only play as an outside corner. I would like to see Watkins grab a hold on this role and be able to replace Brandon Boykin as best he can. He should get a nice test on Sunday possibly facing rookie speedster Phillip Dorsett and 2nd year wideout Donte Moncrief. Don’t expect Andre Johnson or TY Hilton to see a lot of action.
Rice is the third player I’m keeping an eye on for Sunday’s game. The undrafted rookie corner out of Coastal Carolina has drawn the attention of Chip and Bill Davis on numerous occasions throughout camp. Chip mentioned him just having a knack for being where the play is. If any of the other previously mentioned corners falter look for Rice to get increased looks and from there anything is possible in the NFL. Rice has decent size for the corner position, 6 foot 185 pounds, and was targeted by the Eagles at the Senior Bowl according to reports. Chip said they simply decided to go defensive line in the 7th round instead of taking Rice. The previous round’s selections of Jacorey Shepherd and Randall Evans probably played a factor as well. In any case I expect to see Rice get a fair shake at making this roster. He’s on the bubble for sure right now, but one good game can change that.