Eagles analysis

Eagles mailbag: Thoughts on Nolan Smith after quiet rookie season

In his latest Eagles mailbag, Dave Zangaro answers questions about Nolan Smith, the backup QB and more.

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Another day, another mailbag.

I answered a bunch of your questions to start off the week right here. Some good ones on a skill position addition, TE2 and more.

Let’s answer some more today:

Nah, not ready to plant a flag on one side or the other. But there’s no doubt that Smith’s rookie season was a disappointment. And it flew under the radar this past season. There were so many eyes on fellow first-round pick Jalen Carter and there was enough drama around a team that completely collapsed down the stretch, that the No. 30 overall pick who had an underwhelming rookie season didn’t steal headlines.

But Smith was a first-round pick who was absolutely buried on the depth chart in 2023. He played just 188 defensive snaps all season and 41 of them came in Week 18. He didn’t even see a big jump after the Eagles parted ways with Derek Barnett, which should have presumably bumped him up the depth chart.

By the end of the season, Smith had 18 tackles, 3 QB hits and just 1 sack.

There’s no doubt that Smith’s rookie season was disappointing but I’m not ready to write off his career either. This is a guy who has some really unique physical tools and there were some obvious flashes at training camp last summer. In a way, Smith’s impressive training camp makes his quiet rookie season even stranger.

And Smith’s rookie season makes this offseason even trickier. Haason Reddick wants a new contract and Reddick and Josh Sweat are entering the final years of their contracts. Smith should be a building block for the future but we just haven’t seen it yet.

While I’m definitely not going to make any declarations about a player after one season, I think it’s natural to wonder more about Smith after the 2023 season. But I know there’s athleticism and explosion in his body and I’m certainly not ready to write him off — 2024 will be an important season for him.

I don’t see this happening. Could Smith get some snaps at linebacker here and there? Sure. Especially if there are injuries. But the Eagles didn’t draft Smith in the first round to play off-ball linebacker. They drafted him because he’s a pass rusher who ran a 4.39 and can get around the edge. There will also be occasions where Smith will drop into coverage in Vic Fangio’s defense. But his No. 1 job should still be attacking quarterbacks.

WR3 is not on the roster. Remember, Quez Watkins, Olamide Zaccheaus and Julio Jones are all set to be free agents and the Eagles should let them all walk. Aside from A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith — who are clearly No. 1 and No. 2 — here are the other receivers on the roster: Devon Allen, Britain Covey, Shaquan Davis, Jacob Harris, Griffin Herbert, Joseph Ngata, Austin Watkins Jr.

While Covey will definitely be on the roster as a punt returner, I haven’t seen enough from him to expect him to be a viable option in the offense. And the rest of those guys will be fighting to just to turn heads this summer. The Eagles’ WR3 will come through free agency or the draft. And I think the free agent market will go a long way in dictating which one.

First, I definitely agree with the first part of your tweet. Quarterback play is massively important in the NFL and that’s why the Eagles have almost as good a shot as any team in the NFC this season. They have a quarterback who has proven himself.

Getting a new offensive coordinator and a new QBs coach should help just by bringing in a new system for Hurts to run. It’s a tad anecdotal but so much of the Eagles’ offense in 2023 was dependent on great players making great plays. That can certainly work. The Eagles have a ton of talent on offense and betting on A.J. Brown certainly isn’t a losing proposition. But I expect Kellen Moore to find more layups for Hurts in 2024 to turn down the degree of difficulty. I think a lot of that will help Hurts naturally progress.

Because 2023 was definitely an outlier year in Hurts’ career. He obviously set the bar really high in 2022 but last season was the first time we didn’t see him improve year over year. It’s even fair to say he regressed a bit. But the Eagles have always been confident in Hurts’ work ethic and I have no reason to question that now. So if Hurts continues to put the work in, this talent isn’t going to evaporate and a new offense can certainly help get him back to where he was in 2022. 

This is a fun one. The Eagles gave Marcus Mariota a one-year, $5 million deal as an insurance policy and then Hurts played in every game. The question becomes this: Is Tanner McKee ready to be the backup?

I have a suspicion he might be. That’s how impressed I was by McKee during the 2023 preseason. And if the Eagles can get three cost-controlled years out of a sixth-round pick as their backup quarterback, that’s a nice way to win on the margins. Either way, the Eagles will need to add another quarterback just to make sure they have three in camp. I could see them bringing in someone to compete with McKee for that job. (I suggested Easton Stick based on his season with Moore in LA.) But I’d really give McKee a chance to win that job. If the Eagles get to camp and really think he can’t handle that job, then you can take a look around and see if there’s a veteran you’d want to bring in.

I’ll give you one on each side of the ball.

Winners: DeVonta Smith, Milton Williams.

Smith is already a great player but he has been underutilized in the Eagles’ offense. Just getting him in motion a bit more ought to help and there’s a chance Moore might be able to unlock the former first-round pick even more. Williams had a quiet statistical season in 2023 but if Fletcher Cox is gone, Williams is going to have a major role in Vic Fangio’s defense. And if Fangio is able to fix the secondary then quarterbacks might have to hold the ball a tick longer. That should help guys attack.

Losers: D’Andre Swift, Marlon Tuipulotu.

Maybe there’s a chance that Moore might actually be able to get more out of Swift but he’s set to be a free agent and Moore isn’t known for his run game. And while personnel is likely a bigger reason why, the Chargers didn’t have a good run game in 2023 and Austin Ekeler had a big drop-off. As for Tuipulotu, I think he could have a role but if Fangio tightens up the rotation, there might be fewer chances for the veteran depth guy.

A step forward but we still haven’t seen exactly what this roster is going to look like. The Eagles should still have a talented roster and the additions of Fangio and Moore should help. Sure, there are some obvious questions about how the power dynamic will work but the Eagles’ defense was so awful down the stretch in 2023, letting an experienced coach like Fangio take over will at least settle things down. And adding a guy like Moore to flip the offensive scheme should help too.

There’s nothing guaranteed in the NFL but I look at the Eagles as a team with a still-good roster, a quarterback who is one of the best in the conference and a coaching staff that just got much better. If I have to pick forward or backward, I’m picking forward. The Eagles should be a better team in 2024.

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