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The difference Brandon Graham sees in Nolan Smith in Year 2

Nolan Smith is preparing to enter Year 2 of his NFL career and Brandon Graham already sees a difference in him.

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Nolan Smith had a quiet rookie season.

The Eagles’ No. 30 overall pick didn’t get to play very much in the edge rusher rotation but maybe even that minimal experience from last season is paying off. Because Brandon Graham is seeing a different version of Smith this spring.

What’s different?

“The confidence,” Graham said. “You can see his confidence growing, knowing that it’s more on him this year. You bring in [Bryce] Huff and you got Sweaty (Josh Sweat) but then you gotta see who’s right behind that. It’s a competition. We got some good players, some real good players to compete with each other every day, keep each other on our toes. That’s all you want in the room. You want people to keep elevating, keep getting better.

“I think he’s letting the doubts fuel him. I want to get him to where he want to go. Like I told him, take it one day at a time. You can’t worry about what people saying because when you start to perform, everything will change.”

The Eagles reported for Phase One of their voluntary offseason program on Monday so most of the team is already back together before OTAs begin next month.

Smith, 23, was the second of the Eagles’ two first-round picks out of Georgia last season. After taking Jalen Carter earlier in the round, the Eagles landed Smith at No. 30 overall last April.

While Carter played a ton and put together a case to be the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year (he finished second behind Will Anderson Jr.), Smith barely played. After a flashy training camp, Smith was buried in the Eagles’ edge rusher rotation, playing a total of just 188 defensive snaps. He had just 18 tackles, 3 quarterback hits and 1 sack.

Even after the Eagles cut ties with Derek Barnett during the season, it wasn’t like Smith became a huge part of the rotation. Haason Reddick, Sweat and Graham all had significantly more snaps than him in 2023.

Perhaps Smith’s health played a role in that. He dealt with a shoulder injury all season after an issue with scar tissue from a previous pectoral muscle surgery flared up in the preseason.

But if Smith is healthy in Year 2, the Eagles might be relying on him a bit more in 2024. Hopefully, he’s ready to produce.

The rotation has changed a bit this offseason. The Eagles signed Huff to a three-year, $51 million contract, restructured Sweat’s deal, brought back Graham and traded Reddick to the Jets. Basically, this year the rotation will have Huff instead of Reddick. If Huff and Sweat are the starters, then Smith and Graham are the presumed top two rotational players.

One is a first-round pick entering his second NFL season. The other is a 36-year-old player entering his 15th and final year in the league. So, ideally, Smith would be able to take on a bigger workload than his veteran teammate.

What is Graham’s advice for Smith?

“Keep your head down, just make sure you know what to do,” Graham said. “Learn the playbook as best as you can so you can be the fast, athletic you on the field. He knows what he’s doing. He knows the plays, that’s not the thing. It’s just about getting that next year in and building that confidence. 

“Now you can kind of speak up a little bit because now you’re the guy in the room and you still got Sweaty and now Huff that’s going to get the most of it. But you still add a layer in there. They’re waiting on you too because you’re a first-round pick and they would rather it be you, especially with him being that. So I just try to keep him positive on that. But I tell him, you gotta work because that’s where you at, that’s your position right now. You gotta work. Sweaty and Huff, they proved themselves. Now you gotta go prove yourself and see where you fit in.”

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