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Lawlor: Critical Time For Smith, Agholor

Posted Apr 16, 2017

The Eagles have one first-round pick in the upcoming draft. Barring a trade, they will be selecting 14th overall. In a way, you can say the Eagles have three first-round picks. The team took defensive end Marcus Smith in the first round in 2014 and wide receiver Nelson Agholor in 2015. They are waiting for those players to emerge and play to the talent level that made them high picks.

Some fans will dismiss Smith and Agholor. They haven't panned out, so it is time to move on. The Eagles don't think that way. They see talented young players who just haven't been able to put it all together yet. Fans can give up on players, but teams have to be careful. Some players take longer to develop. You'd rather give a struggling player too many chances than to give up too early on someone who goes on to become a good player for another team.

The Eagles took Jermane Mayberry in the first round back in 1996. They hoped he could be a solid tackle or a good guard. Mayberry only played in three games as a rookie and he wasn't good. He played left tackle in 1997 and the Eagles gave up 64 sacks. The team spent a first-round pick on Tra Thomas to play left tackle and decided to move Mayberry. He slid inside to left guard and started 10 games in 1998, but was benched for the final five games of the season. Mayberry started five games under new coach Andy Reid in 1999. It wasn't until 2000 that things finally clicked for Mayberry. He became the right guard and started 47 of the next 48 games, making the Pro Bowl in 2002. The Eagles' patience paid off with Mayberry.

Could something similar happen with Smith and/or Agholor?

Smith was drafted to be an outside linebacker in the 3-4. He struggled in his first couple of seasons. Whether that was due to trying to play linebacker or simply adjusting to life in the NFL is impossible to know. We do know that Smith took a step forward last year. He played in all 16 games and was in for 217 snaps on defense. He set a career high with 2.5 sacks and showed some promise. Smith was finally playing defensive end, a more natural position for him. He was also in his third season.

Playing time has not been an issue for Agholor. He's got 26 starts over the previous two seasons. Agholor's stats show improvement from 2015 to 2016. He went from 23 receptions to 36 and from one touchdown to two. Numbers don't always tell the whole story and that is true here. Agholor looked like a typical rookie in 2015, with the usual growing pains that come when entering pro football. Last season was different. Agholor struggled with his confidence and was highly inconsistent all year long.

The Eagles can't count on either guy becoming an impact player, but it certainly is possible for one, or even both, of them to play much better in 2017. Agholor took a ton of criticism last year, but a lot of that frustration comes from the fact he has good ability. Agholor has NFL size and speed. He can be a very good route runner. There are moments when he looks the part. In the season opener, Agholor beat Joe Haden, a high-quality cornerback, for a 35-yard touchdown. That play was really impressive. Agholor had a 40-yard touchdown catch against the Giants late last season. Those are the kind of big plays you need from a wide receiver.

Agholor needs to do two main things to turn his career around. He needs to catch the football consistently and he needs to play with more confidence. Both things can happen. I'm not saying they will, but they can. The Eagles hired a new receivers coach, Mike Groh. He has a strong track record and a reputation as a demanding coach. He will be tough on Agholor, and all of the receivers. Groh is there to push his players to maximize their potential. Agholor has yet to come anywhere close to that in his time in the NFL.

This is a situation where coaching can make a difference. Agholor doesn't need to be bigger, faster, or stronger. He needs to play better. The potential is there. Go back and watch his college tape. Agholor had good hands and made his share of tough grabs. He played with a lot of emotion and confidence. He was a star. Groh has to push the right buttons to get Agholor back to playing like that. Agholor has the tools to be a solid starting NFL receiver. Greg Lewis was the receivers coach last year. That was his first full-time job in the NFL. Groh has an extensive coaching background. He has had success with different receivers over the years and knows how to balance being positive with being tough.

It could also help Agholor that he won't have a ton of pressure on him this season. Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, and Jordan Matthews will be the workhorse receivers. That will limit Agholor's snaps, but he needs to focus on playing better and not stats. He doesn't need 50 catches for 2017 to be a good season. Besides, if he plays well, the coaches will find a way to get him more involved.

Smith has gotten better each year that he's been in the league. That's the good news. Smith barely played in 2014. Last year, he was a solid part of the pass rush rotation. Smith's 2016 sack total isn't going to wow anyone, but he started to show some of the ability that helped him lead the nation in sacks as a senior at Louisville. This will be Smith's second season playing defensive end in Jim Schwartz's scheme. Don't underestimate how important that can be. Perfecting your stance, using your hands, developing moves and counter-moves are all part of being a good pass rusher. It takes time and experience to do that.

The issue with Smith is that he hasn't been more than a situational player in the NFL. He would need to take a major step forward to become a key role player this season. That is certainly possible, but I'm not sure how likely it is. He did just turn 25 so time is on his side. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry each had their breakout season at age 26. There were very different circumstances with the three players, but the point is that Smith still can get better.

The Eagles will get a boost if Smith or Agholor (or both) can play at a higher level this year. Barring injuries, they will only be role players, but that can be important. Most NFL games are decided by a touchdown or less so a couple of key plays can swing a game. I think Agholor is closer to breaking through than Smith because receiver is a tough position for young players and we have seen Agholor flash excellent ability at times. It doesn't make the challenge of playing more consistent any easier, but it does mean there is real hope.

OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH

Smith and Agholor aren't the only Eagles hoping for a breakthrough season. Defensive end Alex McCalister would love to win a roster spot this year and steal snaps away from Smith. McCalister is a natural pass rusher and has great length. He needed to get bigger and stronger during the offseason so he could handle the physicality of the NFL.

Joe Walker missed last season due to an ACL injury. He was on pace to be the backup middle linebacker and a key special teams player. Walker would love to have both roles this year. The key for him is showing he's all the way back from his injury.

Dillon Gordon was a tight end at LSU, but the Eagles moved him to the offensive line and he showed real promise last summer. Gordon made the team and played in one game, but really was focused on developing for the future. He wants to show the Eagles he can be the backup left tackle this year and has a chance to start in the future. This will be a huge spring/summer for Gordon. He showed potential last year. He needs to show improvement this time around.

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