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Next Step: How Do Rookies Fit?

Posted May 12, 2014

NFL reality greeted the Eagles' 2014 Rookie Class early on Monday morning: The draft is over. It's time to get to work ...

NFL reality greeted the Eagles' 2014 Rookie Class early on Monday morning: The draft is over. It's time to get to work.

The rooks joined the veterans in the team's offseason strength and conditioning program on Monday ahead of the weekend's Rookie Camp. If there was any celebrating done after being drafted or signing a rookie contract with the Eagles, it was conducted quickly.

It's time to get down to business now.

Things are moving extraordinarily quickly for the rookies, who have to jump right into the pace of daily life in the NFL. For the coaching staff, these days offer the first time to see the players up close, to learn about them, and to begin the process of finding the best situations to maximize ability.

That's the question now, isn't it? It's not about "value in the draft," or "reaching for a player" or assigning a grade to the weekend, although the media and fans eat that stuff up.

But inside the NovaCare Complex, it's all about the next steps. Those next steps are conducted in short order, as the Eagles evaluate the new players and determine how they can best fit into the scheme in 2014 and, hopefully, for many years to come.

From what the Eagles, namely head coach Chip Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman, said during the weekend, there are some initial thoughts on which players might play where off the bat. How much of an impact will the Draft Class have this season? Remains to be seen. But we do have some early ideas of the plans in place and what these players are all about.

MARCUS SMITH, LB, ROUND 1

Both Kelly and Roseman spoke glowingly of Marcus Smith and his "upside" and "athletic ability" and the production he had at Louisville, where he recorded 14 1/2 sacks last season. Smith impressed the Eagles in every way in their pre-draft meetings and in his workouts, and they maneuvered in a way to move back in the first round, gain an extra draft pick, and remain in position to add Smith.

Smith is an outside linebacker who showed in college that he could drop into coverage as well as set the edge against the running game. He's going to have to do it all here to earn playing time. Connor Barwin is the jack-of-all-trades linebacker on the left side of the Eagles defense and Trent Cole is the primary edge pass rusher.

Smith can earn playing time by showing he has a grasp of the defense and that he has all the requisite skills to play the position. If the Eagles decide to simplify his role as a rookie, Smith would narrow his focus and contribute as, say, a situational pass rusher.

It is far too early to know with Smith, but understand this: The Eagles really wanted him, and they have big plans for him. They love all the gifts he brings to the table. Now it's just a matter of harnessing those tools.

JORDAN MATTHEWS, WR, ROUND 2

At Vanderbilt, Jordan Matthews accounted for nearly 50 percent of the team's offensive production. Everyone on the defense knew he was the primary target in the passing game and Matthews still went on to become the most prolific pass catcher in SEC history.

Kelly said that Matthews would begin here in the slot, although it's likely part of the picture that he also learns the outside positions in short order, too. At 6-foot-3, Matthews would be an enticing target in the middle of the field. If the Eagles can involve him in the screen game and allow him to use his after-the-catch skills, Matthews adds another option to a weapon-rich offense.

The expectation is that Matthews will work hard and prepare himself and take well to coaching. He provides a different body type for the Eagles, and everyone is excited to see how much he can learn the scheme and contribute as a rookie.

JOSH HUFF, WR, ROUND 3

"Explosive" is the word used by Roseman to describe Josh Huff, who was a big-play machine at Oregon. Kelly obviously knows Huff well and the learning curve into the scheme should not be a concern at all.

Both Matthews and Huff bring depth to a receiver corps that does not have a lot of NFL experience behind projected starters Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper. The key is how quickly they pick up the X's and O's and how consistent they are on a daily basis finishing their assignments and catching the football. Mental mistakes will not be tolerated.

It's possible that Huff works right into the rotation. He knows the offense and his college performance served notice that he is big enough and strong enough to help early in his career, perhaps both in the slot and on the outside.

JAYLEN WATKINS, CB, ROUND 4

The competition at cornerback really jumped with the free-agent signing of Nolan Carroll and the drafting of Jaylen Watkins. The Florida product is a terrific athlete who had his draft stock hampered by an ankle injury suffered in the post-season draft-prep time.

At his best, Watkins at Florida was a complete cover cornerback. He ran with the fastest receivers and was able to show a variety of coverages. His experience at safety also speaks to his ability to be physical. The Eagles have a wealth of veteran experience on the roster ahead of Watkins, but the rookie has a competitive instinct and looks to rise to the challenge.

With Watkins, the Eagles added speed and athletic skills. He played against the best of the best in college football, so he knows the tempo waiting for him. Whether it's on special teams or in the defense, Watkins is going to have to step up his game to the max to earn playing time. Cornerback is a pretty deep position here with veteran experience.

TAYLOR HART, DL, ROUND 5

A former Oregon standout, Taylor Hart is expected to get a look at end in the 3-4 front and when the Eagles are in nickel he will move inside to tackle. The Eagles want to see him play with great effort and push up the field, and to occupy blockers to allow the linebackers to clean up plays.

Many observers believe that Hart's desire and tenacity will gain him a rapid rise on the depth chart. The Eagles are young along their front, so the roster-spot battles and playing-time competition will be fun to watch.

Hart brought it at Oregon. He's going to fit in well here, having worked with line coach Jerry Azzinaro in college. That potentially gives Hart a running start as he looks to fit into the defense.

ED REYNOLDS, S, ROUND 5

The Eagles want to find answers, long-term answers, to the safety spots and they continued to address the area with the selection of Ed Reynolds from Stanford. He was an outstanding player in college who must translate those skills into the NFL.

Malcolm Jenkins is one starting safety and Nate Allen returns to lead the way at the other safety position, with second-year man Earl Wolff and newcomer Chris Maragos along with Keelan Johnson pushing for time.

Can Reynolds cover in space? Can he run with receivers and freakish tight ends down the field? Can he tackle consistently? These are the questions that need to be answered in today's NFL at the safety positions.

It's way early to tell on Reynolds, along with all of these rookies. Safety is a hugely different position here than it is in college. Reynolds will get into the books now and work his body the right way to compete in the summer.

BEAU ALLEN, DT, ROUND 7

He got after it at Wisconsin, where Beau Allen played with aggressiveness and a physical nature and intensity that endeared him to the Eagles.

Bennie Logan played well as a rookie inside and has enjoyed a fine offseason, so Allen likely competes with Logan at that position and also tries to make a roster that improved dramatically in 2013.

Allen is more of a stop-the-run player than he is a pass rusher. He has to be stout at the point of attack and play with great technical skills.

Playing time? Nobody jumps to conclusions with seventh-round draft picks. Let's see what Allen learns from a technique standpoint until the pads go on and we can watch him live in games getting to the football and making plays.

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