He plays with energy and relentlessness, a physical and fast defensive impact player. Rookie edge rusher Nolan Smith makes you notice him on every snap, and in his second preseason game, Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field against the Cleveland Browns, Smith made a difference for the Eagles' defense.
Smith started and played for a few defensive series before leaving the game with a shoulder injury, and he was only credited with one assisted tackle. But if you watched the game and saw No. 3, you saw much more. He bent the edge and forced quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to step up in the pocket and take a sack. On his final snap, the second play of the second quarter, Smith chased down wide receiver Anthony Schwartz, taking an end-around pitch, and tackled him for a 5-yard loss, displaying speed and closing ability and tenacity to make the play in the backfield.
There were other "flash" moments that didn't show up in the stat sheet, but the coaches will see them. And as the Eagles close in on the regular season, they're liking more and more of what they've seen from Smith, the 30th pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. And with that, we all wonder, how will the Eagles use the University of Georgia product who won two National Championships there and who comes to Philadelphia feeling it. This is not too big for him. This is just the next step.
"I need to do a lot better," Smith said after the game. "I'm not where I want to be. Coach Wash (Jeremiah Washburn) talks to me about it every day and he coaches me hard and that's how I like to be coached and he tries to get the most out of me, not try, he gets the most out of me every day."
Sean Desai is the new defensive coordinator here and what he plans to do remains largely unknown. The Eagles are still going through the process of evaluating the roster as they install Desai's defense, and not until the preseason is finished and the defense is behind closed doors will he scheme for New England and Mac Jones and the Patriots' offense. There are going to be some wrinkles in what the Eagles do, and Smith is going to be one of those wrinkles. His specialty is moving forward, playing downhill, using his speed and his brain and his bend.
With Haason Reddick on the field – he had surgery on Thursday to repair a thumb injury and is very much expected to play in the opener at the Patriots – the Eagles dominated off the edge in 2022. They have Reddick and Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox and Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter and a host of game-wreckers up front. They registered 70 quarterback sacks a year ago, a history-making performance.
What do the Eagles do for an encore?
Smith will be part of the equation. We don't yet know to what degree, but he's the kind of player you find a way to use. He's got that special something that showed up in the preseason opener in Baltimore and was even more obvious on Thursday night.
Other observations from Thursday night vs. Cleveland:
• Big play for linebacker Nakobe Dean to end Cleveland's first drive. He made great penetration up the middle and was able to pop the football loose from running back Johnny Kelly and allow the Eagles to take the football away at the 2-yard line.
• Slot receiver Olamide Zaccheaus made a nice 17-yard catch-and-run and added an 11-yard punt return. Good burst, he's blocked very well in Training Camp and he's got trusted hands and can make yards after the catch.
• Trey Sermon gained 54 yards on five carries, including a 33-yard scoring run, and also lost the football trying to pick his way through traffic.
• Don't sleep on Rashaad Penny, who had two carries for 18 yards. He's put back-to-back games together and is going to really help this offense with his downhill running style.
• I'm not worried about Marcus Mariota, a seasoned veteran who knows he has some things to correct. He's been high on some throws and that is correctable. Mariota has played in big games, has mobility, and knows how to win. It's impressive that rookie Tanner McKee has come such a long way. He had a second good outing, completing 10 of 18 passes for 147 passes, a touchdown and a two-point conversion. McKee led the Eagles on two touchdown drives. This is exactly what you want to see in a rookie – building confidence, working through his progressions, seeing in real time the game slow down for him.
• There are 16 practice squad spots available, so the players who would seem to be long shots to make the team still have so much to play for. Keep that in mind with tight end Brady Russell, who caught a 22-yard touchdown and blocked well. He is fighting for recognition and certainly gained some on Thursday night.
• Linebacker Zach Cunningham was all over the field with seven total tackles. He's been with the team for just about two weeks now after not playing all spring or the early part of this Training Camp, so Cunningham is getting into shape in every way. The linebacker group could be the most unknown as you look at the 53-man roster and Cunningham took a step forward in this game.
• Christian Elliss has been so consistent and productive from the time the Eagles stepped on the field in the spring and on Thursday he had five total tackles and a pass defensed and is just a ... football ... player.
• Finally, Jake Elliott crushed a 56-yard field goal. He is ready for the regular season right now.
The Eagles hosted the Cleveland Browns in the first home preseason game of the 2023 season. Check out the photos from the Thursday night affair.