Eagles Rookie Review: Nolan Smith must provide more value in Year 2

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Philadelphia’s second first-round pick from the 2023 NFL Draft has much to prove.

One of my favorite things to do every off-season is to compare my post-draft notes on the Eagles’ rookies and then analyze how they performed when they got a chance. I won’t write a full scouting report because I always do that after they are drafted. You can find Nolan Smith’s scouting report here.

Previously in this series: Jalen Carter

Stats

Overall

Many of you may remember that I was not the biggest Nolan Smith fan last off-season. I have to be honest when watching players, and I just didn’t see a top pass rusher when watching his college film. I saw a great athlete with a very high ceiling. Many fans wanted him at pick 10, but I thought that was too high for him. Here is what I said about Nolan Smith last year, with some comments based on what he did this year.

I can’t help but want freakishly athletic players on my team. It would be fun, and the upside is very high because of the motor and speed. But I’ve seen Nolan Smith mocked to the Eagles at 10 and I don’t see it. That is a high pick to risk on a traits player with limited production. I can imagine the Eagles liking him because his closest comp is probably Haason Reddick, but that doesn’t mean he will instantly become him. Reddick took a few years to develop (and was a better rusher in college), and I think the same will need to happen for Nolan Smith. He’s a useful player who flies around the field and will have a role, but I want a better pass rusher at 10.

It’s only been one year, but I feel like I was right to be skeptical of Smith as a pass rusher. I said he would take a few years to develop, and I hope that is still the case because he looked incredibly raw as a pass rusher this year. If you look back at his sacks and pressures, they were often unblocked, and I didn’t see a variety of pass-rush moves. He struggled to counter against good offensive linemen, and I didn’t see any classic ‘bend the edge’ type of rushes you want to see from a 1st round pick.

Anyone who acts like Nolan Smith’s weight is not a concern at all is kidding themselves, in my opinion. He will have reps where he just looks small and light, and powerful offensive linemen will have their way with him. But that doesn’t mean he will be a bad player. Everyone will lose reps. I expect Smith to be an impact player from year one and will contribute a lot in various ways while developing as a pass-rusher.

Despite being quite critical of him sometimes, I did expect Smith to be an impact player in year one and make a few plays. Sadly, I don’t think he got the snaps to contribute, but we did see some successful plays where he showed off his talent and athleticism, especially in run defense.

Smith will be in a great situation because he will likely never get chipped or doubled in his first year or two because of how talented the Eagles are upfront. I prefer him as an EDGE defender in the Eagles’ 5-man fronts and more of a moveable off-ball linebacker in 4-man fronts rather than a strict defensive end (except for obvious pass-rushing situations). I would be so disappointed if the Eagles just lined up Smith as an every-down pass rusher. He should be used in coverage, used on exotic blitzes, used in stunts etc. The Eagles should be creative with him and take advantage of his athletic profile and not expect him to beat really good pass-blocking tackles on a one-on-one basis consistently.

I was disappointed with how Sean Desai used him overall. I don’t think we saw him used on exotic blitzes or stunts enough and they did just ask him to be a pass rusher too often. I said I didn’t think he would be good enough to win one-on-one, and I think that played out throughout the season.

However, there was a big issue with Nolan Smith’s game that I haven’t seen discussed much online. I expected Smith to be a jack-of-all-trades defender who could perform a variety of roles, but he struggled in coverage throughout the season, which limits his ability moving forward. I hope the Eagles work on his ability to drop into coverage this off-season because I don’t think he will be good enough as a pass rusher to win consistently.

I think he needs to be viewed more as a great athlete who can perform a variety of roles rather than a straight-up EDGE pass rusher. But I know many fans will disagree with me here!

There’s no point in lying and saying I’ve never had any concerns, but I think at worst you are getting a twitchy athlete, with a high motor, who appears to be an incredible character addition in the locker room. I just can’t see him busting or not having any value. I am not sure he will be a ‘superstar’ pass rusher (he strikes me as a 5-8 sack guy rather than a 10+) unless he really improves, but he will be useful in so many different ways. He’s a modern-day jack-of-all-trades defender who can do so many things as an off-ball linebacker/EDGE defender and should not just be asked to rush the quarterback every snap. You can do a lot of things schematically with Smith and I’m incredibly interested to see how the Eagles use him over the next few years.

I have not given up on Nolan Smith because his rookie season was what I expected. I never saw the pass rusher that others did. I wish we got to see him more so he could develop. It felt like a wasted season for Nolan Smith in many ways. But I hope he learned some valuable lessons as the season progressed, even if he wasn’t playing much. You can see the talent…

The Future

I am very skeptical of Nolan Smith, as you can tell, but this does not mean that he has no value. This is a very obvious statement, but while you can teach technique, you cannot teach athleticism. Nolan Smith has the kind of athleticism that was worthy of a 1st round pick. If he works hard on his technique as a pass rusher, there is no reason why he can not be a valuable pass rusher moving forward. As I didn’t pre-draft, I still do not see him as a 10+ sack guy, but I expect him to be more valuable than he was this past season.

In addition, there is something none of us can predict, and that is how hard players work off the field. Everything I hear about Nolan Smith is that he is a fantastic guy who wants nothing better than to be great. Many Eagles fans seem to like him a lot because of what he says off the field (so I imagine some of this article will be unpopular!), but the work he puts in off the field will probably determine whether he can hit his ceiling.

Nolan Smith seems like a fantastic guy, and I hope he gets more playing time this year. My gut feeling still tells me that he will never develop into the pass rusher that many fans hope he can become, but I still think he can be extremely valuable as an athletic freak who can rush the quarterback, be a solid run defender, and drop into coverage when asked. I am looking forward to seeing how Vic Fangio views him, and he’s someone I will have a very close eye on moving forward. And of course, it’s always worth remembering that there is always stuff going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about!

If you want even more analysis on the Eagles’ rookies, I have spoken about a few of them on my podcast over at Eagles Pin-Pull Network, which you can find here. Please feel free to listen!

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Title: Eagles Rookie Review: Nolan Smith must provide more value in Year 2
Author: Jonny Page

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