5 to watch: Trent Cole

PHILADELPHIA -- With training camp a few weeks off, let’s continue our week-long look at the players with the most to prove, and the most to lose, this summer.

Trent Cole is a fascinating case study. A two-time Pro Bowler as a defensive end, Cole had to move to right outside linebacker when the Eagles switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense last year. That meant dropping into coverage at times and sealing the edge on running plays rather than rushing the quarterback as often.

It was a major adjustment. And when the Eagles took outside linebacker Marcus Smith of Louisville in the first round of the draft, you had to wonder if the 31-year-old Cole hadn’t made the adjustment satisfactorily.

But a closer look shows that Cole really played pretty well in his first season in a 3-4. His eight sacks led the team. He was good, if not completely comfortable, when it came to dropping into coverage. He was solid against the run.

Pro Football Focus, which grades players on every play, ranked Cole as its 88th-best player in the NFL last season – one spot above DeSean Jackson and two better than Tom Brady. On its 2014 Eagles depth chart, PFF has Cole as the only every-down defensive player listed as “high quality,” a notch below elite. Slot cornerback Brandon Boykin also earned a “high quality” rating.

So the easy storyline – aging veteran made expendable by first-round pick – doesn’t really apply here. During OTA practices, coaches had Smith playing on the left side, where Connor Barwin is the starter. Head coach Chip Kelly said that was merely the first step in teaching Smith to play both sides of the defense.

At some point, though, Smith will line up in Cole’s spot. And if Smith is able to pressure quarterbacks as well as Cole, at some point, he will indeed make Cole expendable.

That may not be evident this year; certainly not during training camp. Cole still has enough left in the tank to hold Smith off in the short run.

But next year? Cole’s salary will jump from $5 million to $10 million in 2015. That’s when the Eagles are likely to decide Smith is ready to be an every-down player.