Marcus Smith makes case for class of 2014

PHILADELPHIA -- Last year, it felt as if the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t really have a draft class. This year, it seems like they have two.

The 2014 class featured wide receiver Jordan Matthews and that was about it. First-round pick Marcus Smith played a total of 68 plays on defense during his rookie season. Third-round selection Josh Huff had a few highlights but was not much of a factor. Jaylen Watkins, Ed Reynolds and Taylor Hart barely saw the field.

Seventh-round pick Beau Allen, a nose tackle from Wisconsin, was the only rookie besides Matthews to play regularly.

In the preseason opener Sunday, 2015 first-round pick Nelson Agholor scored a touchdown on his first catch in an Eagles uniform. Second-round pick Eric Rowe caused a fumble and third-round linebacker Jordan Hicks got plenty of playing time. Brian Mihalik, the seventh-round pick, sacked Colts quarterback Bryan Bennett.

The 2015 class looked very good compared to the 2014 class. But the surprise was that the 2014 class looked much better than it did last season.

Smith played about as many snaps Sunday as he did in his entire rookie season. Matthews had a big catch on the Eagles’ second touchdown drive of the game. Watkins played a fair amount. Reynolds had two interceptions.

Huff played, although he didn’t have any receptions. Hart played. So did Allen.

“The one thing you don't know about any of those guys is what are they going to be like until you get them into a game and that's the encouraging thing,” coach Chip Kelly said. “Sometimes the guys stand out in practice and all of a sudden, you get in the game and they are not the same player. And then other guys that were not so good standing out in practice, stand out in the game.”

Smith really didn’t stand out at all last season. He seemed overwhelmed by the jump from college to the NFL. This year, he looks like he belongs.

“I’m bigger and stronger,” Smith said after the game. “Playing against tight ends, playing against tackles -- I think I can go up against anybody. I don’t let anything get me down. If something bad happens, I keep my head held up high.”

“He's a year older,” Kelly said. “I think it's not all new for him. I think he's been there, done that. This isn't his first preseason game and this isn’t his first training camp. I just think there's kind of a calming sense around him. He's got a better grasp of what we are trying to do and he's really showed up in our training sessions and he showed up today. We are encouraged with his growth.”

Smith has a chance to play the role Brandon Graham played on defense and special teams last season. Graham moved into the starting lineup to replace Trent Cole. Travis Long, a candidate to be the backup outside linebacker, tore his ACL. Smith looked like a player who is ready to make his move.

That would go a long way toward elevating the 2014 draft class. If Matthews and Huff become major contributors on offense, and if Allen and Hart can play along the front line, and if Reynolds can win the third safety spot, the 2014 class will look just fine.