Philadelphia Eagles: A tale of two first-rounders

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 11: Nelson Agholor /

The divergent paths Nelson Agholor and Marcus Smith took this offseason portend their short-term fates as Philadelphia Eagles, and their long-term fortunes as NFL players.

What does it take to succeed in the NFL?

Obviously, skill is a major factor. But the guys who suit up on Sundays are all undoubtedly talented, though not all to the same degree.

Health is also an important ingredient. “The best ability is availability,” is one of those pennies of wisdom plucked from the depths of the NFL’s fountain of conventional wisdom; nonetheless, the prevalence of the thought betrays the truth behind it.

Fortune plays a role, of course. If a drafted player finds himself in a stable franchise with an established system and a competent coaching staff, that environment can only increase his odds of enjoying a fruitful career.

Ultimately, however, resilience emerges as the most significant variable in a league in which the line between the fifty-third spot on a roster and unemployment is quite thin.

In a 2007 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year profile, Brett Favre articulated the way in which perseverance drove his career. When asked to identify his favorite football memory, Favre asserted:

"The funny thing is, it’s not only about the touchdowns and the big victories. If I were to make a list, I would include the interceptions, the sacks, the really painful losses. Those times when I’ve been down, when I’ve been kicked around, I hold on to those. In a way those are the best times I’ve ever had, because that’s when I’ve found out who I am. And what I want to be."

Favre did not wallow in the valleys of his career. Instead, he used the memories of his shortcomings as the rocket fuel he needed to vault to the top of the NFL mountain. It was through failure that Favre learned what it took to be a pro.

Which brings us to Nelson Agholor and Marcus Smith, two erstwhile Philadelphia Eagles first-round picks whose professional careers remain stuck in the proverbial nest.

Smith, the Eagles’ top selection in the 2014 draft, has yet to establish himself as a regular presence on the defensive side of the ball. Smith’s development has suffered from a combination of front office-coaching staff disconnect during the draft process, coaching upheaval, and a general lack of vision as to how best exploit the talents that the hybrid linebacker-defensive end brings to the field.

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Agholor has endured his own struggles during his time with the Eagles. Last season, it seemed as if the lofty expectations heaped on him and the considerable investment made in him in 2015 were too burdensome to bear. He was the Philadelphia Eagles’ Atlas.

To say Agholor’s 2016 got off to an inauspicious start would be an understatement. In June, an exotic dancer accused Agholor of rape during an afternoon visit to Cheerleaders Gentlemen’s Club. The Philadelphia D.A.’s office declined to press charges, citing a lack of sufficient evidence, and the NFL Commissioner’s Office did not implement punishment despite its incredibly broad powers under the league’s personal conduct policy. Nevertheless, the incident seemed to take a toll on Agholor’s psyche.

Like his fellow receivers on the team, Agholor could not seem to catch the football. At one point, he even snapped at a reporter who broached the subject of the team’s issues with drops.

He struggled with other fundamentals. Few Eagles fans will forget the game last season against the Seattle Seahawks, in which Agholor’s failure to line up properly wiped out a 57-yard touchdown pass from Carson Wentz to Zach Ertz.

After the Seahawks game, a contrite Agholor admitted he was struggling to cope with the pressure. According to’s Eliot Shorr-Parks, Agholor confessed:

"I’m trying so hard to think about being perfect, and when miscues are there, they were exposed — and I let it just eat at me,” Agholor said. “I need to continue to work better at letting things go and just playing hard."

To his credit, Agholor continued to battle. One particular highlight from late in the year shines in the gloom of the wideout’s lost season. In a nationally televised night game against the

Philadelphia Eagles
LOS ANGELES, CA – OCTOBER 04: Wide receiver Nelson Agholor /

Giants, Agholor broke free and scored on a 40 yard touchdown pass from Wentz. It was one of the few times during his professional career that Agholor looked like the player the Philadelphia Eagles had drafted from USC. It was a fleeting moment, but an important one for the reconstruction of the wideout’s confidence.

Entering the 2017 season, it seems fair to say that the careers of both Agholor and Smith stand at a critical juncture. An underwhelming training camp from either player will likely land them a pink slip.

The Eagles’ personnel moves in the offseason suggest that both players are expendable. The franchise made a significant financial investment in the wide receiver position, inking both Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to contracts. Despite offseason trade rumors, Jordan Matthews also returns to the organization.

As for Smith, the Eagles made defensive end Derek Barnett their first round pick in the 2017 draft. PhillyVoice‘s Jimmy Kempski does not project Smith to crack the 10-man defensive line unit that he believes the team will set aside for its regular season roster.

Smith and Agholor have taken different approaches to these existential threats to their Eagles’ tenures. Smith seems resigned to his fate. He skipped Organized Team Activities (OTA’s), seemingly paving the way for his exit. Meanwhile, Nelson Agholor has reportedly been enjoying a productive offseason. Shorr-Parks labeled Agholor the Eagles’ best receiver during OTA’s and minicamp.

Perhaps it is too facile to claim that Smith has shrunk from the challenge while Agholor has risen to it. The NFL is a business, after all, and not the meritocracy it pretends to be. Smith and his agent likely realize that even an exemplary performance during training camp will likely not be enough to earn a roster spot. Too much money is committed to Vinny Curry; Brandon Graham established

himself as a stellar pass rusher last year; Chris Long has a longer track record of production; Barnett is the future; and Smith is increasingly looking like the past.

Smith’s time in Philadelphia is nearing its end. He had every right in the offseason to agitate for a release or a trade. There may well be a team elsewhere in the NFL that can better cultivate his abilities as a pass rusher, even though it seems like Smith will perenially be a player who is “two years away from being two years away,” to borrow a quote from ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla.

And yet, one cannot deny the refreshing attitude Agholor has taken during the offseason. He has worked to hone his talents and has competed for his spot on the roster. There has to be some value in taking such an approach, even if the deck is stacked against you.

Next: Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp: What to Watch on Defense

After the 2016 season, Agholor knew who he was, and he knew who he wanted to be. Marcus Smith, on the other hand, seems destined to remain adrift.