With the Eagles' cornerback competition still wide open, C.J. Smith is quietly emerging as a potential starter in 2017.
Smith has been rotating in with the first-team defense throughout training camp, and given the current state of the Eagles' corners, it seems he has just as good a shot to start as anybody. Which is not to say Smith is in the running simply by default. The 24-year-old is also showing significant progress in his second NFL season.
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"It has slowed down for him a little bit compared to last year at this time," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Sunday. "Last year at this time, his head was swimming. He was coming from North Dakota State and everything was new to him.
"Now he's been able to work more on technique. He's been able to win matchups and things like that. He's an improved player from Year 1 to Year 2, and I think that's the sign that he's on the right track."
There doesn't appear to be any real drop-off when Smith takes the field with the ones. Granted, that might not be saying a whole lot with this group, but he hasn't been outperformed by the competition - veteran journeyman Patrick Robinson or third-round draft pick Rasul Douglas.
Smith has come a long way since he joined the Eagles as an undrafted free agent after the 2016 draft.
"My confidence is way better than last season," Smith said Thursday. "It's like night and day compared to last season.
"Last year, I'm a free agent trying to get to know the guys, get to know the coaches. This year, I understand the plays really well, I know a lot of the guys, I understand the terminology, I know how to communicate with the coaches - so that makes it easier for me to just go out and play."
While he hasn't seized the job yet, there's no question the Eagles are high on Smith. After all, this is not the first time the club is getting a look at him as a potential starter.
The Eagles surprised everybody last August by giving Smith the start in the team's second preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts. He fared roughly how you would expect of an undrafted rookie covering the likes of Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, but mostly held his own.
The audition didn't materialize into a job, as Smith failed to make the 53-man roster out of training camp and subsequently joined the practice squad. However, it turned out to be a positive learning experience now that he's back in the mix.
"Don't be scared," Smith said of the opportunity. "When I was out there, I was nervous to play, so just don't be nervous. Just play ball.
"When I was out there, I don't think I was just playing ball. I was able to keep up with those guys, but I was nervous. If my confidence was like how it is now, then I think I would've made a lot of more plays."
A big part of Smith's progression is natural as he gets more NFL experience under his belt.
"All players are inconsistent, particularly young players, but he's been very assignment sound," Schwartz said. "When you can do that, then you can start working on the other things."
Smith was added to the 53 last October and wound up appearing in 10 games for the Eagles, largely on special teams. Still, it was important he prove to himself he can contribute in the NFL.
Confidence is no longer an issue. Now, Smith and the Eagles are harping on fixing the inconsistencies in his game, but Schwartz said the club is "encouraged" by with the work he's put in.
"He has made some plays so far, and we need corners that can make plays," Schwartz said. "But I think all the guys have made plays. It's just they need to be consistent.
"From that whole group, C.J. included, we need consistency. We're very encouraged by him."
If thrust into the starting role again, Smith swears he's ready this time around, and the fact of the matter is the Eagles may need him.
Robinson has struggled to keep up with receivers in training camp, and the game has not slowed down for Douglas yet (see story). Meanwhile, there aren't many other options remaining on the roster in a position like Smith, who could swoop in and seize that vacancy.