Concerned by what you've seen from the St. Louis Rams first round draft pick OT Jason Smith? Of course you are. First round picks may get juicy contracts and Scrooge McDuck-like swimming pools filled with cash money, but they have a pretty big burden cast upon their shoulders, well-compensated Atlases carrying a team on their shoulders. That's definitely part of what has made Smith's struggles hard to watch, especially for long suffering Rams fans. So, what's the issue? Can he improve?
3k and I covered this last night on TSR (see what you're missing), delving into the differences between drive blocking for the run, the two-point versus three-point stance, and the transition to the size and speed of the NFL. Doug Farrar at Football Outsiders delves further into Smith's preseason in a column today at FO. He covers some of the same ground we've been talked about last night and over the last week or so here at TST, and examines a couple of plays from last week's game where Smith's pad level gets him into trouble with defenders.
The good thing about technique is that it can be learned. Smith has the talent combined with what seems like a very serious determination to succeed, and that should translate into the former Baylor offensive lineman learning how to play in the NFL. Remember, it's not as though he just doesn't have what it takes to block at this level (though I tend to agree that he needs to add some weight), he just needs to learn how to block at this level.
There's another issue Farrar points out that hasn't been discussed as much, and that's Smith learning to recognize his who to block. Farrar points out several examples, some of which proved to be costly for a Rams team trying to get back the points they spotted the Falcons on Atlanta's first drive. To wit:
On third-and-9 from the 29, he pinched inside again to help Richie Incognito, letting linebacker Mike Peterson come through unobstructed. The pressure from Peterson forced a quick throw from Boller to fullback Samkon Gado. Pass incomplete, drive over.
A similar mis-read where Smith went to the middle contributed to the evening's poor display of run blocking.
On second-and-10, Gado headed up the middle for no gain, and Smith fell on his face as he tried to cut fellow rookie Peria Jerry inside. Jerry had moved on to his right to help stop the play, and linebacker Curtis Lofton filled the hole that Smith left open.
The silver lining here is that this is something that can be corrected with a little work, some time in the video room, and more experience. The other big takeaway from the FO piece is the praise heaped on Smith's pass blocking. I'll let you click over there and read the specifics, but suffice it to say that Smith's presence on the line gives the Rams some really nice pass blocking, a big part of the reason why Kyle Boller had enough time in the pocket to see his receivers and misfire anyway (maybe he was thinking about his special lady Carrie Prejean).
The question for the Rams and Smith is how much progress can the first rounder make in the two weeks and change before the season starts. Will it be enough to start him in week one? If he does start, that changes some of the expectations we've been fed about the Rams offense. With Smith in there and the receivers looking good, the Rams can do some damage with the passing game, using that to set up Steven Jackson and the run, rather than the vice versa expectation. That would mean lots of shotgun formations, and Jackson could rack up some yardage on draw plays. It still seems pretty unlikely.
With a starting job, Smith would undoubtedly learn the ropes. For a team not expected to content that may be fine. Of course, this is also a team that can't afford to lose some of it's highest paid players in QB Marc Bulger or RB Steven Jackson, risks that increase with Smith starting on the right side this year...if he doesn't get his game up to speed in time.
Overall, I'm not worried about Smith's long term future. His pass blocking and the cost of keeping Barron next season, indicates to me that Smith could be playing on the blind side come 2010 with a cheaper RT brought in from another source or even promoting Adam Goldberg. For now, we'll have to wait and see where and when we'll see Smith this season.