The Tampa Bay Buccaneers love left tackle Donovan Smith. They didn’t sign or draft anyone to remotely challenge the third-year player, and just a few days ago their offensive line coach told reporters that he believes Smith could be a top-three left tackle.
Bucs OL coach George Warhop says he believes LT Donovan Smith can become one of the two or three best in the NFL.— Rick Stroud (@NFLSTROUD) May 18, 2017
And yet, people are very skeptical of Smith. Pro Football Focus has not liked him one bit in his two years in charge, third-party analysts tend not to be overly impressed either, and tackle was a popular mock draft choice for the Bucs because people don’t like Smith.
Warhop’s optimism is a bit much, but Smith does show the ability to dominate defensive ends, especially in the running game. When he’s on, Smith can look very good—he often reminds me of Donald Penn, who’s now in his ninth consecutive season of not missing an NFL start.
At the same time, Smith is also highly inconsistent both game-to-game and play-to-play. And while he did improve in the second half of this season, that inconsistency is a reason to be skeptical of him as a starting left tackle. Every tackle (except for Hall of Famers) is going to give up some plays in every game, but there’s a limit to how many of those anyone can stomach.
Part of the problem is that with any blocking scheme, a single blown block can be a disaster. If you have a tackle who’s okay every play but never dominant, then at least that won’t lead to disasters and you can get steady production.
If your tackle alternates blown blocks with dominant plays, then the dominant plays can get washed out by poor play along the rest of the line, while the blown blocks can negate quality play elsewhere. It’s hard to build a consistent offense on inconsistency, basically.
None of that means that Smith needs to be replaced. Certainly he’s earned a third year as a starter, and will get more than enough chances to earn a fourth as the Bucs have been very reluctant to replace starters on the offensive line. And if he can steadily decrease his inconsistency, he should turn into a fine left tackle.
But there’s also a possibility he doesn’t, that this alternation of dominance and blown blocks are exactly what we’re going to see the rest of his career. And in that case, the Bucs will need to replace him eventually. Not this year, though. Not now.