The 2016 Buccaneers draft class has taken some lumps. This, we all know. But Tampa Bay hasn’t given up on the crop just yet, and despite Vernon Hargreaves III being placed on injured reserve, there’s still hope this group will make a positive impact on the 2018 defense. His name is Ryan Smith.
Smith, like many members of this class who are still around the team came in with a lot of cold eyes on him. There hasn’t been a lot of patience surrounding his name when viewed on Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever other method you use to converse with other Bucs fans.
Whatever keeps Ryan Smith off the field https://t.co/LLWa5WmZLP— - (@JameisInDaCut) September 7, 2018
Still, he was kept. Not just kept, but activated. While second-round pick Ronald Jones stands on the sidelines inactive, Smith is playing and playing significant snaps.
In his first two years the North Carolina Central University product saw his rookie snap count on defense jump from under 250 to nearly 600 in 2017. Two weeks into 2018, he’s already played over 100 snaps on defense alone.
His playing time has certainly been boosted by the absence of veteran Brent Grimes for the first two games, and also by the aforementioned injury to Hargreaves. Evidenced by the fact his snap count jumped nearly 30 from Week 1 to Week 2.
So, while the team chose to keep him active, it wasn’t necessarily the plan for him to be a featured member of the defense. Rather, most of his participation was expected to be on special teams where he and Josh Robinson formed one of the better gunner duos in the league until Robinson was released this pre-season.
And while Smith hasn’t necessarily earned his increase, it appeared against Philadelphia he was ready for it.
There’s never been any question the 25-year old has athletic talent. He’s fast and has shown flashes of the range the Bucs likely saw when they tried to make him a safety coming out of college.
What was missing was production and the conversion of athleticism into ability. And fans of the team spent much of last season on edge waiting for opposing quarterbacks to target him, fearing he was the weakest link in one of the worst past defenses in the league.
In Week 1, Smith had three tackles on defense and one on special teams. In Week 2, he walked away with seven and two respectfully. Doubling his previous week’s totals.
He had one pass defended in New Orleans. At home against Philly, he broke up three, including one intended for tight end Zach Ertz as the Eagles tried to pull closer with the score at 27-7.
The Eagles did end up scoring on the same drive. However, following the pass breakup by Smith, another two minutes ticked off the clock before they found the end zone. Obviously we’d all prefer they don’t score at all, but we can’t deny how important those two minutes coming off the clock turned out to be.
After two games this season, and with the unexpected increase in workload, Smith is on pace to collect over 100 combined tackles and has three passes defended. His previous career highs are 62 and five, both from last season.
More importantly than the numbers are the values in those numbers. Like the pass defended in the end zone, Smith made some important tackles. The one most fans will remember came against punt returner Nelson Agholor.
His chances of reaching those numbers will depend in large part on the recovery of Grimes. Once he returns, Smith’s snaps will likely drop again, but not quite as low as they once were.
On his Week 2 performance, Smith had this to say,
“I thought I played pretty good. I played very confident. Trusted myself more. And, I just did what coach asked me to do, really. Just went out there and had fun.”
Pretty humble considering he just had the best game of his still young career. This according to his own head coach.
“I thought that was Ryan Smith’s easily best game of his career. I thought he was aggressive all day. Not only that, but he made two really big plays on punt coverage. I’m just so proud of him. Very proud of him because that kid has taken some abuse and for him to hang in there and keep battling.” - Dirk Koetter
I don’t know how many press conferences you watch, but normally if coach Koetter gets emotional, it’s either in a joking manner or in a bit of anger.
This is not the emotion we saw when speaking about Smith. It shows just how much the coaches believe in Smith and how much they’ve invested into him.
To see him come up big when they needed him most this season is a big step in the right direction. However, careers are not made with steps. They’re made with strides.
If Grimes can’t go again for a big Week 3 match-up against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night, not only is Smith going to have another increased role on the defense, he’s going to have all of the lights and sounds of prime-time football to deal with.
Oh, and then there’s Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster to deal with as well.
Here’s hoping the solid start to this season is a sign of better things to come. We have to imagine there will be setbacks. Smith is not a finished product. But if we saw anything out of him on the field in Tampa Bay this weekend, it was justification as to why the team has kept him around.
And people are taking notice.
Thank God for Ryan Smith.— Ken Grant (@dat_BCB) September 16, 2018
Ryan Smith game ball.— Steven Beck (@beingbecks78) September 16, 2018
Ryan Smith goin brazy— - (@JameisInDaCut) September 16, 2018