Bucs avoid franchise tag, sign Donovan Smith to three-year, $41.25-million deal

The Bucs LT received $27-million guaranteed over the next two years.
Donovan Smith (76) lines up against Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory, right, during a game in December in Arlington, Texas. [AP Photo/Roger Steinman]
Donovan Smith (76) lines up against Dallas Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory, right, during a game in December in Arlington, Texas. [AP Photo/Roger Steinman]
Published March 5, 2019|Updated March 5, 2019

TAMPA — This is a walk the talk year — or else — for Jameis Winston. The Bucs weren’t going to play without the man who has protected the back side of their franchise quarterback in every game for the past four seasons.

As much as anything, that’s why left tackle Donovan Smith signed a three-year, $41.25-million contract Tuesday.

How do you get a fair evaluation of Winston under Bruce Arians if he is running for his life behind a rookie left tackle?

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No matter what you think of Smith – and apparently there are a lot of fans who think he is somewhere between average to saloon door – he’s the Bucs best option under the circumstances.

Players that have not missed a start in the first four years of the career for the Bucs can be counted on two fingers: Smith and Paul Gruber, who is in the team’s Ring of Honor.

So in many ways, durability is his best ability.

“Donovan has been a valuable player and a model of durability since we drafted him four years ago,” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said. “We always aim to develop our players and reward them for their productivity and reliability, so keeping Donovan as a Buccaneer was a major priority for us this offseason. Donovan’s presence ensures continuity at one of our most crucial positions on the offensive line, and I know our coaching staff is eager to begin working with him.”

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Ask any coach and they will tell you the hardest thing to develop in the NFL is an offensive lineman. For starters, in the spread option world of college football, they are never in a three-point stance. Most of the time, they don’t even huddle.

What’s worse is that the collective bargaining agreement that prohibits contact in the off-season prevents young players from doing anything that resembles blocking until they can put on the pads in training camp.

The best offensive lineman in the draft is arguably Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams. But the consensus is that Williams will be moved to guard in the NFL and should go somewhere between picks 10 and 15.

Had Smith made it to free agency March 13, he would’ve been the top player at his position available.

Smith was part of Winston’s draft class along with guard Ali Marpet, who signed a 5-year, $51.25-million extension in Oct. So the left side of the offensive line with center Ryan Jensen is set at least for the next two seasons.

From an economic standpoint, it also made sense.

Smith’s deal includes $27-million guaranteed over the first two years of the contract. Look at it this way: as a franchise player, Smith would’ve received $14.1-million. So the Bucs get him in 2020 at a value of $12.9-million. If he plays a third year, it will be for $14.25-million.

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Had the Bucs slapped the franchise tag on Smith and tried to do it again, it would’ve cost $17-million in 2020.

Former Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, who was the 17th overall pick in 2011, never made a Pro Bowl but signed a four-year, $62-million contract with the New York Giants last year, including $34-million guaranteed.

Solder is 30. Giants quarterback Eli Manning was sacked a career-high 47 times last season. Solder allowed eight of them and had two holding penalties. Smith is coming off his worst year having allowed 5.5 in about 1,000 snaps but is only 25-years old.

The Bucs really didn’t have much of an option here. It won’t be stated directly, but in so many words, they believe Smith can get better under this coaching staff than he did playing for offensive line coach George Warhop all four seasons.

Remember, the Bucs allowed 29 points per game last year. Their biggest needs are on defense and using a high pick on an offensive lineman in a defensively top-heavy draft may not be the best way to go.

Frankly, it’s surprising how underappreciated Smith is by everyone except his teammates and coaching staff. Those who use Pro Football Focus as their bible hate him. But it’s fair to point out that the Bucs don’t dink and dunk their way downfield but believe in a vertical passing game that requires Winston to hold onto the football longer.

You don’t find many 6-foot-6, 338-pound men with great agility and feet that can block the best athlete on the field each Sunday.

Smith has obviously played through injury. In fact, most thought he would miss some time after spraining his knee three weeks before the season opener last year. Not Smith.

Perhaps the best testament to Smith’s performance is the fact that Winston has been relatively healthy in his career. He missed only three games due to injury and played hurt in three others in 2017 after spraining his right throwing shoulder on a sack by the Cardinals’ Chandler Jones.

That wasn’t Smith’s fault, really. Winston held onto the football too long and was nearly out of bounds when he was whacked by Jones as he threw it.

There’s no way to sugarcoat the Bucs lousy salary cap situation. After Smith’s signing, the Bucs had about $2.06-million under the salary cap. They will pick up $11-milion when the cap increases to $188.2-million March 13.

Some players will have to be released from here on out if they re-sign free agents like Kwon Alexander or Adam Humphries.

Re-signing Smith had to be their priority. Without him, the quarterback, and the whole season, may have collapsed.