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Can the Bucs’ Donovan Smith block out the pressure?

Protecting the blindside of new quarterback Tom Brady might be the most important job for the left tackle.
 
Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive tackle Donovan Smith (76) runs during training camp at the AdventHealth Training Center on July 30, 2019 in Tampa.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive tackle Donovan Smith (76) runs during training camp at the AdventHealth Training Center on July 30, 2019 in Tampa. [ Times (2019) ]
Published May 6, 2020|Updated May 7, 2020

TAMPA — You could say Donovan Smith’s job hasn’t changed. Also, nothing may ever be the same.

The margin for error for the Bucs left tackle is significantly lower with the signing of Tom Brady. And the cost of one fall foul-up? It could not only end Brady’s season, but possibly the greatest career of any NFL quarterback.

“You’re there to do a job, and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, regardless who they put back there," Smith said on a video call with reporters Wednesday.

But when the six-time Super Bowl winner is back there, when Smith is the one protecting his blindside from a charging pass rusher, the season’s fate could hinge on a single mistake. Smith knows it, too.

“With the GOAT being back there, obviously the level of play is heightened, and he brings out the best in everybody," Smith said. “So we look forward to it as an O-line.

“For me, I was super excited to hear when we signed Brady (in free agency in March) … and basically me and my guys are going to have an opportunity to block for the greatest quarterback of all time in NFL history."

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Smith, 26, is entering his sixth season, and yet, his greatest ability might be his durability. He made 77 consecutive starts at left tackle before missing the game at Detroit in Week 16 last year with knee and ankle injuries. He was back the next week for the season finale against Atlanta.

Smith allowed five sacks (26th in the league) in 1,055 snaps last season and had nine penalties. Outsiders, such as the folks at statistics website Pro Football Focus, are quick to point out that they have rated Smith near the bottom third of the league’s offensive tackles for five straight seasons.

But inside the Bucs locker room and front office, Smith is a reliable and sometimes dominant tackle who earned a three-year, $41.25 million contract before the start of the 2019 season.

None of that money is guaranteed for 2021. And though 2020 first-round draft pick Tristan Wirfs is expected to start at right tackle this year, he has the ability to move to left tackle and stay there for a decade.

But the Bucs are not actively looking to replace Smith, not when they signed Brady to a two-year, $50 million contract.

One thing to consider when evaluating Smith: Left tackles, especially ones you can count on to be in the lineup each game and do a credible job against the best athletes on the field, don’t grow on trees.

Smith was a second-round pick of the Bucs out of Penn State in 2015, the same draft class as quarterback Jameis Winston. The two have always been close. But Winston never made Smith’s job easy.

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Though Winston had the ability to avoid the rush and extend plays, it also made him tend to hold onto the ball too long. There’s nothing more deflating for an offensive lineman, much less a left tackle, than to hold off a pass rusher for nearly four seconds, only to discover your quarterback still has the ball.

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That won’t be the case with Brady, who typically has always had one of the quickest releases in the league. Last season was the outlier. Brady’s average release time of 2.58 seconds was the slowest of his 20-year career, likely caused by the Patriots receivers’ inability to get separation.

“Oh, yeah, any time a quarterback gets the ball out quickly, it helps our offensive line," Smith said. “That’s hands down."

The Bucs’ offensive line returns nearly intact from last season, with the exception of Wirfs taking over for 11-year right tackle Demar Dotson, who was not re-signed as a free agent.

It’s a solid group, but the lack of a consistent running game and Winston’s penchant for putting his team in a hole with 112 points off turnovers last season have prevented the group from excelling.

Brady hasn’t played with a lot of Pro Bowl left tackles. Matt Light reached three Pro Bowls when he blocked for him for 11 seasons in New England. Nate Solder was solid at left tackle from 2012-17 with the Patriots but was never selected to the Pro Bowl.

Smith is counting on Brady to have a big impact on the entire team.

“You got to embrace it because obviously he knows the winning ways," Smith said. “He knows how to finish coming out on top. … With him coming in there and bringing that mind-set and information for us as a young team and everything, the sky is the limit for us because we’ve got a lot of guys who I know are hungry and ready to go out there and compete and play fast and have fun and enjoy what they do and show out."

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Smith’s value to the Bucs goes way beyond X’s and O’s. He’s the guy who is serious when he has to be but keeps things loose when they need to be as the locker room DJ.

His love of music got him in a tiff with some neighbors recently when they complained about the volume of his speakers during a workout outside his home.

“I think I’ve got a nice play list for my neighbors," Smith said. “I haven’t heard anything from them recently."

This has been a difficult offseason for all the Bucs players, who have had to spackle together training equipment while the league practices social distancing. Typically, players would be in their team facility for the offseason workout program.

Smith was fortunate. Before the coronavirus pandemic limited things, Bucs trainer Anthony Piroli got him in touch with the right suppliers to outfit his new home with training equipment.

“Funny thing is, I just purchased a new house, so I was talking to (Piroli) back when all this stuff was going on about helping me design something to put together for myself prior to all this," he said. “We were able to come up with some things that I needed, and he showed me all the websites that I was able to go to and purchase stuff. So I kind of just got my whole rack and weights and bands and parachutes and sleds and power blocks and all this other stuff."

Smith said that whenever the NFL pushes the go button, he will be ready. Schedules will be released Thursday night, and it’s possible the league might be forced to delay the start of the season or reduce it from 16 to 14 or 12 games.

Smith said he will need only a couple of months to be ready to play. “But a lot of us, we know how to maintain and stay in shape with what we’re doing," he said. “I guess the hardest part would be finding the facilities or space to run and do things. But … it’s our job, and we’ve got to make the best of it."

Smith’s job, protecting the quarterback’s blindside, has always been one of the most important ones on the field. Protecting Brady, it’s one of the most important in the league.

“To be able to have (Brady) in the locker room, to share that wisdom with the players and young guys and everything, to take our game to the next level, it’s a blessing," he said.