SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Big Year Ahead For Slimmer Smith
In order to step up his game this season, Buccaneers left tackle Donovan Smith had to first get down.
He had to get his weight down.
He had to get down on eating a healthier diet.
Smith had to get his nose down to the grindstone and work like never before as he enters a pivotal third year in the NFL and as Tampa Bay’s blindside protector for franchise quarterback Jameis Winston.
Bucs LT Donovan Smith – Photo courtesy of Penn State
“This year I wanted to focus on getting my body right by trimming down and putting on more muscle,” Smith said. “EXOS training in Arizona did a great job with me. Their regimen is pretty good. I’ve been eating right and working out.”
In fairness, Smith was a bit pudgy coming out of Penn State as a 338-pound junior when the Bucs made him their first of two second-round picks in 2015. After a decent rookie season, Smith made some strides in the physical fitness and stamina department in his second year – but nothing like the gains he’s made this offseason.
Or is “loss” the better term?
“I’m at 325,” a slimmer Smith said told me at One Buccaneer Place after an OTA practice. “Last year I was around 333, but I’ve shed more. A lot of it is transitioning from fat to muscle, too. My body fat is down about five percent.”
Less body fat and more muscle means better movement, and that’s critical for a left tackle that was guilty of lunging and holding four times due to being late off the ball, in addition to being charged with six false start penalties – mostly against speed rushers that really tested Smith’s quickness. In all, Smith was flagged 13 times and was tied for being the NFL’s second-most penalized player in 2016 behind Washington cornerback Josh Norman, who was charged with 14 infractions.
“His body has transformed more into a sleeker look so he can take on the fast pass rushers like Noah Spence,” said Bucs left guard Kevin Pamphile, who suited up next to Smith for the first time last year. “He’s transformed his game a lot now that he’s more confident because he’s in better shape. He can run off the ball a lot easier and open his hips. It’s just building his confidence up to where he can play at a different level during his third year.”
Bucs LT Donovan Smith – Photo courtesy of the Buccaneers
Being in better condition is key to playing in the hot and humid tropical climate of Tampa, Fla. Smith found that out last year in back-to-back home games against Oakland, which went into overtime, and Atlanta, which was played four days later on Thursday night, when he struggled.
“The Oakland game and the Falcons Thursday night game – those back-to-back were probably the games I look back and say, ‘Who was that?’” Smith said.
Smith gave up a quarterback hit and had a holding call against Raiders defensive end Bruce Irvin in a 30-24 overtime loss. Against former Bucs defensive end Adrian Clayborn, Smith surrendered a sack, three quarterback hits and was flagged for holding in a 43-28 loss to the Falcons on Thursday Night Football.
With experience as the greatest teacher, Smith took his lumps but showed progress as the season went on. Now he’s ready to have a breakthrough season in 2017.
“Compared to his rookie season his confidence grew as did his level of play,” Pamphile said. “Whenever I talk to Donovan, there are no more questions. He knows what to do. That’s perfect. I don’t have to tell him anything. It’s such a huge growth from his rookie year to now.”
Bucs offensive line coach George Warhop is firmly in the young offensive tackle’s corner and sees a work in progress – with “progress” being the key word.
“I’m going to say this, if you look at Donovan last year, the first thing he has to improve on is just being consistent,” Warhop said. “I love the guy. I think he’s got strength. He’s got quickness. He’s got athleticism. I think through the early part of last year he just wasn’t consistent. If you watch him in the second half of the season, he played a lot more consistent.
“He is an unbelievable talent. When I say he’s unbelievable I think he literally can be one of the top two or three tackles in the league.”
Bucs LT Donovan Smith – Photo courtesy of the Buccaneers
That’s lofty praise, but Smith has never shied away from wanting to be great. He’s talked about that since the day he stepped foot in One Buccaneer Place. But entering his third year he’s still far from having him name spoken in the same breath as Bucs Ring of Honor inductee Paul Gruber and former Bucs Pro Bowler Donald Penn, a player that Smith admires.
“I like to watch Trent Williams, Tyron Smith and Donald Penn,” Smith said. “Obviously, Williams and Penn are bigger guys in my size range, and I like to watch how they use their body and their sets. Smith is a little more on the lighter side and a little thinner compared to us. Just to be able to watch them and model my games after theirs is a big help to me.”
But the biggest difference between Penn and Tampa Bay’s Smith is the fact that Smith is a much better run blocker. For all of Penn’s girth and size he wasn’t always reliable in the running game and the Bucs used to shy away from running plays to the left when he was the Bucs’ left tackle from 2007-13.
The fact that the Bucs were mostly a right-handed running team when Penn was on the squad in the past made the offense more predictable. Over the last two years with Smith at left tackle, Tampa Bay has run 93 plays behind him and 82 plays off left end, while running 108 plays behind right tackle and 84 plays off right end.
A more balanced running game makes Dirk Koetter’s offense less predictable, and Smith, whose skill set lies between a finesse tackle and a power tackle, relishes the opportunity to attack lighter pass-rushing defensive ends in the run game and pulling to demolish cornerbacks and safeties downfield.
“For sure,” Smith said. “Any good offensive lineman wants the ball run behind them. That should be anybody – whether you are a finesse guy or a power guy. You should want the ball run behind you because you know you can get the job done for the running back to get out in space and do what he has to do. That’s definitely a blessing that we have the balance to be able to run the ball on both sides. It’s great. I love it when they run my way.”
Bucs OL coach George Warhop – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Yet for all of his supporters at One Buccaneer Place, including Warhop, Koetter and general manager Jason Licht, Smith has his detractors in the media and in the Bucs fan base.
Despite several reports by PewterReport.com stating, as early as January, that the Bucs were happy with their existing personnel, including Smith, several media outlets had the Bucs drafting an offensive tackle like Alabama’s Cam Robinson with the No. 19 overall pick in the first round of their mock drafts.
“I didn’t get that,” Warhop laughed. “I saw that, and I was like, ‘Really? They must know something I don’t.”
Left tackles in the NFL are often left on an island to protect the blind side of a quarterback and are under far more scrutiny than any other offensive line position.
“I think he’s handled it quite well,” Pamphile said of the criticism Smith has faced. “He might miss a block and go watch the film – and sometimes technique-wise it doesn’t work out in your favor. I think he’s got the right mindset. He doesn’t dwell on his mistakes. He’s on to the next play and making sure the next play works.”
When I asked Smith about his detractors after practice, he wiped the sweat from his brow, smiled and shrugged off their disapproval and condemnation.
“It is what it is,” Smith said. “I don’t pay attention to it. I come out here and do my job regardless. Obviously, left tackle is a prime position. The focus is on you. You have to come out every day, focus on your job and get better. That’s what I’m doing. I’m understanding everything now and being more consistent and honing in on my technique. I’m just focusing on the bigger picture of football and seeing the whole picture out there on the field rather a myopic view of just what I’m supposed to do. I have a better understanding of everything now, and I think that’s going to show this year.”
While some Bucs fans may sweating the prospects of Smith playing left tackle in red and pewter, a more svelte Smith is out there on the practice fields trimming down and getting better. Although he hears some of the noise from his critics it doesn’t distract or deter him from staying on the road to improvement and perhaps greatness.
Bucs LT Donovan Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“Obviously, I’m still a young guy,” Smith said. “I’m 23, man. I’ve still got plenty years to go. All I can do is go out there and compete, gain experience and my play will speak for itself at the end of the season.
“I’m hungry. We’re very hungry. To get everybody back healthy and start building together, and get out there and compete – it’s fun. That’s the key. It’s going to be fun this year. We’re working right now, but obviously you can’t do much in the OTAs with the offensive line with no pads, but we’re working on our goals for this year and getting the chemistry down. The running game will be improved. Our whole offense will be improved.”
And Smith will be improved, too.
His weight is down and his confidence is up.