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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, 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. The Fate Of Bucs LT Smith

You can remove Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams to Tampa Bay from your mock drafts, Bucs fans. The Bucs won’t need to spend a first-round pick on a left tackle this year – or perhaps anytime soon.

The reason?

Donovan Smith will be returning to Tampa Bay in 2019 – and likely beyond.

In Wednesday’s PR Roundtable, Mark Cook, Trevor Sikkema and I offered our opinions on what we think the Bucs should do with Smith, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent next month. Now it’s time to report some facts.

The Big Takeaway
The Bucs are committed to keeping Smith and will either come to terms on a multi-year contract extension worth $12-$13 million per year, or slap the franchise tag on Smith for one year at $14 million. Either way, Smith will be protecting Jameis Winston’s blindside for a fifth-straight season in Tampa Bay in 2019.

Those outside of Tampa Bay likely have a greater appreciation for Smith than Bucs fans do. For instance, Pro Football Focus and Over The Cap teamed up on an article and listed Smith as one of the Top 10 players poised to break the bank in free agency. Smith’s reliability – playing over 1,000 snaps in all four seasons and starting all 64 games of his career – is huge.

Former Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter wasn’t always right, but he was when he said a player’s greatest ability is availability. Smith is tough and has fought through several injuries to play every Sunday.

Tampa Bay likes Smith’s presence in the run game better than PFF, which gave him a 52.7 run-blocking grade along with a 69.9 pass-blocking grade in 2018. That produced an overall grade of 66.4 mark, which made him an above average offensive tackle on the PFF grading chart. NFL coaches and personnel men will tell you to take these analytics with a grain of salt because the graders at PFF and elsewhere don’t know the play calls and the job responsibilities of the players when watching film.

Bucs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and LT Donovan Smith

Bucs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and LT Donovan Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

When Smith is focused and locked in for a whole game he can be a dominant player. At 6-foot-5, 336 pounds, Smith has size, power, decent balance, good feet and a huge wingspan. As former Bucs offensive line coach George Warhop once said, Smith has the potential to be a Top 5 left tackle in the league, but that the only thing holding Smith back was Smith’s own lack of consistency.

Many of you readers know that I was not a Warhop fan, as I didn’t feel he did a very good job of developing the talent he was given by general manager Jason Licht and the Bucs personnel department. Warhop, who was a holdover from Lovie Smith’s coaching staff due to his past relationship with Koetter, was given six draft picks in Kadeem Edwards and Kevin Pamphile in 2014, Smith and Ali Marpet in 2015, Caleb Benenoch in 2016 and Alex Cappa in 2018 and only Smith and Marpet have been developed into NFL-caliber starters.

And keep in mind that Licht also gave Warhop a handful of free agents over the years in Anthony Collins, Patrick Omameh, J.R. Sweezy, Ryan Jensen and a couple of former Warhop players from Cleveland that he wanted in Garrett Gilkey and Oneil Cousins. None of them really panned out in Tampa Bay, although it’s worth noting that after two years with the Bucs, Sweezy was a Pro Bowl alternate upon his return to Seattle.

The feeling at One Buccaneer Place is that Smith will benefit from new – and better – coaching. The front office believes in his talent. It also believes that new head coach Bruce Arians, run game coordinator Harold Goodwin and offensive line coach Joe Gilbert can push Smith towards greatness with more accountability.

It’s a big gamble, but the Bucs have little choice but to bring Smith back and trust the new staff. How big of a gamble? PFF and Over The Cap believe Smith could fetch a five-year, $60 million contract with $27 million in guaranteed money. That’s an average of $12 million per year – about $1.2 million more per year than Marpet, a Pro Bowl-caliber guard and Tampa Bay’s best offensive lineman, receives.

Bucs GM Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Bucs GM Jason Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Licht and Bucs director of football administration Mike Greenberg, the team’s salary cap wizard, could use the franchise tag on Smith in 2019 to essentially give him another contract year situation, which should heighten his level of play. Although Smith was in a contract year last season and under-performed, allowing a career-high 6.5 sacks, so there is no guarantee that will happen. Due to the leverage Smith has, he’s going to get paid a whole lot of money whether he takes his game to the next level because he’s already a good left tackle and there is a lack of supply combined with a great demand for good left tackles in the NFL.

Using the franchise tag would pay Smith roughly $14 million per year, and doing so would set his value at that price when it comes to negotiating a long-term contract extension for 2020. The difference between $12 million for five years and $14 million for five years would be $8 million over the life of Smith’s contract, and for Tampa Bay, whose salary cap situation is growing tighter by the year, every dollar saved matters going forward.

The Bucs are essentially forced to keep the 25-year old Smith because there is no other viable option on the roster to replace him, and the only other starting-caliber left tackle in free agency is New England’s Trent Brown. The Patriots will do everything they can to keep him. Considering he is coming off a Super Bowl championship, Brown will likely want to stay in New England, too.

The 2019 NFL Draft lacks quality and quantity at left tackle, too. Williams is the headliner at left tackle, but some NFL teams believe he’s better suited inside at guard because of his lack of ideal size at 6-foot-5, 302 pounds. Other left tackle options include West Virginia’s Yodney Cajuste, Washington State’s Andre Dillard and USC’s Chuma Udoga – but none of them are expected to be first-rounders.

The FABulous Ending
Smith is not a bad player, nor is he a bad person. He’s an above average tackle with room to grow, he’s well-liked by the players, and he’s a good teammate. The frustration fans feel towards Smith comes from him not living up to his vast potential. Long-time fans remember the stellar play of Bucs Ring of Honor left tackle Paul Gruber, and that of Super Bowl champion Roman Oben and Pro Bowler Donald Penn shortly thereafter. Smith has the potential to be that caliber of player, but hasn’t yet, which is frustrating.

Bucs center Ryan Jensen, left tackle Donovan Smith and QB Jameis Winston - Photo by: Mary Holt/PR

Bucs center Ryan Jensen, left tackle Donovan Smith and QB Jameis Winston – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR

Part of the frustration about Smith has to do with quarterback Jameis Winston, who like Smith, hasn’t lived up to his full potential, either. Winston can sling it for 300 yards and three touchdowns every Sunday, but hasn’t shown the knack for consistently reducing his turnovers – and more importantly – winning enough games. When Smith has had an occasional lapse in concentration it’s proved costly for Winston, who had costly fumbles last year when Smith was beaten and sacked by Cleveland’s Myles Garrett and Dallas’ Randy Gregory.

Winston, the Bucs’ first-round draft pick in 2015 and the first overall pick that year, is entering his fifth-year option season. Arians, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and the new coaching staff will need to determine this year whether Winston can be the franchise quarterback Tampa Bay hopes he can become. To do that, Winston will need to have his blindside protected, and Smith is a way better option to do that in Winston’s critical contract year than any rookie.

The Bucs will cross their fingers, hope Smith matures and responds to better coaching and sign him to long-term contract extension before the start of free agency in March. If the two sides can’t agree on Smith’s value, Tampa Bay is prepared to use the franchise tag on him – whether you like it or not.