The Colts tackle situation has not been pretty this season. The presumed starter at right tackle Denzelle Good has struggled with injuries and hasn’t really impressed in his limited playing time either. Anthony Castonzo— the starter at left tackle for years— has yet to play in a regular season game to this point. Joe Haeg filled in very well at both tackle spots due to these injuries but was recently placed on IR with an ankle injury. La’Raven Clark has been filling in at left tackle in Castonzo’s absence and has been less than stellar.
So in short, the tackle situation — at least in terms of the revolving door it’s become — has been a mess. Heading into the matchup this past Thursday with the Patriots, the Colts were forced to turn to rookie guard Braden Smith to start at right tackle. Smith had very little experience at tackle in his career before this start. He had quite a few reps in the preseason at that spot but besides that he only logged a couple games at tackle in college.
So how did Smith— again let me remind you, he was a guard prospect coming into the pros— do at right tackle this past Thursday? Let’s look at the coaches film of his pass blocking and find out.
Smith really impressed me in his first NFL start, especially in pass blocking. The hardest thing when making the shift from guard to tackle is not really run blocking, but how to engage defenders and how to control your footwork in pass blocking. It’s an entirely different position in pass blocking from a guard. Smith had a few hiccups which we will go over later but he showed a bunch of promising signs.
His ability to use his natural strength to his advantage was evident from the first play. His ability to anchor against bull rushes with a solid base as well is what really caught my eye. His agility in matching speed rushers was also much better than expected. But lets look at the film here so you all can make your own assessment.
In our first clip here, Smith is tasked with blocking veteran pass rusher Kyle Van Noy. Now Van Noy is a pretty unspectacular pass rusher but he profiles as a speed rusher who would give a player like Smith trouble. Smith is able to get in front of Van Noy with a quick kick slide and control Van Noy with strong hands at the point of attack. He then shuts off any rush or counters that Van Noy can attempt to do by keeping his hands inside and keeping a good square base. Overall very solid, controlled rep by Smith.
In our next clip, Smith is again matched up with Van Noy. Van Noy was unsuccessful in our last clip trying to speed rush Smith so here he attempts to bull rush the rookie. Most rookies struggle with rushes like these becasue they don’t establish a solid base to react to the rush. Smith is able to keep his his base wide so when the bull rush hits him, he is able to anchor well and push Van Noy back and out of the pocket. It does help though that Smith is one of the strongest lineman in football so regardless I don’t think Van Noy was going to have a chance attempting to bull rush him.
Next, Smith is up against a better player in Malcom Brown. It is a pretty poor rush as Brown obviously has no plan of attack on this rep but Smith is able to stay disciplined and square to Brown while Brown is attempting to manuever around Smith. This rep is important because a lot of young lineman are very sporadic with their movements and tend to overset or over commit to what their defender is doing. Here Smith is very calm and poised as he keeps his hands on Brown at all times and keeps him right in front. This was a very veteran-type rep from the second round rookie.
Here, the Patriots attempt to pull off a stunt on Smith. Defensive tackle Adam Butler twists with Adrian Clayborn attempting to confuse Smith. This does not work as Smith is able to get inside position on Butler and just stonewalls him at the point of attack. Now I do think this stunt surprised Smith, but he is able to recover well and just eliminate Butler from the play. His natural strength to not even be phased by Butler bull rushing into him is pretty impressive. Butler never had a chance once he stopped his feet.
This next rep comes against the Patriots top pass rusher in Trey Flowers. You can see from the beginning of the rep how much better Flowers is than Van Noy at rushing the passer. Flowers attempts to bull rush Smith in order to set up either a rip or an under move. Smith is able to stay square and balanced to Flowers and is able to not give up too much ground on the initial bull rush. Notice how well Smith is able to anchor against this bull rush too as he regains position after only a few steps back. As Flowers attempts to go for a rip or an under move, Smith fights for inside position on his pads with his hands. By continually fighting with his hands to get inside position on Flowers, Smith is able to effectively keep Flowers at bay until Luck can roll out and release the ball. Very good rep against a very good pass rusher here.
This next rep is rather quick, but again just watch how well Smith stays square to his defender and punches at the point of the attack. He does a great job of getting his left hand up first— its really hard to see unless you zoom in— and controlling the play. By getting that left hand up and initiating that contact without lunging forward, he is effectively controlling the rusher at all times. Even if the rusher can shed the block, Smith has already established inside position on him so Smith can at least have the opportunity to recover.
This may be one of the worst pass rushes I’ve seen from Van Noy here but I do want to highlight something about this play that is positive for Smith. While Van Noy is jumping back and forth and juking around without any plan of attack, Smith has the agility to mirror and match his movements very well. He isn’t over committing or getting grabby, he’s matching his movements and staying square to the defender. Just an excellent rep to be patient and match Van Noy’s movements rather than lunging at him and getting out of position.
Last clip here in the positives (yes I know its a lot) is against Trey Flowers yet again. Flowers attempts to bull rush Smith and Smith again just stonewalls it. He initially looks to be caught off guard by the bull rush but again his natural strength and ability to anchor show as he is able to reestablish position and stop the rush. Being able to shut down good pass rushers like Flowers is going to be key for Smith if he continues to start at right tackles, especially in the AFC South.
Surprisingly, I didn’t notice too many glaring negatives from Smith in this out-of-position start. I will say that he does struggle with things that you would completely expect from a player who is playing out of position. His kick slide could use a little bit of work as it is a bit stiff and will hurt him against true speed rushers. His awareness at times is lacking simply because he lacks a natural feel for the position still. He also still does get a little bit grabby at times but that issue seems to be much improved from the preseason.
In this first rep, Smith is actually lined up at left tackle (on the far right of the screen). This is one rep where his slower and stiffer kick slide will cause some issues. He is lined up against John Simon who is actually a good speed rusher and he takes advantage here. Smith is a bit slow out of his stance and Simon is able to take the edge before Smith even gets to his second step. This flaw didn’t show up much against the Patriots but could against better pass rushers. Luckily though, I think the coaching staff will see this as well and really work with him this week.
In our last negative clip —yep only two negative clips on this film room— Smith shows off his lack of awareness that I previously mentioned. Flowers twists inside leaving Smith without a player to block. Ideally, you would want Smith in this situation to be keeping a hand on Flowers and helping Matt Slauson while also keeping his head on a swivel outside for any corner blitzes or any stunts coming back at him. Smith does not do either of these things and as a result a slot corner gets a free rush at Andrew Luck. I think this flaw will correct itself with time though as Smith just needs more reps at right tackle to pick up on these things.
Overall, I think this was a very good debut from Braden Smith at right tackle. Standing at 6’6” 315 pounds, Smith always profiled as someone who could play tackle, but would just need time to develop if that was the switch they wanted to make. He seems to be far ahead in where the Colts even expected him to be at this point which seems to be a common trend in this 2018 draft class.
Now he does have some work to do. He was able to get away with a couple of flaws against the Patriots simply because their pass rushers are quite sub par. Against division rivals such as the Jaguars (Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue), the Texans (JJ Watt, Jadaveon Clowney) and the Titans (Harold Landry) Smith will have to be at the top of his game. Luckily though, he appears to already be very advanced in his hand usage and ability to anchor along with having excellent natural strength.
It’s too early to say that the Colts have found their long time answer at right tackle but Thursday’s game was certainly a good start. Smith has a stretch here where he doesn’t have to face too many good edge rushers— against the Jets and the Raiders— so it’ll be pivotal for him to build off of this promising start.
Overall though, it is hard not to get excited about this rookie debut as Smith has the build, athleticism, and strength to be a very good right tackle in the NFL. If he continues to improve and build off of this performance, we could be looking at three very good starters from the first three picks in the 2018 draft for the Colts.