As we prepare for training camp and the start of the season, I wanted to take a look back at some of the young foundational pieces that the Colts will, hopefully, be building around for years to come. In this article I’ll break down some of Braden Smith’s tape, talk about what worked and what he needs to improve on in the coming year.
Weight: 312 pounds
Arm Length: 32 1/4’’
Bench Press: 35
Braden Smith was drafted with the 37th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft out of Auburn to be the Colts Guard of the future, keeping Luck upright and opening up running lanes for Mack and Co.
However, things didn’t go according to plan.
Austin Howard, a veteran free agent tackle turned out to have bricks for feet. J’Marcus Webb started a few games but wound up on IR after a nasty injury. Matt Slauson endured a terrible career-ending spinal injury versus New England, and suddenly Smith found himself playing tackle.
Where, surprisingly, he excelled.
The guard who had made the all-SEC freshman team, who had been an AP Second team All-SEC as a sophomore, and AP first team All-American as a junior and senior found himself playing tackle for what had been one of the league’s worst offensive lines. And yet, he thrived.
To be blatantly honest, Smith is a freak athlete who has succeeded off of pure natural ability. What sets him apart other athletic lineman is his incredible lateral quickness. For some reason, Smith has an innate ability to move laterally and mirror the edge rusher. Furthermore, his strength is absolutely off the charts, and if he can get a good grip on a pass rusher, the play is over.
Here is an example of Smith’s incredible strength. Watt comes in with a full on bullrush, head lowered and pushing with an extreme amount of force once he makes contact. And yet, Smith remains unfazed. He takes a slight step backwards, when most tackles would have completely fallen over, and he stonewalls Watt, giving Luck the space he needs to make the pass
And this is why I truly believe that Smith will rarely, if ever, get beaten by a straight up bullrush. His upper body is too strong and his base is so powerful that once he recovers from the initial hit there isn’t anything the rusher can do.
Here is yet another example, although this is a running play which resembles much more of what Smith was asked to do in college, which is, instead of kick-stepping and waiting for the rusher, he goes on to engage contact himself. Smith gets off the line well and, while Glowinski and Nelson pull, he engages with the defensive lineman. And again, once he gets a good grip and a nice base set, it’s over, the defender isn’t going anywhere.
This is the area where Smith struggles with the most, and considering that throughout his career he’s never played tackle, it should be fully expected that his technique is going to be spotty at times.
One of the main problems I see is the consistency between plays. Within the first couple of seconds you can identify if Smith’s initial kick step is good and if he’s able to get his hands on the rusher.
The whole Week 12 game versus the Dolphins is a great example of how Smith’s play tends to fluctuate from game-to-game and even from play-to-play.
If you take aside the fact that Castonzo gets beat pretty bad off the edge and just focus just on Smith, you realize there is a lot to like here. He bursts out of his stance and makes strong initial contact. And even though he receives some help from Doyle at the start of the play, Smith is still able to maintain control of the rusher after Doyle releases to run his route.
Some may say that he gets beat on the second spin move, but Smith actually does the correct thing by keeping the rusher on his outside as there is no way that he could possibly know Luck was scrambling out of the pocket.
However, here is a play that occurred soon after where Smith’s lack of technique is truly exposed. His kick-step is a little slow on this play as you can tell he makes contact with the rusher late, allowing Wake to get a full head of steam. Furthermore, when Smith initializes contact, Wake swipes Smith’s right hand away just as he turns the corner.
Smith gets fortunate that Luck has great pocket awareness and he steps up to make the pass, but at the same time, this play definitely had the makings of a sack.
And then, just a few plays later he completely stonewalls a Defensive Linemen on the 1-yard line giving Luck the space and time to make the correct read and throw a touchdown pass.
In this play, its Smith’s and Doyle’s job to prevent the defensive linemen from sealing the edge as the guards pull. And, if you take your eyes away from Nelson’s fantastic pancake for a second, you can see that Smith does a good job of engaging with #97 and then rotating his body and getting his back pointed towards Mack, thus obstructing the defensive lineman’s ability to impact the play.
However, when Smith has a bad get-off or he is too late to his spots, he panics and holds. And it’s not even a slight hold in an attempt to slow down the rusher. It’s a textbook hold, if such a thing exists.
Before we take a look, I want to make it clear that Smith isn’t the only lineman that holds. All OL hold, and most do it every single play, that’s why the referees struggle with being consistent.
Here is an example where Smith’s leverage is off. He unsuccessfully tries to push #99 away from the pocket, and to prevent the defensive lineman from getting a TFL, Smith decides to hold him from the front of the collar. This is a blatant hold, and while you could argue it is a calculated risk, Smith should be weary of falling into bad habits.
Finally, the last issue that Smith struggles with is the fact that he lacks knowledge at the tackle position due to the fact that he spent much of his career at guard. There are some plays where you can tell he makes the wrong read or the wrong move just because he is unsure of how to react to what is unfolding before him.
This first play is doomed from the start. Instead of going to where he thinks Myles Jack is going to be as the play develops, Smith goes to where Myles Jack is at the snap of the ball. This makes him have to curve as he pursues the linebacker, which takes longer than one would prefer. And because of Smith’s delayed run, if Mack hadn’t been tackled in the backfield he would have been brought down by Jack, who was Smith’s assignment.
But worry not, because if there’s a category where Smith can easily improve, it’s this one. As he gets more snaps and watches more of his own film, he will begin to build up that muscle memory in games where he just knows what read to make. Also, consider that this category will also significantly benefit from an improvement of Smith’s technique.
Smith is an intriguing building block in the sense that he’s already so good at a position he didn’t grow up playing, making the “All Rookie Team” last year as a tackle. And yet, there is so much room for growth. There is a part of me that worries about the fact that Smith may suffer from a “sophomore slump” due to the fact that he has created a years worth of film on himself, and rest assured the Texans, Titans and Jags are all trying to expose his weaknesses.
On the other hand, the Colts have brought in legendary OL coach Howard Mudd to help develop Smith. But again, the plays were I saw Smith shine the most were those where he kick-stepped and allowed his athleticism to take over, and Mudd doesn’t believe in kick-stepping and instead prefers for tackles to attack and initiate contact, not wait it.
Finally, Smith was a people-mover in the run game as a college guard. One would expect that he would be significantly better on running downs than passing down. This could not be farther from the truth.
His run blocking is above average, but his passing game is truly something to spectate, and the Colts have only reached the tip of the iceberg. With a little more grooming and coaching, specially in regard to his technique, the Colts could be sending him along with Nelson to the Pro Bowl habitually.