Early next season, barring unforeseen circumstances, Donovan Smith will start his 100th career regular season game, something only 21 other men have done for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On Wednesday, Smith signed a contract with the Buccaneers for the third time, this one an extension to his current deal that was set to end after the 2021 season. That's another thing that only a small percentage of Buccaneers ever do.
Those sound like the résumé highlights of a grizzled veteran and, indeed, Smith has played a lot of football for the Buccaneers. They don't sound like the accomplishments of a 27-year-old, but that's exactly what he is. Smith will turn 28 this summer.
Smith reminded everyone of his relative youth on several occasions on Thursday while discussing his extension and the Buccaneers' upcoming title-defense season, and it's a good point. Smith has manned the critical left tackle position for Tampa Bay for six seasons already and he may have been playing his best ball so far in the team's four-game rampage through the playoffs.
Smith got credit for that strong play in January and February – the team's press release regarding his extension noted that he was credited with allowing zero sacks and committing zero penalties during the playoffs – but the point in noting his age is that there's every reason to believe he can play even better.
"I'm still young, I'm still learning," said Smith. "That's, I feel like, the biggest thing, because as you keep learning the better you can get through the years. Once you feel like you've stopped learning or know it all, that's when you become complacent and you're just chilling and whatnot. I'm young, I'm still learning a lot. I just love it. I go out there and have fun with my guys, enjoy winning."
That Smith and the Buccaneers' offensive line as a whole was stronger at the end of the 2020 season, and downright dominant through most of a season-capping eight-game win streak, should not have come as a surprise. While Tampa Bay's line did have the advantage of continuity from 2019 to 2020, returning four of five starters, it still suffered from the same lack of preparation that the rest of the league had due to the pandemic. Some of the things that Smith would have focused on with Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin and Offensive Line Coach Joe Gilbert during OTAs and mini-camps were instead handled on the fly.
"For me personally I just know, coming into the year what I wanted to fix, or what we wanted to fix with my stance and stuff like that, my technique," said Smith. "Figuring that out initially during the season or whatnot and kind of getting into a comfortable groove is really what allowed me to go out there and play. I've definitely got to shout out Coach Goody and Coach Joe for [us] working together, putting things together, listening, understanding each other and knowing what we need to get done."
The Bucs' line has even more continuity heading into 2021, with all five starters plus playoff standout Aaron Stinnie returning. The one newcomer last year was first-round pick Tristan Wirfs, who stepped right into the right tackle job and produced a superb debut season. Now he and Smith can be the line's bookends for several more years and the Bucs' offensive front can possibly be even more of a strength in 2021. And since virtually every coach will tell you that success on both sides of the ball begins up front, that means the Bucs' already potent offense may reach new heights, as well.
"I just think that we need to come out and maintain and, honestly, take it to another level [from] where we ended off," said Smith. "I know it's last year's news, but we'll still be the same guys that were in those games and we know what we did to win that game. Now, let's do it a little bit better because by no means was that [Super Bowl] game perfect."
The Bucs notably cleaned up their game about a third of the way into the 2020 season, cutting down on penalties, turnovers and mental errors (MEs) the rest of the way. Smith thinks they can continue to play that way, for an entire season this time.
"I think in the aspect of we have a bunch of guys coming back who've been in the system, know the system, learned the system, you're just going to see a bunch of guys coming back, flying around, having fun, playing fast," he said. "I think that's the scary part about it because some mistakes wouldn't be made. As a team, we did set out and say, 'MEs couldn't be a big thing,' and I think that's something that we locked in on through the season. To be able to get those down even more is scary."