Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Making the Leap: Smith Ready for Next Level

Alex Smith has been no slouch in his first three years in the NFL, but he says the time is now for him to emerge as one of the league elite tight ends

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TE Alex Smith won't be satisfied unless he takes another step up into the NFL's elite at the tight end position

As he ambled off the practice field at the conclusion of last week's "organized team activities," Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Alex Smith took a moment to discuss his NFL career – past, present and future. Smith concluded that he is currently sitting at a crossroads.

After three seasons in the league, Smith's young career has been consistently solid – 108 career receptions for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns for an average of 36 catches, 334 yards and nearly three touchdowns per year.

But Smith is no longer interested in putting up "solid" numbers. Instead, he's seeking to make the jump into the realm of elite tight ends in the NFL.

"I'm going into my fourth year, so I look at it as there isn't time for any more excuses," Smith said. "You aren't young anymore. You've gone through the injuries, so it's just time to make it happen. I expect greatness out of myself, so that's what I'm striving to do. Anything short of that and I'm kind of cutting myself short.

"Going into your fourth year, it's time to put up and stop talking about it, become one of those elite players or step to the side."

Those are some pretty imposing standards the 25-year-old has set for himself, but Smith clearly possesses the talent to make good on them. Standing at 6-4 and 258 pounds but with the speed and hands to create mismatches against smaller defenders, Smith has flashed the ability to make game-changing plays.

In fact, perhaps only a two-week hiatus in the middle of the 2007 season due to an ankle injury kept Smith from starting all 16 games and having a career year. Despite the two missed games, Smith still set a new high in starts (14) and receiving yards (385), tied his career best with three touchdowns and finished just nine catches away from setting a new mark in that category with his 32 grabs on the year.

In 2008, Smith finds himself surrounded by some new faces at the tight end position. Free agent signees Ben Troupe and John Gilmore have joined the squad, while Anthony Becht departed for St. Louis and free agent Jerramy Stevens remains unsigned.

"So far [Troupe and Gilmore] look like they'll be able to help us a lot," Smith said. "They're very athletic, talented guys. They each bring their own niche to the group, so it'll be interesting to see once we spend some more time together and get on the field for real just how well we jell."

While Troupe has developed a reputation as a talented pass catcher and Gilmore as a fierce blocker, Smith knows each member of the group must excel in every aspect of the game, a standard to which he specifically holds himself.

"I'm just trying to dominate in every aspect," Smith said. "I think it's better when you're not labeled as any particular type of tight end, but just an all-around, do-it-all tight end. That's just what I'm striving to do – just make plays when my number's called and dominate in the run game, pass game, pass protection, whatever it takes."

That willingness to do whatever it takes to be successful is surely a sign of a maturing young talent, as is the adoption of a leadership role. But while Smith is the most tenured of the Bucs' tight ends in terms of Tampa time, he knows the title of "leader" is earned, not given.

"I think it's tough to try and just assume that leadership role – you have to earn it from your work," Smith said. "That's really what I wanted to do this year, just make a concerted effort to be on the field, do the little extra things, hustle around on the practice field and hopefully by that example I'll earn that leadership role. If that's what it takes, I'm cool with doing that."

Armed with a full slate of goals and the potential task of leading the Buccaneers' tight end corps, Smith is eager about the possibilities that lie ahead for the upcoming season and beyond.

"I'm always excited," Smith said. "I know the potential of this offense and everything that we always put in. It's definitely a great offense to play for. It's just a matter of getting it all to jell together; getting the O-line and having a running game, having a quarterback in the whole season. It's a lot of things that have to add up, but every year I'm excited about the potential."

And with that, Smith trudged off toward the locker room and ever closer to what could prove to be a career-altering season, one the pewter-and-red faithful hope will include the realization of his goals.

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