TE Alex Smith ranked second on the team and second among all NFL rookies last year with 41 receptions
Alex Smith, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end who finished second among all NFL rookies with 41 receptions last year, has not set any specific numerical targets for the upcoming season.
Do not assume, however, that Smith's primary goal for 2006 is either modest or unspecified.
"If I can be ranked among the top tight ends in the NFL, that's probably my goal for this year," he said. "I just want to have an overall better season. However that comes about is good for me."
In this golden age of tight ends, that's no simple accomplishment. To rank among the best passcatchers at his position, for instance, Smith would probably have to double his receptions total from last year. In 2005, San Diego tight end Antonio Gates caught 89 passes for 1,101 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez had 78 grabs for 905 yards. They were just two of eight tight ends who finished with more than 60 receptions in 2005.
To be considered one of the better blocking tight ends, Smith would have to blow up defensive ends the way Dwayne Carswell does in Denver or Jason Dunn does in Kansas City. And to be considered a legitimate two-way threat, he might have to block with the H-back versatility of a Chris Cooley and still remain one of the main receiving options on offense.
Ron Middleton, a former NFL tight end who was no slouch in the blocking department, thinks Smith can do it.
"I expect him to be dominant as a run-blocker and dominant as a pass-receiver," said the Bucs' tight ends coach. "He's the prototype. He's the Antonio Gates type, and I think [Gates] is the best one out there. I think this kid has all the tools and the 'want-to' to be that."
He has had this high opinion of Smith since before Smith was a Buccaneer. During the scouting that led up to the 2005 draft, Middleton gradually became convinced that the Stanford product could excel in every phase of the game, if given the opportunity to develop his skills. Most notably, Middleton saw in Smith the power-blocking potential even though the Stanford offense rarely asked him to engage in that activity.
"After watching the tape on him, I saw that he had no technique," said Middleton. "He would fight [the defensive lineman] and whatnot, but he really didn't have any technique. Then when I saw him in person at the Combine I thought, 'Man, he's got the frame.' I knew he had the body and the strength to do it. Then when I talked to him, that's the thing that sold me on it, just the way he responded to the questions I put on him. I thought, 'This kid has something to him.'
"He's a decent blocker now. He's got a ways to go still to be dominant, and that's what I expect from him."
Smith, too, recognizes that he is far from a finished product. He believes, and the Bucs believe, that he is on the path to joining the league's elite at his position, but there is no guarantee he'll make it. There is, however, no doubt that he will work as hard as possible to chase that goal.
"I'm just trying to perfect everything, as far as working on run-blocking, running better routes, doing more after the catch…just my overall game," he said. "I don't think there's one aspect I need to focus on more than any other."
As it stands, the Bucs appear to have gotten a steal in the third round last year, thanks in part to Middleton's confidence in Smith. That will become even more evident if Smith begins to approach Gates or Gonzalez levels and the Bucs find themselves at the forefront of the league-wide renaissance at tight end. But even at last year's level of proficiency Smith was a huge addition for the Buccaneers, who eventually realized that their greatest offensive success came out of the two-tight end formation.
Given the drafting of not one but two more young prospects at tight end this spring, it appears the Bucs are going to continue down that offensive path. Smith, now in a position to mentor rookies T.J. Williams and Tim Massaquoi, can see that emphasis in practice even in May.
"We're throwing more and more formations out there with the tight ends involved all the time," he said. "You can see the impact we have on this offense, and the more bodies we can have, the more people we have producing, the easier it is for everybody. We're just trying to bring them along."
Smith knows where Williams and Massaquoi are right now, at the nascent moments of their NFL careers. He's only a year removed from diving headfirst into a foreign playbook, and into a role that demanded his attention to every aspect of the game, not just stretching the field. That one year has made a big difference, though, and that's part of the reason Smith is expecting to take a significant step forward this fall.
"The game has just slowed down, you know?" he said. "I feel like I don't have to think as much; I just go out and play instead of worrying about where I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to be doing. I think I barely scratched the surface last year. I'm looking forward to what I can do this year and I'm expecting big things out of myself."