TE Alex Smith is only one reception behind the NFL's leading rookie passcatcher, Baltimore WR Mark Clayton
Very quietly, Alex Smith has changed the course of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' future at the tight end position. As the 2005 season, Smith's first in the NFL, draws to a close, it's becoming increasingly clear that tight end will be a strength on this team for years to come.
But why do we say he has done this "quietly?" Didn't Smith just have a loud game against Atlanta, catching eight passes for 75 yards, most of them at critical moments, in the Bucs' 27-24 overtime win? Yes, of course he did, and Buccaneer supporters love him for it. But even the biggest Smith fans may not realize just how fantastic his rookie season has been.
For instance, did you know that Smith is now the most productive tight end the Bucs have had in a decade? He is the first player at his position to catch 40 passes for Tampa Bay since Jackie Harris had 62 in 1995.
Or did you know that, for the second straight year, the Buccaneers could finish the season with the leading rookie pass-catcher in the NFL? Last year, Michael Clayton produced one of the top five rookie receiving seasons in league history with his 80-catch debut. Smith won't approach that, but he might still follow Clayton in leading his class. Smith is first among all rookies – not just tight ends – in the NFC and he trails only Baltimore wide receiver Mark Clayton in the entire NFL. Clayton has 41 receptions.
Did you know that Smith has started more games this year than Mike Alstott, Dexter Jackson and Chris Simms, and as many as Clayton? Or that, like Alstott and no other teammate, Smith has at least one catch in all but one of the Bucs' games this season? Not even Joey Galloway can say that.
In short, did you know Smith was this good?
Head Coach Jon Gruden knows it. He has not hesitated to call Smith the best young tight end he has had in his coaching career, and he certainly hasn't hesitated to direct plays in the rookie's direction. Gruden has coveted a big, fast, dual-threat tight end for years and he has also hoped to begin rebuilding a young core of talent on a team that had grown a bit long in the tooth. Smith helps in both areas.
"Alex Smith's pretty exciting, too," said Gruden on Monday when asked about rookie running back Cadillac Williams and young passer Chris Simms. "He had eight catches; throw him in there in that loop. Our young players have stepped up. We are getting some solid play and some clutch play-making from some new players, which is something this organization, this team needs."
In many seasons, Smith would have been the toast of the Bucs' rookie class. However, Williams, he of the team-rookie-record 1,097 rushing yards through 15 games, is going to inspire the biggest headlines, and deservedly so. Heck, the former Stanford star couldn't even get top billing among people named Alex Smith during last April's draft. The Bucs took their Smith early in the third round, but Utah quarterback Alex Smith was the first overall pick, going to San Francisco.
Smith isn't going to be the NFL's Rookie of the Year because he wouldn't beat out Williams in the voting. But if his teammate wins the award, Smith will be able to appreciate it because he has played a hand in those 1,100 yards Williams has picked up. Though he was known primarily as a pass-catcher coming out of college, the 6-4, 258-pound tight end has proved to be more than adequate as a blocker.
That has allowed the Bucs to use their two-TE set quite frequently, which has been a key to the success of the running game and the generally good protection of Simms. In those sets, Smith joins Anthony Becht – the aforementioned free agent signee – along the line and both are threats to head out into a pass pattern. In addition to Smith's eight catches against Atlanta, Becht had two grabs for 28 more yards, meaning the combined tight end position had a 100-yard performance on Saturday.
Simms, in his first year as a full-time starter, has found his tight ends to be a great option over the middle of the field, particularly when he's under pressure. Smith in particular has done a fine job of being where his quarterback expects him to be, which is a product of the impressive work ethic the rookie has shown in the film room.
"He's definitely a guy I can trust," said Simms. "You know, the thing that is so encouraging about him, too, is in our offense we have a lot of route reading. As far as zones, you have to do this, man, you have to do that. He's always right on target with that. He never gives me a bad look where I'm [thinking], 'What's he doing, is he sitting down, or is he going to keep going?' He's just a very intelligent player, and he can do some good things after the catch."
The Bucs expect to exploit Smith's speed down the seams more as he, Simms and the offensive line grow more comfortable and reliable in the offense. Simms actually had a bead on Smith well down the right hash marks during Saturday's game and tried to throw it his way, but he was hit by defensive end Patrick Kerney as he released the ball, which forced the pass right into the hands of linebacker Keith Brooking. For now, Smith's speed has come into play most often on short passes when he's been able to get past one defender for seven or eight extra yards.
The big plays are already there, in terms of clutch catches when the Bucs really need it. The long plays will come. Then Smith will really make some noise.