TE Alex Smith often displays exceptional athleticism and good hands when he gets the chance to run downfield
Early in his NFL career, as his natural receiving skills and surprisingly good blocking work began to draw attention, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Alex Smith put a name to his professional goals. Smith wanted to work his way to the top of the league charts at his position, to be named in the same breath as a Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates.
Four years in, Smith remains as gifted an athlete as ever, and just as promising a weapon in the Buccaneers' offense. However, his raw numbers - 108 receptions in three seasons - simply aren't robust enough to make him a household name in the Gonzalez or Gates mold. Both of those AFC West denizens have had single seasons that have threatened the 100-catch mark since Smith entered the league.
Does that mean Smith's career goals have been derailed?
Hardly. The former Stanford star still strives to be the best, but he understands that the results will be best expressed in the team's success rather than rarified stat levels for himself.
"It's a different situation here," said Smith. "Some guys are not just the featured tight end but also the lead receivers on their team. This situation here you have to look at it differently, as you are part of an offense. You're not going to be that one particular guy that they lean on every time. When you're number's called you want to be that guy that steps up. You never know when that's going to be so you can either go about it two ways: sit and sulk and say I should be getting the ball more or just stay ready and when your number's called make those big plays for them."
Smith has steadily produced when given the opportunity. He has between 32 and 41 receptions, between 250 and 385 yards and at least two touchdowns in each of his three seasons. Last year, he had a chance to show his downfield ability a bit more, averaging a career-best 12.0 yards per reception. That number is good for a tight end; Gonzalez averaged 11.8 last year and is at 12.1 for his career while Gates was 13.1 last year and 12.8 for his career.
But he has proven at least as valuable to the Buccaneers with his blocking, which was the question mark that dropped him to the third round of the draft in 2005. By proving to be better in that area than most scouts expected, Smith has become an every-down tight end and has helped define the direction of the Bucs' offense over the last few years.
In recent seasons, Jon Gruden's offense has made significant use of multiple-tight end sets, largely because it is an approach that has worked. Of course, those formations are often used to run the ball, and when it does come time to throw to a tight end, there are more than one on the field from which to choose. Smith's presence can be instrumental to the success of a play without him actually having the ball thrown his way. Whether or not the numbers show it, Smith and the other tight ends have come through for Gruden.
"It's always been like that since I've been here," said Smith. "Coach definitely likes to use his tight ends. When you have three tight ends that are able to do so much you're able to split guys out; you can have guys in the backfield. It just creates mismatches for defenses, and Coach loves to do that so we just try to make it available to him."
For that reason, Smith saw the offseason invasion of proven tight ends — Chicago's John Gilmore and Tennessee's Ben Troupe were signed in free agency and Jerramy Stevens was re-signed for a second year in Tampa — as a boost for the offense rather than a threat to his position.
"In years past we've had guys that can do one specific thing, and you're either a blocking tight end or you're a receiving tight end," said Smith. "I think with the group we have now we have guys that can do a little bit of everything, therefore, teams don't really know what to key on. I think it helps us more than anything.
"When I look at this group I just see so many possibilities with it, and I think that's the main reason Coach Gruden decided to go this way. We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things, and I think it just makes us that much more dangerous offense when you have those weapons at your disposal."
Tampa Bay's offense finished 18th in the league rankings last year, including 16th through the air. That may still be middle of the pack, but it's a significant improvement from the year before, when the Bucs were 29th and 26th, respectively. With a revitalized tight ends group added to the mix, Smith thinks the Bucs have the pieces in place to continue that upward trend in 2008.
"I'm excited about it, honestly, from top to bottom. Jeff [Garcia] has had a year to be in this offense. Our offensive line has had a year to come together. I'm excited about Jeff Faine. So just all around the board I think we have so many weapons that we've been on the brink of utilizing but haven't utilized to our fullest potential. You look at guys like Maurice Stovall; Michael Clayton's finally healthy again; Joey Galloway's still going to do his thing; and Ike Hilliard. So, from top to bottom I'm really excited about what we have to offer."
"I think just having this offseason with everybody there and knowing who those guys are going to be, I think that helps a lot."