Thursday afternoon, Mickey Loomis and the New Orleans Saints pulled a rabbit out of a hat with the announcement that the team had signed free agent offensive tackle Jason Smith to a one-year deal, as reported by multiple sources.
The former No. 2 overall pick in 2009 is a four-year veteran who played his first three seasons in St. Louis before finishing his initial NFL contract with the Jets in 2012.
The signing came as a bit of a surprise to many analysts and fans. Sean Payton had been quoted regarding his concern over the left tackle spot on his offensive unit. Still, no one expected the Saints to take the narrow route on this one.
The most likely decision seemed to be drafting a tackle either in the first or third round of this month's college selection meeting. The team still could do that, but adding Smith gives the team another body and thus another option at the left tackle spot.
It should be disconcerting that Smith did not even start at right tackle on a lousy New York Jets team in 2012. But, don't forget how poorly that coaching staff handled the Mark Sanchez/Tim Tebow/Greg McElroy predicament former general manager Mike Tannenbaum placed them in (it was clear that McElroy was the best QB on the roster).
The point in mentioning that is to say that Smith may have been the best player the Jets could place at right tackle but was mismanaged by coaches in over their heads. It is a possibility.
The point is not to dis the coaching staff of another team. The point is to say that Jason Smith actually played really well as a Jet when used in sub-packages. Pro Football Focus agrees with that statement.
The following is a brief scouting report on Smith from a quick viewing of some Jets film and also some Rams film from 2011.
Smith is an adequate run-blocker. According to PFF's offensive line metrics, Smith graded out better as a run-blocker in 2012 (as a reserve) than as a pass-protector. That is interesting to me as I watch film, since Smith lacks the leg strength to really drive a defender off the ball with any regularity.
He is more than capable of holding his own and not allowing himself to get pushed back into the backfield. But clearly, Smith is not a guy you ask to "work in a phone booth" as a run blocker.
Instead, Smith should be used in space. For that reason, Smith is a natural fit for what the Saints like to do with their tackles in the running game.
Rarely are Saints tackles ever asked to hold and anchor in tight spaces (whereas the interior linemen generally are). Instead, Sean Payton and Co. like to get the tackles to the second level and to the exterior of the defense on zone concepts and other forms of run concepts where the tackle "pulls".
Similar to this, the swing screen the Saints run better than any other team is dependent on agile athletes who can block in space. Jon Stinchcomb, Zach Strief and Jermon Bushrod have all displayed those traits through the years while playing in Payton's offense.
Smith is by far the best athlete of that group. His athleticism is the primary reason he was drafted No. 2 overall in 2009 out of Baylor (in my opinion the Lions should have selected him No. 1 over Matthew Stafford).
In short, if Smith wins the left tackle job or takes the right tackle spot from Zach Strief, the Saints will be able to go back to stretching the field horizontally in the running game, which is Payton's preferred method anyway (if it's Charles Brown and Smith starting, that's a very athletic pair of tackles who are both injury prone).
As is generally the case, Smith displays many of the same traits or characteristics as a pass protector that he exhibits in the running game. The athleticism certainly transfers over to pass protection.
He uses that skill set to get a quick drop step at the onset of the snap. Rarely, if ever, is Smith beat to the edge on a speed rush. The times that he is, it's simply because he fails to land a quick punch to the defender.
In fact, Smith lacks that initial punch in general. He tends to mirror the pass-rusher and tries to "catch" them instead of attacking with that quick redirect punch. That said, it normally works for Smith because of his amazing change of direction and quick feet.
He sometimes struggles with pass-rushers who really bend well and get underneath him. He will often get caught bending at the waist. The result is generally getting beat with a swim or dip-and-rip move or simply getting beat by a bull rush.
His lack of balance in a phone booth can be explained by his overall lack of leg strength. Thus, he is best when used on double team blocks and/or allowed to operate in play-action protections, which the Saints love to use.
Many of Smith's supposed struggles, though, were the result of poor quarterback play in his past. Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez don't exactly inspire anyone to hold on to a block, nor do those passers ever show an acuteness of stepping up or away from pressure. Both are essentially statues in the backfield.
Drew Brees will make any offensive lineman look good since no one moves within the pocket better than Brees (though some are probably equal in that area). Brees will mask many of Smith's deficiencies.
More importantly, though, Smith can be very effective in an offense which plays to his strengths, both in pass protection and as a run blocker.
Never mind the "bust" label many have given Smith. He has been injury prone. But don't blame that on him. As a fan, simply hope he can play a full season.
The truth is, he better be able to do so. Smith is now the best option the Saints have at left tackle.