Smith rises to challenge

Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell
[More columns]Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
09/04/2009

The grueling and intense professional seasoning of Rams first-round draft pick Jason Smith continued on Thursday night and it wasn't always pretty.

But for the most part, it worked.

The raw offensive tackle with the engaging smile, quick wit, tenacious attitude and killer athleticism, can now head into his first NFL regular season knowing that he did a bit more than simply survive this extreme professional crash course they call the preseason.

After four exhibition games and a training camp of lumps and bumps, mistakes and small daily victories and defeats, the second overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft has shown us enough to say he's more stud than dud.

On a night when so many of his young teammates were simply fighting for their fragile NFL lives, doing everything they could just to find a way to extend their football dreams for another precious week (that's what makes watching these so-called "meaningless" preseason games so intriguing), Smith was fighting, too.

"I am still fighting for the same thing I was fighting for when they drafted me: to be the best Jason Smith I can possibly be," said the 6-foot-5, 307-pound offensive tackle who the Rams hope turns into the anchor of their line for the next decade.

Smith's battle in the Rams' 17-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs was no less critical to his professional life than the challenges facing some of the dreamers on the depth charts. Even though he's a talented young man with a five-year, $62 million contract already signed and $33 million of that guaranteed, Smith knows he has some serious business to attend to.

It's a different kind of pressure than the anxiety-filled task so many of his undrafted and low-round buddies were coping with.

He has to prove he's worth the No. 2 pick.

He hasn't proved it yet, but so far, he's at least proved that he is worthy of the challenge.

Smith has demonstrated that he belongs on an NFL field, and that he deserves to be in the starting lineup as in Seattle next Sunday when the games begin to count for real.

He knows how to run-block for sure. When he can get his big mitts on a defender on running plays, he will maul him into the ground like he did to a collection of second-unit Chiefs defenders.

But he also shows that he has a load to learn, even after learning valuable lessons on a daily basis in practice by 12-year veteran pass rusher and former Pro Bowler Leonard Little.

Little has given Smith fits on speed rushes and with an assortment of his veteran bag of tricks. But when Smith looks back on this game, there will be nothing on film to show that he contributed to putting his quarterback on his back.

What I liked the most about what Smith did against the Chiefs was how quickly he learned from his mistakes. When he was over on the right side in the first quarter, the Chiefs stacked the linebacker and defensive end together and ran a looping stunt, with the end swooping around the blitzing linebacker to the inside. A few games ago, Smith had issues with these types of games that the defensive rushers played against the inexperienced rookie. Thursday night, it wasn't Smith who got fooled on the stunt. He stuffed his man at the line of scrimmage, but his tag-team partner, Adam Goldberg, reacted a hair late to the delayed inside rush.

The best thing you could say about what Smith did in his final preseason game was this: He made progress. He looked better against the Chiefs than he did against the Jets three weeks ago. He looked better than he did two weeks ago against Atlanta, and he looked better than he did last week against the Bengals.

But how about this for progress?

One of Smith's best highlights Thursday might be a replay on the big screen in the first quarter that showed him reaching out to clutch the back of the jersey of some clever Kansas City pass rusher who had blown past him.

Smith pulled what you might call a "pro move," when he was caught on film clearly attempting to test the strength of the jersey fabric. The rookie got away with a blatant hold, pulling on the back of somebody's jersey that mysteriously went undetected by the game officials.

And this is exactly what Smith needs more of. Throw him in there and let him learn. When you are this young and potentially this talented, you learn just as much from failures as from successes.

Smith needs to be out there learning his craft every Sunday, whether it's the slow and careful approach of putting him on the right side (which makes the most sense right now), or, if an emergency calls for it, tossing him out there on the left side in the thick of the NFL's most furious (pass) rush hour.