INDIANAPOLIS – No one saw this coming.
Not the Indianapolis Colts. Certainly not Braden Smith.
Before the Colts converge on Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield in late July for the start of training camp, they likely will make Smith one of the NFL’s highest-paid players at his position.
And that would be a position he wasn’t drafted to play.
That would be right tackle.
Late last season, Smith described playing right tackle as “kinda crazy.’’
“I never thought honestly I was going to play tackle in the NFL,’’ he said. “I always thought I was going to be a guard.’’
So did the Colts. After investing the 6th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft in Quenton Nelson, an All-American guard out of Notre Dame, they used one of their four 2nd-rounders on Smith, that season’s bookend All-American guard out of Auburn.
Remember the giddiness in general manager Chris Ballard’s post-draft evaluation?
“Pairing him with Quenton gives us two young guards going forward that can really help set the depth of the pocket and really help our run game,’’ he said.
That never happened. A rash of injuries during training camp and early in the season ravaged the depth chart at tackle – Anthony Castonzo, Joe Haeg, Austin Howard, Denzelle Good, J’Marcus Webb – and essentially forced the coaching staff to turn to Smith.
There was no one else.
Smith was a healthy scratch once and handled a total of 10 offensive snaps in three other games to start the season before the spate of injuries resulted in him making his first career start at right tackle in week 5 at New England.
Neither Smith nor the Colts has looked back. The erstwhile guard has evolved into one of the NFL’s premier right tackles. Since the Patriots’ debut, he’s started 45 of a possible 47 games, including the playoffs, and been an absolute ironman. Smith has been on the field for 3,066 of 3,067 snaps in those starts.
“Any time you work at a position for three years, you are going to feel pretty good at it,’’ he said. “I definitely feel comfortable and every day getting more comfortable getting the reps, getting the technique down and just keep improving every year.’’
Pro Football Focus ranks Smith 13th among tackles heading into 2021. It charted Smith with 578 pass-blocking snaps last season and noted he didn’t allow a sack and was penalized only three times.
Ballard’s roster-building revolves around being strong up front, and Smith’s ability to make the switch from guard to tackle has been critical in that regard. Instead of acquiring a possible starting guard, he finds himself with a more influential player – a starting right tackle who turned 25 in March.
The team’s long-term commitment to Smith became apparent prior to the draft when owner Jim Irsay said extensions for All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard and Smith were offseason priorities. Each is heading into the final year of his rookie contract.
“I think we can get it done,’’ Irsay said in April. “I think it’s just a question of finding numbers with each extension that makes sense. We understand where the market is and we’re willing to pay what we feel is market value to get these deals done.
“I’m planning on the fact that we’ll be getting them done. I’ll be surprised if we didn’t.’’
Smith isn’t preoccupied with what will be a life-altering extension.
“I just let my agent handle it,’’ he said. “That’s what he gets paid to do and I get paid to play football and that’s what I’m going to do.’’
In terms of the right-tackle market, it’s topped by Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson, who set the top end in November 2019 with a four-year, $72 million deal ($18 million per season) with $25 million fully guaranteed. Jack Conklin is next in line after signing a three-year, $42 million free-agent contract ($14 million average) with Cleveland last offseason that included $30 million in guarantees.
Moving forward, Ballard will continue to use his owner’s checkbook to reinforce his dedication to maintaining a top offensive line.
In January 2019, he signed right guard Mark Glowinski to a three-year, $18 million contract, and 12 months later gave Anthony Castonzo a two-year, $33 million extension that paid the veteran left tackle $17 million before he retired in mid-January.
After making Smith one of the league’s highest-paid right tackles this summer, Ballard and cap expert Mike Bluem face the challenge of extending Nelson during the 2022 offseason. The team exercised the fifth-year option on Nelson’s rookie contract that boosts his ’22 base salary to $13.754 million, and it’s anybody’s guess the magnitude of an extension.
Nelson is just fifth player in league history named first-team All-Pro in each of his first three seasons, joining Lawrence Taylor, Earl Campbell, Barry Sanders and Keith Jackson. He clearly will be the highest-paid guard in NFL history, a status currently affixed to Washington’s Brandon Scherff ($18 million per season) followed by Kansas City’s Joe Thuney ($16 million).
Nelson’s agent might seek to make him the highest-paid offensive lineman, regardless of position. The high-water mark rests with left tackles Trent Williams of San Francisco ($23.01 million/year) and David Bakhtiari of Green Bay ($23 million).
And let’s not forget, there’s every chance the free-agent signing of Eric Fisher isn’t a short-term relationship. The Colts signed him to what essentially is a one-year deal that could be worth $9.4 million, but Ballard said the objective is to re-sign Fisher at the end of the season is everything goes as planned.
But first things first.
And that’s Braden Smith.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.