For such a large entity, it seems odd how effectively Andre Smith has remained under the radar this off-season. So much was written about the behemoth last year, that he must feel ignored to some degree. Worry not, Goo, I haven't forgotten.
This is a pivotal season for Smith. When he drives his presumably large automobile to Georgetown, Kentucky this August, he will encounter his first NFL training camp, and both Marvin Lewis and I agree that it alone will make him a better player—not that we talked about it or anything, it's just a shared opinion we have.
Last season was something of a red-shirt year for Smith. He played well in the last half of the schedule including a start in the Wild-Card game, but he was brought along slower than necessary thanks to his silly holdout which was caused by him juggling agents throughout the draft process. Now offensive line coach Paul Alexander—along with the great Dermontti Dawson—can push him around during Organized Team Activities and then training camp and tune him up for Week One. Much was made of Smith's excessive girth last season, but while he will always resemble a baby mastodon, the weight concerns now seem extinct. If he stays healthy up to the season opener, year two for Smith should be a big one.
Still, Andre the Giant's pass-protection will be the real measuring stick of how good this kid can be. We all know he can run block. He somehow maintains nimble qualities in his feet which, coupled with his size, make run-blocking a walk-in-the-park for a tackle like that. Road-grading was his labeled strength entering the draft last season. Yet, Carson Palmer was often hurried in the pocket late last year and the Jets pass-rush rattled the Golden Boy quarterback out of his comfort zone, forcing many errant throws in the playoff game. The entire Bengals offensive line can run block well, but the right side seemed to give up more sacks than the left in pass-protection, and Andre is the long-term anchor on that right side. If Palmer is to become more comfortable throwing it, Smith will have to prove he can consistently pass block too.
Another encouraging aspect with Smith's development, is that offensive linemen have been accurately projected by scouts as of late. The last real draft bust on the o-line I can immediately think of was Robert Gallery and that was already a while ago. The high draft-pick tackles of late—Joe Thomas, Jake Long, Jason Smith—have delivered right away. There is the same real potential in Andre Smith and experiencing a full-calendar year with his teammates should allow more of it to bubble to the surface.
To project Smith into next year's Pro-Bowl may be a little presumptuous, but an improvement in him should be expected. If his sun-blocking presence alone can lift the o-line's play even a little from last season, that can only spell success for Cincinnati and especially Cedric Benson. Yet if he can help keep Carson more upright this year, it may translate into one of the league's best units and propel the offense to new heights. There's a lot riding on the tectonic plate-like shoulder pads of Big Andre in 2010; mediocrity simply will not do. He may have evaded the media eye during this off-season, but the cameras won't miss him for to much longer. How could they?
Mojokong—even on a cloudy day, the sun still exists.